What do you notice first about this head? The wide-open eyes staring powerfully into yours? The high collar and cap, covering all but the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears?
This is the head of an oba, or king, of the Edo people. The oba's strength as a leader depends on his personal traits and also on supernatural help from the kings who wore the oba's cap and collar before him.
West Africa (Nigeria), Benin culture Memorial Head, 1550-1650 Bronze Minneapolis Institute of Art The John R. Van Derlip Fund
The Edo (EE-doh) people live in western Africa, in today's nation of Nigeria. For nearly six hundred years, beginning in the 1300s, the region was an independent kingdom called Benin. (Don't confuse this ancient kingdom with the modern country of Benin.) The kingdom was ruled by a line of obas, or kings, thought to be part god.
By the 1500s, the royal court had become very wealthy. The oba demanded tribute payments from neighbors conquered by his warriors. He also profited handsomely from a growing trade with Europeans. The oba spent much of his wealth on impressive ceremonial objects made by Edo craftsmen, who were famous for their metalwork (like this bronze sculpture) and ivory carving.
The kingdom of Benin was conquered by the British in 1897, and the oba was forced into exile. His son returned to Nigeria in 1914 to rebuild the royal court and its ceremonial traditions. The current oba is revered by the Edo people but has little real power.
Map of the kingdom of Benin in the 1800s An oba of Benin in the 1600s, as depicted by a European artist in the 1800s Giulio Ferrario, An Oba of Benin, 1815-27
The Edo people have a saying, The head leads one through life's journey. As the center of vital functions sight, speech, hearing, thought, and will power the head symbolizes the powers of a successful leader. This bronze head cannot be recognized as any particular oba; it was meant to represent the oba's powers.
An obas formal dress draws attention to his head. As this sculpture shows, an oba wears a tall collar of coral beads around his neck and a coral cap with dangling strands of coral beads. Coral was a precious material in Benin, coming to the kingdom from the Mediterranean Sea across the Sahara Desert. According to Edo tradition, an early oba stole the first coral from the god of water, and coral has protective powers.
An ivory elephant tusk, now missing, originally topped this sculpture. The tusk, however, was not part of an actual oba's dress. In later times, tusks were carved with scenes featuring Benin’s great warrior kings, linking the sculpture to the obas of the past. Ivory, like coral, could be used only by the oba. Very hard and from a massive, strong animal, it symbolizes permanence.
The oba's cap is a netlike lattice of coral beads. It would have been very heavy to wear. A coral bead hanging over the oba's forehead recalls the saying Do not touch the leopard. (The strong and swift leopard is another symbol of the oba.) Three lines over each eye are the traditional markings of an Edo man. A hole on top of the head holds an elephant tusk. Detail of an ancestral altar dedicated to Oba Ovonramwen in the Benin palace, Benin City, Nigeria. Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970. Image no. EEPA EECL 7588. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
At the start of his rule, a new oba creates a memorial shrine for the previous oba (usually his father). The shrine is a way of remembering an oba's accomplishments. But more important, it forms a connection between the new oba and the spirits of his ancestors. This is necessary for the health and prosperity of the people.
A sculpture showing the honored oba and his attendants stands at the shrine's center. Pairs of bronze heads like this one, topped by ivory tusks, appear on either side. Surrounding them are rattle-staffs and bells, for getting the attention of the oba's spirit. By the early 1800s, the royal palace in Benin City contained twenty-five or more ancestral shrines.
The oba performs one of the most important rituals of his kingship the Igue Erha Oba rite at the memorial shrines. The rite concludes the annual Edo festival of Igue (EEG-weh). During Igue, Edo men of all ranks honor their inner head by plastering offerings on their foreheads, their outer heads. The oba makes similar offerings on the sculpted heads of the ancestors at the palace shrines. In this way, he sustains their spirits even after death and strengthens his own power to rule.
The ancestral altar dedicated to Oba Ovonramwen in the Benin palace, Benin City, Nigeria Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970. Image no. EEPA EECL
Some materials associated with an oba, such as coral and ivory, are valuable because they are scarce and are symbolic because they have special qualities. Does our culture give materials special meaning for similar reasons? Make a list of materials considered valuable. Why are they valuable? Do they symbolize anything?
The Edo Igue festival celebrates the importance of the senses and skills housed in the head. Compose a poem in appreciation of your head and what it allows you to do.
An oba's ceremonial dress emphasizes important Edo ideas about the role of a leader. Design ceremonial regalia that reflect your own ideas about a leader's role.
One reason Edo rulers build shrines to their ancestors is to commemorate their reigns. Compare this to the American practice of building presidential libraries. What do the two practices have in common? How do they differ?What do the two practices have in common? How do they differ?
Search Mia’s website [https://new.artsmia.org/] to discover other artworks from the Benin kingdom and beyond. Plan a visit to see these artworks, the Egyptian mummy, power figures from West and Central Africa, and so much more! Want to come as a school group? Request a tour using our online request form.