Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Exchange of Art and Ideas: The Benin, Owo, and Ijebu Kingdoms

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The transmission of courtly culture flowed in both directions between Benin and the Owo and Ijebu kingdoms. Royal pendants and masquettes, openwork bracelets, and altar sculpture are some of the art forms that found broad dissemination and usage within this region.


Chiefs and titleholders in the Benin kingdom utilized a variety of brass ornaments as part of elaborate costumes for palace ceremonies. Worn on the hip or chest, these pendant sculptures indicated the wearer's rank and fealty to the oba. Such objects were highly ornate, displaying the iconography of Benin leadership or a representation of the oba himself. Two remarkable pendants in the Museum's collection illustrate how Benin's territorial growth led to the wide dispersal of this imagery. A very early pectoral masquette (1991.17.50) dating from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries presents a classic example of early Benin figurative sculpture. It is stylistically similar to an ivory pectoral mask associated with Oba Esigie (1978.412.323), and shares the same symmetry of features, deeply ridged eyelids, and sensitively modeled cheeks and lips. Despite its certain origins at the court of Benin, the pendant was the possession of a Yoruba ruler from Mahin or Ugbo, two coastal villages approximately eighty miles to the west of Benin's capital. This example and other pendants like it were distributed by the oba to vassal rulers, including non-Bini kings absorbed into the kingdom, to promote fidelity to his court.


Another pendant in the Museum's collection is clearly based on royal Benin prototypes, but was created far beyond this political center in the southern Niger Delta region. A semi-circular, openwork lattice supports an iconic image of Benin rulership, the standing oba supported by two attendants (1979.206.301). The motif illustrates how the oba actually appears in public before his subjects, and emphasizes the idea that a ruler's power ultimately depends on the strength of those whom he governs. It is unclear, however, to what extent such Edo concepts of leadership accompanied the motifs themselves: local leaders may have appropriated these forms simply as straightforward symbols of chiefly power that alluded to prestigious Benin courtly authority.


The rulers of Owo wear a number of ceremonial ensembles that are of Edo origin. One of these, called orufanran, consists of pants and a jacket sheathed in appliquéd scales of red flannel and studded with carved ivory ornaments. These pendants and masquettes mirror in their size and appearance those found at Benin—leopard, crocodile, and rams' heads (1991.17.123), as well as the faces of human rulers, allude to the extraordinary and fearsome powers of the king. Although similar to their Edo counterparts in form and function, they differ in the material from which they were made: ivory, rather than brass, was the favored material of Owo rulers at this time. The skill of Owo's ivory carvers was also appreciated at the court of Benin. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Benin's rulers increasingly utilized insignia made from ivory, and imported Owo's art objects and recruited its artisans for their own royal workshops.


Elaborate, cylindrical armlets were another form of courtly regalia common to all three kingdoms. Differing somewhat in style and material depending on the prerogatives and preferences of their wearers, they nonetheless bear similarities in function and significance. At Ijebu, the use of such armlets was extended to high-ranking members of society such as affiliates of the Osugbo association, men and women charged with a judiciary role who regulated royal succession. A particularly refined and complex armlet in the Museum's collection was most likely the possession of an individual who enjoyed chiefly status (1979.206.302). Of openwork design, it portrays a series of four figures bedecked in the accoutrements of rulership, including crossed bandoliers (a costume element adopted by rulers of Benin and Owo as well), and conical caps. Tiny metal bells may have been attached to the exaggerated flanges at one time. A large ivory armlet from Owo exhibits a similar design for a related purpose (1991.17.138). Displayed on the arm of a chief, its iconography signals the extraordinary abilities of its owner. Two figures dressed as rulers appear on opposite sides accompanied by human attendants and warriors as well as crocodiles and fish-legged beings who link the ruler to Olokun, deity of the sea and bringer of wealth and fertility. Numerous ivory or cast-brass armlets were also incorporated into the costume of the oba and paramount chiefs at Benin. Of solid form with ornamental designs either incised or sculpted in raised relief, some of these armlets were enhanced with a thin layer of gold on the exterior surfaces. A particularly fine pair of gilded armlets take the form of spirals that terminate in delicately wrought crocodile heads (1991.17.80,81). As in the bracelet from Owo, these powerful reptiles signal the ruler's connection to Olokun.


Several forms of sculpture, created to be placed on ancestral altars or for use in courtly ceremonies, enjoyed widespread use throughout this region. Large brass rings displaying macabre scenes of human sacrifice such as gagged and severed heads, bound corpses, and vultures have been found at the courts of both Yoruba and Edo rulers. Although largely similar to one another in form and imagery, such altar rings may be attributed to various brass-casting centers by virtue of their stylistic characteristics. Those from Benin typically feature diverse and elaborate subject matter, including court officials costumed in ceremonial regalia. They are cast in high relief so that each element appears fully in the round and nearly independent of the ring that serves as the base. Examples that derive from provincial areas beyond Benin's capital city display simpler imagery and are cast in lower relief (1991.17.134a,b). Those from Yoruba centers tend to be thicker and smaller in circumference, with full figures in ceremonial dress that lie flush to the surface.


Cast-brass bells were employed in the Yoruba and Benin kingdoms, as well as in the lower Niger Delta region, as symbols of rank and implements of ancestral worship. At Benin, bells in the form of truncated, four-sided pyramids were arrayed on altars and sounded to summon the ancestors to hear the prayers of their descendants. An unusual bell from the Museum's collection displays the face of a Portuguese merchant framed by three registers of diminutive, free-hanging swords (1991.17.85). According to Edo belief, the realms of the living and the dead are separated by a vast body of water, and Portuguese merchants, who came from across the Atlantic, were viewed as interlocutors between these two realms. The distinct, leaf-shaped weapons, called eben, were symbols of royal authority, suggesting that this bell was created to be placed on an altar of particular significance. On the battlefield, Edo soldiers hung small quadrangular bells from their necks to attract ancestral protection and intimidate the enemy. In Ijebu and the southwestern Niger Delta, bells with conical bodies featuring human or animal faces were associated with individuals of chiefly rank. They were either incorporated into costumes or carried by attendants to signal the arrival of the ruler. One such bell displays the face of a horse (1991.17.140), an animal that was imported from the north at great expense. The prerogative of exceptionally wealthy and powerful individuals, images of horses can be found on a variety of leadership insignia from this region.


In both Yoruba and Edo courtly culture, elaborate containers were created to hold small gifts such as kola nuts that were presented as offerings to dignitaries and deities alike. An exceptional, lidded vessel from Owo, carved from ivory, displays several motifs that communicate the powers and abilities of the king (1991.17.126a,b). Many of the images found on this work, such as the fish-legged oba flanked by human attendants, have clear origins in the art of Benin and provide further visual evidence of the close relationship that existed between these two states. Much simpler in design is a cast-brass footed container from Benin, whose receptacle has been rendered as a type of fluted gourd frequently offered to Osanobua, the creator god (1991.17.66). The placement of offerings in vessels shaped like sacrificial animals or vegetables reflects a style of witty conceptual punning frequently found in the arts of the Edo and Yoruba peoples.

Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University