Nigeria; Edo peoples, court of Benin
Brass; H. 9 1/4 in. (23.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.86)
The leaders of the kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria trace their origins to a ruling dynasty that began in the fourteenth century. The title of "oba," or king, is passed on to the firstborn son of each successive king of Benin at the time of his death. The first obligation of each new king during this transition of rule is to commemorate his father with a portrait cast in bronze and placed on an altar at the palace. The altar constitutes an important site of palace ritual and is understood to be a means of incorporating the ongoing influence of past kings in the affairs of their descendents.
Though associated with individuals, this highly stylized genre of commemorative portraiture emphasized the trappings and regalia of kingship rather than specific facial features. In the Edo world view, the head is considered the locus of a man's knowledge, authority, success, and family leadership. The burden of providing for his family and seeing them through times of trouble is often described as being "on his head." The oba is often called by his praise name "Great Head," accentuating the head of the living leader as the locus of responsibility over and for the Benin kingdom.
The idealized naturalism of this work reflects conventions of depicting the king at the prime of his life. The straightforward gazing eyes, which would have included iron inlays, possess the ability to see into the other world, communicating the divine power of the oba to survey his kingdom. The beaded headdress and collar are depictions of the king's coral regalia. Coral is of particular importance to the Edo because of its associations with the ancestral realms of the sea and to the immense wealth of the oba gained through ocean-going trade with Europe.
The relatively minimal amount of brass used to make this light cast and the proportionately small amount of regalia depicted indicate that the head was created during the earlier half of the sixteenth century. Art historians have suggested that over the centuries, as greater quantities of brass became available, casters had less incentive to be economical with the material, and the trappings of office worn by the kings of Benin became more ostentatious.