Nigeria; Edo peoples, court of Benin
Brass; H. 25 3/4 in. (65.4 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991 (1991.17.32)
The Punitive Expedition of 1897 led to the loss of contextual information about Benin works of art. Therefore, scholars attempt to reconstruct Benin art-historical chronologies and lineages utilizing a combination of written documents, oral histories, and analysis of physical attributes in the sculptures themselves.
Scholars have suggested that this figure was placed upon a commemorative altar dedicated to a king of Benin. The figure is depicted wearing a distinctive cross pendant. His wrap skirt is adorned with profile heads of Portuguese traders, a frontal African head, and other common Benin motifs such as river leaves, mudfish, and interlace patterns.
Three different identities have been suggested for this figure. The official may be a messenger from a ruler referred to as the Ogane, who today is identified as the leader, or Oni, of Ife. The present Benin dynasty claims descent from the Yoruba kingdom of Ife. According to a sixteenth-century Portuguese text, each new oba, or king, of Benin had to be confirmed by the Ogane, whose messenger presented the oba with a brass hat, staff, and cross necklace. Another interpretation suggests that he may represent a priest of Osanobua, the Benin creator god, who also wears a cross. Finally, the figure may depict a member of Ewua, a group of palace officials who wake the oba each morning and perform a ceremony recalling the origin of the Benin dynasty.