Royal Scepter (Makpo)

Fon peoples, Danhomè Kingdom

Not on view

This arm-length scepter is composed of a wooden core wrapped in precious silver. The outer metal is applied as thin overlapping sheets of silver nailed to the surface. The wood end of the staff is now exposed but was probably originally covered in metal as well. The straight shaft of the scepter progressively thickens and curves at an almost ninety-degree arc. Reinforcing this contour and adorning the extremity of the staff is a bulbous finial representing a pineapple carved from a separate piece of wood and affixed to the shaft with a metal peg. Stamped and punched patterns adorning the entire silver surface subtly underscore the different sections of the scepter: tight, short rows of dotted lines on the straight section of the shaft; small indented circles with flurries of small dots on the upper arched part; larger semi-circles in the shape of overlapping leaves on the finial; and straight vertical lines extending upwards as the pineapple leaves. A round sheet of silver, the size of a small coin, is affixed with four nails to the front of that upward extension.

This scepter (known among the Fon peoples as makpo, or staff of fury) belongs to a corpus of silver works that served as objects of power and prestige to rulers of the Fon Kingdom of Danhomè in present-day Republic of Benin, a West African nation state. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Kingdom of Danhomè prospered as a major political power and commercial center situated off the Gulf of Guinea. It gained much of its power by playing an active role in the international slave trade. Since the seventeenth century until the conquest of the kingdom by France in 1894, generations of Danhomè kings served as great patrons for the arts, often commissioning items to enhance their own royal status, or to commemorate their predecessors. They oversaw the development of a rich iconography visible until today in a diverse array of idioms, from scepters and other personal regalia to architecture.

Art historian Suzanne Preston Blier explains that the scepter’s overall shape derives from a genre of throwing-stick weapons introduced to Danhomè in the 17th century under the dynasty’s founder, Huegbadja (reigned c. 1645-1685). A distinctive royal symbol typically adorns such scepters to link them to either the commissioning or commemorated king. This scepter’s finial in a shape of a pineapple connects it to King Agonglo, who reigned from 1789 until 1797. In the Fon language, the word for pineapple is agon, which because of its similarity to the name Agonglo became a pictogram for the ruler’s name. Renowned for his art patronage, Agonglo is credited with developing the artistic tradition of the royal scepters. A century later, Agonglo was established as King Gbehanzin’s sponsoring ancestor and protective spirit (djoto). Gbehanzin ruled from 1889 until 1894 and during this time, commissioned this work to honor his ancestor (Blier 1998).

Such scepters in general, and the specific imagery seen here, signifies the passage of royal power through dynastic succession in the Kingdom of Danhomè. Makpo scepters further epitomized royal power. A key visual marker during public appearances, a king often carried such a scepter over his right shoulder, with the curved end hooked over his shoulder blade. The identification of a given scepter with a specific ruler was so strong that it could stand in place of the king on court business, and its image could function as a personification of the royal presence.

From the 17th century on, Danhomè royalty promoted establishment of guilds of specialized artists, who occupied compounds in the sprawling royal palace of Abomey, the kingdom’s capital (Beaujean-Baltzer éd. 2009). Jewelers and smiths from the royal Huntondji artists’ compound were responsible for crafting objects in precious silver for members of the royal family as well as for the devotees of important Fon deities. The material itself came from European sources, including silver coins brought as gifts in large quantities for Danhomean kings during the 18th and 19th centuries (Blier 2008). Melted and reused by Danhomè artists, the silver came to signify symbolically the Kingdom’s appropriation of wealth and power.

Many of the historical arts produced in West and Central Africa comprised works either carved of a single piece of wood or metalwork cast to shape. By contrast, arts of Danhomè are often made of separate pieces and diverse materials. Suzanne Preston Blier demonstrates that artists in the kingdom developed a unique art of assemblage (Blier 2004). Across media, from scepters to asen altar staffs (1979.206.95) and appliqué textiles, works combine disparate elements to create composite forms. Both the constructed nature of Danhomè works and the extensive use of silver, contributed to setting the kingdom’s creations apart from arts fashioned in two contemporary powerful neighboring polities, the Asante Kingdom in present-day Ghana, and the Benin Kingdom, in present-day Nigeria. The arts thus developed affirmed the Danhomè kings’ desire for distinction.

Arts of assemblage developed by Fon artists, through their incorporation of foreign imagery, materials, and forms, can be understood as artistic responses to the cultural and political appropriation central to Danhomean kings’ expansionist ambitions (Blier 2004 and 2008). The cumulative and composite nature of this royal scepter, made of two pieces of wood and multiple thin sheets of imported and re-used silver, reflects this artistic practice and is symptomatic of deeper social and political implications.

Yaëlle Biro, Associate Curator, Arts of Africa (2017)

Further reading

Artistes d’Abomey, Gaëlle Beaujean-Baltzer éd. Paris and Cotonou : Musée du quai Branly and Fondation Zinsou, 2009.

Blier, Suzanne Preston. Royal Arts of Africa. New York: Prentice Hall, 1998, pp. 98-123.

Blier, Suzanne Preston. “The Art of Assemblage: Aesthetic Expression and Social Experience in Danhomè.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 45 (Spring 2004), pp. 186-210.

Blier, Suzanne Preston. “Europia Mania: Contextualizing the European Other in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Dahomey Art”. Europe Observed: Multiple Gaze in Early Modern Encounters, Ed. Kumkum Chatterjee & Clement Hawe. Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press, 2008, pp. 237-269.

Howe, Ellen. “Fon Silver Jewelry of the 20th century”. Met Objectives. The Sherman Fairchild Center of Objects Conservation. Treatment and research notes, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Spring 2000, Volume 1, No. 2, pp. 4, 5, 8.

Meyerowitz, Eva L. R. “The Museum in the Royal Palaces at Abomey, Dahomey”. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 84, no. 495 (Jun. 1944), pp. 146-149, 151.

Savary, Claude. “Récades”. Artistes d’Abomey, Gaëlle Beaujean-Baltzer éd. Paris and Cotonou : Musée du quai Branly and Fondation Zinsou, 2009, p. 245.

Royal Scepter (Makpo), Silver copper alloy, wood, Fon peoples, Danhomè Kingdom

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