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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Benin Chronology

As a result of the abrupt and violent manner in which most royal art forms of the kingdom of Benin were removed from their original context by the British in 1897, there is a dearth of documentation to situate individual works historically. This has led art historians to propose stylistic theories concerning their chronological execution.

Current leaders of the kingdom of Benin trace their origins to a ruling dynasty that began in the fourteenth century. Brass commemorative heads are commissioned by each oba (king) in the first years of his reign to honor his immediate predecessor. Although these heads represent specific obas, they are not portraits in the sense that they capture the individual features of the kings. Rather, they are idealized depictions that emphasize the trappings of kingship. Consequently, the attribution of specific heads to particular obas has eluded scholars. However, since these heads document a unique historical narrative, scholars have attempted to determine the sequence in which they were created based on their stylistic and physical attributes.

The current accepted theory is that the smallest and most naturalistic heads are the earliest, with a gradual progression toward increased size and degree of stylization. Between 1500 and 1800, the Benin kingdom gradually grew in both wealth and power, primarily through extensive trade with the Portuguese. In the arts, this expansion is manifested in a dramatic increase in the size and ostentation of royal regalia. Crowns of Edo kings grew steadily more encrusted with coral beading and this appears to have been reflected in changes in commemorative representations as well. Additionally, the largess of royal patronage decreased artisans’ incentive to be judicious with expensive materials, allowing them to create ever-larger objects. Therefore, in the attempt to construct a chronology for Benin art, it makes sense that later heads would be both heavier and larger objects that conspicuously consumed greater quantities of imported brass and emphasized the more elaborate regalia.

The earliest heads have light thin walls and a tight-fitting collar that does not cover the chin. They have no beaded crown. The next period includes heads that are larger and heavier. The beaded collar reaches the mouth, with the addition of bead clusters to the crown. The head is far more stylized and has a wide and cylindrical shape; additionally, the cheeks appear swollen and the eyes are enlarged. In the third period, the flange is expanded and the features are further exaggerated. There are winglike projections on the crowns, which are thought to represent the ceremonial swords of the court. There are also representations of beads that hang in front of the eyes.