11 1/2 x 9 x 9 inches
Museum purchase with funds provided by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund and gift of Oliver E. and Pamela F. CobbArts of Africa
The most important Benin artworks were life-size heads of the obas, the spiritual and corporeal kings of Benin. Ordered in pairs by every new king to honor his predecessor, these heads were arranged symmetrically on altars as representations of the institution of divine kingship. This king's head dates to the highest period of power and artistry in the Kingdom of Benin, the 16th through 17th century.
The casting of metal objects for a shrine was part of the coronation rites for each new king of Benin. Memorial heads depicted kings wearing regalia of coral and agate beads. They were surmounted by elaborately carved elephant tusks, the second-most important material in Benin art. The king, principal patron of artists, had a monopoly on metal casting, ivory working, and coral beads. No metal casting could be commissioned without his approval.
Metal arts flourished in the kingdom of Benin from the 15th century until its capital was sacked by the British military during the Punitive Expedition of 1897. More than 2,000 royal treasures of ivory and metal were looted from the king's palace and shipped to Britain. There the valuable objects were sold and spread all over the world, creating a sensation for their delicate modeling and the extraordinary skill with which they were made. The September 25, 1897, edition of the London Times newspaper commented about the “technical perfection of the work.”