For centuries the highly skilled artists and artisans of the Edo Kingdom have produced outstanding artworks of immense cultural value in the royal city of Benin in present day Nigeria.
Its current Oba, or king, belongs to a dynasty that has governed the kingdom from a court centred in the royal city of Benin in south-eastern Nigeria from at least the 13th century. Edo oral history indicates that the kingdom was founded in around the 10th century and was ruled by a dynasty of kings titled Ogiso, who first established a court in the region of Benin City. The Ogisos also established the beginnings of the palace craft guilds, which led to the development of the kingdom’s unique artistic traditions in ivory, wood and metal.
In about 1200 CE, the Ogisos are said to have been replaced by the current dynasty, when Prince Oranmiyan from the neighbouring kingdom of Ife was invited to take the throne at Benin. Oranmiyan soon returned to Ife, but he left a son who took the new title of Oba when he was enthroned as the highest political and religious authority in the Edo Kingdom.
The 15th and 16th centuries represent the period of Benin’s greatest territorial expansion through military conquest. It is also the period when Benin made contact with Portuguese merchant adventurers on the coast and began to trade with them. New goods were introduced by Portuguese merchants including Indian and European cloth, coral beads and brass currency bracelets, which were incorporated into works of royal and courtly regalia.
Guilds of specialist craftspeople controlled by the palace produced a wide range of highly accomplished works for the Oba and his court. This art was central to the ceremonial life of the Edo Kingdom. Craftspeople created works to mark rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and death; for the celebration of annual festivals; to honour and commemorate the royal ancestors; and to celebrate the coronation of a new Oba. Surviving works therefore reflect the cultural and political history of this powerful empire.
Sculpted heads cast in copper alloys are still important items for commemorative altars dedicated to the royal ancestors. Each new Oba is required to commission a shrine to honour and commemorate his predecessor, in order to legitimise his own succession. The heads are made in pairs and placed on either side of an altar, along with sacred rattle staffs, bells, and other significant cast figures. Most cast heads have a hole in the top, which served to hold an elephant tusk richly carved with relief images relating to the deceased Oba’s royal authority and personal achievement.
In Edo philosophy the head is the seat of a guiding spiritual force, associated with a person’s destiny and judgement, as well as his or her knowledge, intelligence, character, and leadership. Stylised commemorative altar heads therefore make powerful visual references to the spiritual authority and success of past Obas. The physical and spiritual strength of the reigning Oba is connected with the well-being of the entire kingdom and royal ceremonies are performed in Benin City each year to spiritually strengthen the Oba.
The style of cast altar heads changed over time, and art historians have developed a timeline which recognises eight stylistic variations of heads dating from around 1400, with both constant and innovative design details. National Museums Scotland’s collection includes a later commemorative head that dates stylistically from the 18th to 19th century. It can be dated by the presence of winged elements on each side of the cap, and a flanged base richly decorated with royal symbols of leopard, mudfish, and the heads of sacrificial animals. Like the older style heads, details include multiple rows of coral beads around the neck and a coral bead cap, worn as symbols of kingship to the present.
During the second half of the 19th century, the Edo Kingdom was weakened by conflicts over succession and lost some of its military, political and economic power. At the same time British imperial ambition for control over west African markets and territories led to increased pressure on the Oba to open the Edo Kingdom to ‘free trade’ with British commercial firms. The invasion of Benin by British troops in 1897 resulted in the removal and exile of the reigning Oba Ovonramwen, who was replaced by British overrule.
Following the death of Ovonramwen in exile in 1914, his son was crowned Oba Eweka II and reigned with limited powers under British supervision. Eweka II rebuilt the royal palace, restored the craft guilds, and set up the Benin Arts and Crafts Council to produce artworks for new external markets. At Nigerian Independence in 1960, the Edo Kingdom was incorporated into the Nigerian state. Successive Obas from the kingdom’s ruling dynasty have retained their title and many cultural practices, so the monarchy and its court rituals still provide a political and cultural focus in Benin City for Edo-speaking people.
Find out more about the head and other objects that were looted from Benin during the British Punitive Expedition in 1897.