Benin Bronze Oba Head

Benin Empire

Early 20th Century

Height 31 cm (12.25 in ) Diameter 22 cm ( 8.75 in )

The Benin Empire ruled across a large area of pre-colonial Nigeria from 1440 until its destruction by the British in 1897 and these bronze heads, made to hold and display large elephant tusks, were solely for the Obas or rulers to show their wealth and power in a courtly setting. The head depicts the Oba in his royal regalia with the collar and cap of coral beads and scarification marks above the eyebrows; it follows the traditional form as shown in the head held by the British Museum and taken by the punitive expedition of 1897.

The fall of the Benin Empire came about, due to British desire for further power and control over the products which it was procuring from the west coast: palm oil, pepper, ivory and a desire for rubber. As was their usual ploy the British tried to persuade the Oba to sign a treaty handing over some of his authority to Queen Victoria in return for the 'protection' of the British. He refused and they launched a punitive expedition, burnt down the palace and banished Ovonramwen Nogbaisi to Calabar where he died in exile in 1914. His successor Eweka II accepted the offer of the British to return and his successor remains to this day, the leader of the Edo community numbering 5 million people to whom he is the symbol of a long cultural and historical legacy, much like Queen Elizabeth II of Britain.

This sculpture was probably made in celebration of the return of Oba Eweka II to Benin and is therefore from the court of the Post Imperial Benin Empire.

Provenance: Monica Wengraff

Monica Wengraff, the previous owner, sought the expertise of William Fagg when the sculpture was in her collection (brief biography below). His opinion was that this head was probably made to celebrate the returning Oba who reigned from 1914 until 1933.
 
William Buller Fagg (1914 - 1992)  joined the Department of Ethnology at the British Museum in 1938 and remained there throughout his career becoming Deputy and then Keeper of the Department. After retiring in 1974 he worked as a consultant for Christie's. He developed his connoisseurship of Benin through his friendship with major African art dealers such as Charles Ratton in Paris and assisted private collectors. His art sensibilities were further refined by his friendship with sculptors Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein and he travelled extensively in Nigeria and purchased art for the newly founded Lagos Museum. He was also consulting Fellow at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York (now part of the Metropolitan)
Fagg published several important books on the art of Benin and his appreciation and understanding made him one of the most respected authors and experts on Nigerian art.

Bibliography:
Benin by Barbara Plankensteiner.  Visions of Africa series directed by Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium
Benin Kings and Rituals, Court Arts from Nigeria, Barbara Plankensteiner

1783 / 3077
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