Male Figure: Court Official

16th–17th century
Nigeria, Court of Benin
Edo peoples
H. 25 3/4 x W. 7 x D. 5 7/8 in. (65.4 x 17.8 x 14.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Scholars have suggested that this figure was placed upon a commemorative altar dedicated to a king, or "oba," of Benin. The figure is depicted wearing a distinctive cross pendant. His wrap skirt is adorned with profile heads of Portuguese traders, a frontal African head, and other common Benin motifs such as river leaves, mudfish, and interlace patterns.

    Three different identities have been proposed for this figure. The official may be a messenger from a ruler referred to as the "Ogane," who today is identified as the leader, or "oni," of Ife. The present Benin dynasty claims descent from the Yoruba kingdom of Ife. According to a sixteenth-century Portuguese text, each new "oba," or king, of Benin had to be confirmed by the "Ogane," whose messenger presented the "oba" with a brass hat, staff, and cross necklace. Another interpretation suggests that he may represent a priest of Osanobua, the Benin creator god, who also wears a cross. Finally, the figure may depict a member of "Ewua," a group of palace officials who wake the "oba" each morning and perform a ceremony recalling the origin of the Benin dynasty.

  • Provenance

    Col. Le-Poer-O'Shea, Royal Engineers Boundary Commission, 1897–1900; (Sotheby's, London, March 8, 1957, no. 197); [Julius Carlebach Gallery, New York, from 1957]; a private collector, until 1986; (Sotheby's, New York, Nov. 18, 1986, no. 96); Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, New York, 1986–1991