This ivory pendant mask is one of a pair of nearly identical works; its counterpart is in the British Museum in London. Although images of women are rare in Benin's courtly tradition, these two works have come to symbolize the legacy of a dynasty that continues to the present day. The pendant mask is believed to have been produced in the early sixteenth century for the King or "Oba" Esigie, the king of Benin, to honor his mother, Idia. The Oba may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification.
In Benin, ivory is related to the color white, a symbol of ritual purity that is associated with Olokun, god of the sea. As the source of extraordinary wealth and fertility, Olokun is the spiritual counterpart of the "oba". Ivory is central to the constellation of symbols surrounding Olokun and the "oba". Not only is it white, but it is itself Benin's principle commercial commodity and it helped attract the Portuguese traders who also brought wealth to Benin.
The mask is a sensitive, idealized portrait, depicting its subject with softly modeled features, bearing inlaid metal and carved scarification marks on the forehead, and wearing bands of coral beads below the chin. In the openwork tiara and collar are carved stylized mudfish and the bearded faces of Portuguese. Because they live both on land and in the water, mudfish represent the king's dual nature as human and divine. Having come from across the seas, the Portuguese were considered denizens of the spirit realm who brought wealth and power to the "oba".
Sir Ralph Moor, Benin City, Nigeria, and his family, ca. 1897–1909; Prof. Charles Gabriel Seligman, Oxford, U.K., 1909–(d.) 1940; his wife, Brenda Z. Seligman, London, 1940–1958; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1958, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1958–1972; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1972–1978
"The Seligman Ivory Mask from Benin." The journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 57 (August 1957), pp. 112–113.
von Luschan, Felix. Die Altertümer von Benin. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1968, pp. 379–380.
Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 370.
Fagg, William B. Divine Kingship in Africa. London: British Museum Publications, Ltd., 1970, pp. 28–32.