In the art of Benin, works in bronze can be commissioned only by the Oba, or ruler, or by others with his permission. According to oral traditions, the technique of lost-wax bronze casting was brought to Benin around the end of the fourteenth century from Ife, the ancient kingdom to the north noted for its exquisite cast-bronze commemorative heads. Prior to that time, Benin craftsmen produced hammered and incised, but not cast, bronze ornaments.
Once the technique of lost-wax casting was mastered by the craftsmen of Benin, bronze heads and figures began to appear on the Oba's shrines. This figure of a court musician playing a side-blown trumpet attests to the technical virtuosity of the Benin bronze-casters. The figure's elaborately textured garment depicts the hide of a leopard, an animal associated with the power of the Oba. Similarly, the strands of coral around his neck and chest reaffirm this musician's status in the Benin court, since coral, like bronze and ivory, is a royal prerogative in Benin.
The Punitive Expedition of 1897 led to the loss of contextual information about Benin works of art. Therefore, scholars attempt to reconstruct Benin art-historical chronologies and lineages utilizing a combination of written documents, oral histories, and analysis of physical attributes in the sculptures themselves.
[J. Young, Glasgow, Scotland, until 1899]; Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, Farnham, Dorset, U.K.; an anonymous source, until 1957; [K. John Hewett, London, until 1957]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1957–1972; Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1972–1978
Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, 376.