Head of an Oba

16th century
Nigeria, Court of Benin
Edo peoples
H. 9 1/4 x W. 8 5/8 x D. 9 in. (23.5 x 21.9 x 22.9 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
  • Description

    The leaders of the kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria trace their origins to a ruling dynasty that began in the fourteenth century. The title of "oba," or king, is passed on to the firstborn son of each successive king of Benin at the time of his death. The first obligation of each new king during this transfer of rule is to commemorate his father with a portrait cast in bronze and placed on an altar at the palace. The altar constitutes an important site of palace ritual and is understood to be a means of incorporating the ongoing influence of past kings in the affairs of their descendents.

    The idealized naturalism of this work reflects conventions of rendering the king at the prime of his life. The beaded headdress and collar are depictions of the king's coral regalia. Coral is of particular significance to the Edo given that it is a metaphor for the ancestral realm of the sea, conceived to lie below the waters. Both brass and coral were items of wealth obtained through the coastal trade between Benin's leadership and Europe.

  • Provenance

    A West African mine official, acquired before 1885; [John J. Klejman, New York, until 1958]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1958, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, 1958–1978