Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Origins and Empire: The Benin, Owo, and Ijebu Kingdoms

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Territorial expansion and dialogue among the powerful states of the Guinea coast region of West Africa resulted in exchanges that were not only economic but also artistic and cultural in nature. As a result, Owo, Ijebu, and Benin, a trio of kingdoms located within present-day southern Nigeria, shared aspects of courtly culture including titles, ceremonial paraphernalia, and art forms. These commonalities are especially interesting and noteworthy given the ethnic disparities that existed among these distinct polities. While the states of Owo and Ijebu were composed primarily of Yoruba peoples, the core populations of the Benin kingdom were ethnically Edo.


In their respective oral traditions, Ijebu, Owo, and Benin all trace their origins to the ancient city of Ile-Ife, the cradle of Yoruba culture, and claim that their founders were the sons of the Yoruba deity Odudua, who was the first ruler of that city. Especially in Owo and Benin, the early art-historical and archaeological records reinforce these strong affiliations with Ife culture. Benin's royal histories relate that the court's brass casters learned their art from an Ife master named Iguegha, who had been sent from Ife around 1400 at the request of Benin's oba Oguola. Indeed, the earliest dated cast-brass memorial heads from Benin (1979.206.86) replicate the refined naturalism of Ife sculpture; early Owo terracotta sculpture appears to have been heavily influenced by the arts of Ife as well.


Each kingdom's historical ties to Ife contributed to its sense of identity, and doubtless encouraged and justified their appropriation of certain aspects of Ife's political and religious practices. It was ultimately their ongoing relationships with one another, however, that produced broad similarities in their art forms and courtly structures. The outward-looking tendencies of these states were manifested in broad-based trade, diplomacy, and warfare. Ijebu's lagoon ports and well-established trade routes to the lower Niger Delta, as well as overland routes via the Ondo and Owo Yoruba states, ensured economic and cultural interchange with Benin. Owo, whose territories abutted those of Benin, also engaged in extensive trade with this state. Benin itself was an expansive state whose superior military permitted it to dominate territories well beyond its heartland.


The exact nature of the political and military engagements among these states is unclear; oral histories collected from the courts of Owo, Ijebu, and Benin provide divergent commentaries on this subject. While Benin claims to have placed Ijebu under its dominion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Ijebu's own traditions dispute this. By the seventeenth century, Benin controlled the coast from the southern Niger Delta to at least the eastern edge of Ijebu's territory, but it is unclear what political influence the Edo court had upon the Ijebu heartland in the interior. Owo, Benin's neighbor to the northwest, appears to have intermittently found itself under the suzerainty of the obas. Given the Edo origins of many aspects of Owo's courtly culture, it is clear that the diplomatic relationship between the two kingdoms was intimate, and not entirely equitable: royal Edo histories speak of Osogboye, the sixteenth-century ruler of Owo who visited the Benin court to adopt highly prestigious forms of Edo courtly culture. Not surprisingly, this version of events is contested by Owo historians, who assert that Osogboye traveled to Benin to learn military techniques that would better protect his kingdom from Edo aggression. Altogether, these conflicting historical perspectives suggest that the similarities which exist between the Yoruba states and their Edo counterpart can be attributed to a combination of factors: the forcible influence of Benin, the assertion of common origins at Ife, and the desire of less powerful kingdoms to strengthen themselves and enrich their status by incorporating the traditions of their adversary.

Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University


Area of interchange among the Ife, Ijebu, Owo, and Benin states, 17th–19th centuries.