Nigeria; Edo peoples, Court of Benin
H. 18 3/4 in. (47.6 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1990 (1990.332)
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a remarkable series of works were created to adorn the exterior of the royal palace in Benin City. A seventeenth-century Dutch visitor to the court of Benin, Olfert Dapper, described the sprawling palace complex—with its many large courtyards and galleries—as containing wooden pillars covered from top to bottom with rectangular cast brass plaques. These plaques are understood to have autonomous meaning and to tell complex narratives in relationship to one another. At some point the plaques were removed from the palace facade, as they were no longer there when the British arrived in the region. One scholar has surmised that they "were kept like a card index up to the time of the Punitive Expedition, and referred to when there was a dispute about courtly etiquette."
The authors of such works were far more concerned with the communication of hierarchies and status than in capturing individual physical features. These plaques conform to a convention of "hierarchical proportions" wherein the largest figure is the one with the greatest authority and rank. In this example, it is a warrior chief. He is in the center, flanked on either side by soldiers of lesser rank. Regalia and symbols of status are emphasized above all other aspects of the subject depicted. For example, the warrior is shown with leopard-spot scarification marks and a leopard-tooth necklace, which associate him with the stealth, speed, and ferocity of the leopard. As "king of the bush," the leopard is one of the principle symbols of Benin kingship. Additionally, the warrior chief wears a coral-studded helmet and collar, a lavish wrap, and a brass ornament on his hip. In his left hand he carries a ceremonial sword, a gesture of honor and loyalty, and holds a spear in his other hand.
The servile status of the figures flanking the warrior chief is indicated by the objects they carry. One attendant has a fan used to cool the warrior chief, the other a trumpet to announce his presence. A third attendant brings a box containing an offering of kola nuts for the oba (king).