Date: 16th–19th century
Geography: Nigeria, Court of Benin
Culture: Edo peoples
Dimensions: H x W x D: 9 1/4 x 7 1/2 x 3 1/2 in. (23.5 x 19.1 x 8.9 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991
Accession Number: 1991.17.66a, b
In the Benin kingdom, kola nuts were an important focus of courtly interactions. A symbol of civilization, sociability, and rank, they were given to guests to show hospitality and distributed as small offerings at ritual events associated with honoring ancestors, including divination practices. Kola nuts were frequently stored and presented in elaborately designed and decorated containers made from wood, ivory, or brass. This box, in the form of a gourd raised on a footed pedestal, was likely the property of an oba or an important chief given that works in brass are reserved for only those of the highest rank.
The unusual shape of the vessel—an oblong form with multiple, lengthwise ridges—takes its inspiration from a species of gourd that frequently served as an offering to Osanobua, the creator god. As such, the container's design involves a series of visual and conceptual puns. Not only do the two resemble each other in shape and size, but each serves as a "box" for what lies within, whether it be kola nuts or seeds. Additionally, the gourd's associations with sacrifice and ritual reflect the ceremonial usage of the kola nuts stored inside.