The Benenson Gallery, a large space dedicated to African art, is divided into three distinct sections: The Kingdom of Benin, Central and Southeastern Africa, and West Africa.
The Kingdom of Benin
This area of the Benenson Gallery features an array of prestige arts produced from the sixteenth through nineteenth century in cast brass as well as carved ivory and wood at the Court of Benin, situated in present-day Nigeria. A series of rectangular cast-brass plaques, originally designed for the exterior of the palace at Benin, features images of the king and members of his court. Also on view are works commissioned by Benin rulers for royal altars honoring their ancestors. These include groupings of works that were placed on altars dedicated to former kings as well as those commemorating queen mothers. At the center is the celebrated ivory pendant mask commissioned by the sixteenth-century king, Esigie, to pay tribute to his mother, Idia.
Central and Southeastern Africa
In this section of the Benenson Gallery, the works on view relate to regional artistic movements that developed across West-Central Africa and down to its southernmost tip. Among the most celebrated of these are the dynamic and luminous sculptural elements created to accompany reliquary shrines in Fang and Kota communities concentrated in Gabon. Additional highlights include the prestige arts and masquerade forms commissioned by leaders in the Grassfields region of Cameroon, Chokwe chiefdoms of Angola, and Kongo, Songye, Kuba, Lega, Tabwa, and Luba chiefdoms in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Among these are works by two regionally renowned sculptors: a seat of office supported by a caryatid female figure attributed to an artist known as the Buli Master, and a headrest by his contemporary the Master of the Cascade Coiffure.
West African works featured in this area of the Benenson Gallery relate to artistic traditions from Sierra Leone through Nigeria in a diverse array of media, including wood, terracotta, stone, ivory, silver, gold, brass, and bead and leatherwork. Among these are the sixteenth-century Afro-Portuguese ivories carved in Sierra Leone and Guinea for the earliest European visitors to the region. A diverse range of forms of expression relate to Akan culture in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, including insignia of leadership wrapped in gold foil, terracotta memorial sculptures commemorating important individuals, masks worn in theatrical performances, and figurative sculptures commissioned for altars dedicated to nature spirits. Other major cultures represented include: the Dan, We, Guro, and Kru of Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire; the Fon of the Republic of Benin; and the Yoruba, Igbo, Oron, and Ejagham of Nigeria.
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