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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Benin Bronze Head Shaped Bell
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Benin Bronze Head Shaped Bell - DB.001 (LSO)
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 17th th Century AD to 19th th Century AD
Dimensions: 9.6" (24.4cm) high
Collection: African Art
Style: Benin
Medium: Bronze
Condition: Very Fine

Location: United States
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Brass bells have played an important role in Benin courtly society since at least the 16th century, being part of the paraphernalia that was placed upon the altars of deceased Obas as means for contacting the dead. However, this particular piece appears to be utterly unique in most respects. The piece shows the head of a well-nourished man with an extraordinarily swooping, prominent nose, whose neck widens from a rather plump chin to the full diameter of the bell. The top of his head is remarkably constricted, narrowing noticeably from the eyes upwards, ending in a very small skullcap topped by a suspension loop. The eyes are bulbous and plain, with heavy top lids but no answering rim around the bottom. The lips are thin, straight and protuberant, while the forehead is encircled by a diadem (?) that extends in a series of circular links between the ears. What is most extraordinary about this piece is that the entire surface is scarified, from the jawline up to the skullcap. The lines are vertical on the forehead, and angled at about 15 degrees on each cheek (roughly 23 lines per side). The neck is plain down to the inferior rim, which has a raised edge around the perimeter, and is only decorated with an eghughu crocodile and two leaves. The skullcap is topped with a cross that acts as a support for the suspension loop.

The kingdom of Benin can justifiably lay claim to having produced the finest artists and craftsmen in the history of the African continent. Yet this heritage was scarcely recognised until the British punitive expedition of 1897, which destroyed and looted the ancient city compounds and in so doing brought the achievements of Benin to the world’s attention (Bacquart 1998). The foundation of the Benin peoples was contemporary with the European late mediaeval period, when the kingdom of Benin was founded by a descendent of an Ife king in c.1180 AD. In the 15th and 16th centuries AD the power of the empire stretched across most of West Africa, and those areas not under their control were indirectly influenced by the effect of their trade networks and material culture styles. Until the late 19th century, the Benin centres were a ruling power in Nigeria, dominating trade routes and amassing enormous wealth as the military and economic leaders of their ancient empire. The power of this empire was unequalled in its time, and the full extent of the rulers’ wealth only became apparent in the aftermath of its destruction.

Benin art is primarily based around a court context, and was designed to venerate the achievements and/or memory of the Obas, the divine rulers of the Benin polities. The artists and craftsmen were typically attached to a specific court, and charged with manufacture of objects solely for their ruler. Their work in bronze and copper, ironworking and sculpting in a range of materials that particularly included ivory was extremely refined and effective; indeed, smelting, forging and cire perdue (lost wax) metalworking methods exceeded any seen in Europe until the 19th century. Obas were immortalised as one or several bronze/brass heads, which were used as supports for holding elephant tusks in a crescent across the top of commemorative altars. Brass leopards, spears, statues, tableaux (depicting the Oba and his followers) and rattle-staffs (ukhurhe) are also known, although it is perhaps for the famous brass plaques that Benin artistic heritage is best known. In them it is possible to read the history of the Benin peoples, from the earliest kings to the arrival of the Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, to lion/leopard hunts and war scenes, populated by the Oba and his family, regal attendants, musicians, soldiers, noblemen and priests. Perhaps the most unusual items to grace the kingly altars were the bells, which were designed to be rung in order to awaken the spirits. They are uncommon items, and especially in the current case as there are no close comparatives.

This piece is perplexing as it is outside the parameters of known conventions on Benin bell design. Chronologically, it is likely to lie in the 18th to 19th centuries, as earlier examples tend to be quadrangular. All other elements are discordant. The eghughu is known to be an offering for wellbeing, success and prosperity, and is often found on royal regalia for this reason. The leaves, however, have no known social significance. Equally, the morphology of the face is remarkably unlike that of most other Benin sculptures. The scarification is scarcely ever used in Benin art, being a characteristic of the Ife tradition; however, people portrayed by the Ife always fell morphologically into the standard mould of Sub-Saharan Africa, whereas this piece is far more fanciful in terms of construction. The eyes, however, may offer something of a clue to its identity. While art is of course infinitely fluid stylistically, eyes are remarkably conservative in appearance; they are often the only indicator of a piece’s social/tribal origin. In the current case, they are strongly reminiscent of those rendered by Yoruban sculptors. The slender proportions of the face are also a Yoruban device, as are the lips (Benin pieces of this age tend to have full lips with an indent into the lower). It is therefore possible that it is a reiterative work that agglomerated Ife and Benin designs and interpreted them using Yoruban stylistic techniques. Whatever the historical details, however, this is a dramatic and fascinating piece of African art.

Ezra, K. 1992. Royal Art of Benin: the Perls Colection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, US.

Drewal, J.and Pemberton, J. 1989. Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought. Abrams, NY, US.

- (DB.001 (LSO))


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