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HOME : African & Tribal Art : AS collection : Benin (Ife) Bronze Sculpture of an Oba
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Benin (Ife) Bronze Sculpture of an Oba - LSO.204
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 1200 AD to 1600 AD
Dimensions: 17.5" (44.5cm) high
Collection: African
Medium: Bronze
Condition: Extra Fine

Additional Information: AS

Location: Great Britain
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The relationship between the Ife, Benin (Edo) and Yoruba Cultures is highly contentious. There are numerous technological and stylistic parallels but also highly distinctive cultural dichotomies. The ancient city of Ile-Ife is considered by many to be the starting point of almost all West African artistic traditions, from obscure beginnings in the second half of the first millennium BC to the early Middle Ages. The city continued until the 19th century, but was eclipsed from the 14th century onwards by the rapidly-expanding kingdom and city of Benin, and both of these groups were eventually combined into what is currently known as the Yoruba polity.

This area was unique in Africa for the incredible quality and detail of their bronze and brass casting, which exceeded that of anywhere else in the world at the time. Unusually for African art, they were also extremely lifelike and naturalistic, which disproved many art historians’ assertions that African art was ‘primitive’ due to lack of ability. Ife metalworkers and sculptors were in great demand by the Benin Obas (kings) and courts, leading to considerable transfer of ideas and styles between the two cities. Most of their artistic oeuvres depict the ruling elites (especially the Obas – known as Oonis in Ife) as well as zoomorphic and general anthropomorphic figures, in addition to ‘cult’ objects of various forms and uncertain significance. There is a general tendency for larger and more naturalistic works in Ife, while Benin bronzes often take the form of wall plaques depicting the heroic achievements of the ruling elite. Most free-standing Benin pieces tend to be decorated with floral or geometric designs on light-coloured metal, although large heads (usually more ornate and decorated than their Ife equivalents) are also known. Finally, comprehensive vertical facial scarification is common in Ife pieces (both stone and metal) but not in Benin examples.

This piece therefore reflects characteristics of both cultures. It is probable that it is made in the Ife style by a master craftsman of Benin, judging from the preservation, the method of manufacture, and the stylistic conventions. It is an exceptional piece. Probably depicting an Oba/Ooni, it has been made using the lost-wax process and depicts a man of stately demeanour. The face is very tranquil and decorated with vertical scarifications, and surmounted by a skullcap with a spiked apex. The neck is decorated with a relief collar, and is encircled with a double necklace that extends down both back and front. The design matches that of the armlets on left and right biceps (and left and right anklets), although the left armlet also displays an insignia in high relief. The torso is essentially bare, with a swelling paunch encircled by an ornate belt holding up a long tunic. The latter is decorated with an insignia of a bull’s head in high relief. The figure holds a highly ornate staff in his right hand, surmounted by a bird’s head; the staff is attached to the figure by a lost-wax band at the ankle. In his left hand he holds an unidentified object which is probably a horse’s tail (mounted into a handle), a symbol of ruling status which would confirm the identification of this individual as an Oba/Ooni.

This is a mature and well-proportioned work which is both technologically and stylistically exceptional. - (LSO.204)


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