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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Benin Ivory Mask (British Museum)

Idia mask BM Af1910 5-13 1

Benin Ivory Mask

This Benin Ivory Mask is a miniature sculptural portrait of the Queen Mother Idia of the 16th century Benin Empire. The sculpture takes the form of a traditional African mask and features a beaded headdress and choker at her neck. The forehead shows ritual scarification highlighted by iron inlay on the forehead.  The top of the mask is decorated with heads representing the Portuguese, symbolising Benin’s alliance with the Europeans. This type of hip-mask was worn by the King, on the hip, during important ceremonies.

The mask represents Queen Mother Idia who was the mother of Esigie, a renowned ruler of the Edo people who ruled in the early  1500’s. The Queen Mother played a very significant role in the reign of her son. She was a great warrior who mobilised an army for her son Esigie, which defeated his rival and half-brother to became the 16th king of Benin. His mother Idia received much of the credit for these victories for her political counsel and her significant influence which lead to success on the battlefield.

Esigie came to power as Portuguese explorers first made contact with the empire. Trade and diplomacy with Europe brought Esigie, and his kingdom prosperity and influence as his empire traded pepper, ivory, local textiles, and slaves for brass, cloth, coral beads, and mercenaries for protection. The Portuguese continued to appear in Benin art long after they had disappeared from Benin itself.

The Kingdom of Benin was a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria, and its capital was Edo, which is now known as Benin City. The Benin Kingdom was “one of the oldest and most highly developed states of West Africa, dating to the eleventh century CE until it was annexed by the British Empire in 1897.

The British Benin Expedition of 1897 was a punitive expedition by British forces that captured, burned, and looted Benin City, with much of the country’s art taken as booty. About 40% of the art was accessioned into the British Museum, some works were given to individual members of the Military as spoils of war, and the remainder was sold to pay for the cost of the British expedition.

The dispersal of the Benin art to museums around the world was a catalyst for the slow European reassessment of the value of West African art. The Benin art was copied and the style integrated into the art of many Western artists.

Reflections

  • The first European travellers to reach Benin were Portuguese explorers. Did the Queen Mother Idia play a role in establishing friendly relations with the Portuguese?
  • What influence did African art have on the formation of western modern art?
  • How much of African achievement and history was lost due to colonial indifference and vandalism?
  • African achievements were not documented or written in a form to survive the ravages of time and climate. Does their art provide clues to their greatness?

Explore

Benin Ivory Mask

  • Title:                  Benin Ivory Mask
  • Date:                 Early 16th century
  • Culture:           16th century Benin Empire
  • Medium:          Ivory, iron & bronze inlay
  • Dimensions:  H: 24.5 cm; W: 12.5 cm; D: 6 cm
  • Museum:        The British Museum

Kingdom of Benin

  • Dates            1180–1897
  • Capital:         Edo (now Benin City)
  • Languages:  Edo
  • Geography: Part of modern day Nigeria

~~~

“He who knows kindness and benevolence,
let him so be kind and helpful.”
– Edo Proverbs

~~~


Photo Credit: British Museum [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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