Commemorative Head

Accession Number

Commemorative Head

Edo (Benin); Benin (ancient Nigerian)

Artist Nationality
Edo (African culture)

Object Creation Date
19th Century

Medium & Support

19 1/2 in x 10 7/16 in x 11 5/16 in (49.53 cm x 26.51 cm x 28.73 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern

Subject matter
Although this commemorative head represents an oba, a ruler of the past kingdom of Benin (today's Edo state in Nigeria), it is not an image of a specific king. Rather, these heads refer to previous Benin rulers in a generic way by depicting the attire associated with the oba. The regalia worn by rulers of Benin changed throughout the kingdom's history, which has allowed scholars to roughly date the heads based on their level of adornment. The high collar, elaborate headgear, and heavy use of brass possibly date this commemorative head to the 19th century. These heads were (and still are) displayed on altars within the royal palace to pay homage to the ancestors of the oba, a physical connection between the current ruler and previous obas. The opening in the top of the head would have held a carved elephant tusk, again reflecting the wealth and power of the king as only royalty and high-ranking chiefs had access to objects made of precious ivory. The head holds the fate of an individual in Benin spirituality. The oba's head also holds the fate of the entire kingdom, so it had to be cared for and properly honored. 
References Cited: 
Ben-Amos, Paula Girshick. 1995. The Art of Benin. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. 
Ezra, Kate. 1992. Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Physical Description
Cast brass head of a human. A beaded collar covers the neck and chin, while the top of the head is decorated with a beaded cap, small clusters of what may be flowers, and 'wings' that rise from either side of the head and almost meet by the mouth. There is an opening at the top of the head as well. 

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type

Collection Area

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ancestor figures
commemorative sculpture
royalty (nobility)
shrines (structures)

& Author Notes

Web Use Permitted

On display

UMMA Gallery Location ➜ AMH, 1st floor ➜ 115 (ArtGym)