The Benin kingdom was founded by the son of an Ife king in the early 14th century AD. The art of bronze casting was introduced around the year 1280. The kingdom reached its maximum size and artistic splendor in the 15th and 16th century. Following the bloody British punitive expedition to Nigeria in 1897, about three thousand brass, ivory and wooden objects were consigned to the Western world. At the time, western scholars and artists were stunned by the quality and magnificence of these objects. The numerous brass heads and figures cast by Benin metalworkers were created for the royal palace, where a new oba would dedicate an altar to his predecessor. The heads were placed on the altars of kings, of brass caster corporation chiefs and dignitaries. Occasionally, a brass head was surmounted by a carved ivory tusk engraved with a procession of different obas. There were also bells and wooden rattle staffs. The altar functioned as a tribute to the deceased and a point of contact with his spirit. Using the bells and rattle stuffs to call the ancestor’s spirit, the oba offered sacrifices to him and to the earth on the altar. The majority of figures represented court officials, equestrian figures, queens, and roosters.  

During the British punitive expedition, more than 1,000 brass plaques were appropriated from the oba’s palace. Dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, these plaques were secreted in a storage room. It is thought that they were nailed to palace walls and pillars as a form of decoration or as references to protocol. They show the oba in full regalia along with his nobility, warriors and Portuguese traders. The most elaborate ones display a procession of up to nine people, while others depict only fish or birds.

The majority of everyday Benin objects were made for and associated with court ceremonies. The figures of a leopard were the sole property of the oba – the leopard was the royal animal. Pectorals, hip and waist ornaments in the shape of human or animal heads were worn either by the oba or by major dignitaries. Brass staffs and clippers surmounted by birds appeared during commemorating ceremonies.

Despite the disappearance of the Benin kingdom, the Yoruba people living on its territory continued to produce artwork inspired by the great royal art of Benin.

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