Benin Empire, 16th-17th century
The National Museum of African Art
"According to local court histories and the accounts of early-17th century Dutch travelers, the oba or king of Benin covered the piers of his palace courtyard with hundreds of plaques such as this. As a sheer display of wealth and power, this act would rival covering the White House with gold from Fort Knox. But more than excess, it reveals aspects of artistic technique, local history and a society in which art was essential. Today, some 900 plaques survive in public and private collections, but there is no documentation to indicate how they once were arranged. After 1700, travelers’ accounts do not mention the plaques, and an 1897 British military force found them in a palace storehouse. A few plaques show narrative scenes, such as battles and hunts; some depict symbolic animals; most, like this example, have one, two or more male figures in court regalia.
Benin art served as both a sign of status and a record of court life. The oba, nobles, officials and attendants were depicted on various objects, including plaques. Costumes and regalia indicated their relative position in the court hierarchy. The warriors on this plaque carry swords and short bows and wear headdresses made from imported horsetail. According to early accounts, horsetail headdresses symbolized military authority and were worn by war chiefs. Fanning out in low relief behind the heads, the horsetail is sculpted in a manner similar to Benin depictions of European hair or the fins and tails of the mudfish, a symbolically significant animal. Both Europeans and the mudfish are associated with Olokun, the god of the waters and bringer of wealth.
Benin art emphasizes patterns and texture; empty space is avoided. A background pattern of quatrefoil “river leaves” is typical of most Benin plaques. Symbolically the background design is another reference to Olokun, who is linked with the oba and wealth, and to the oba’s monopoly on foreign trade. Artistically the loose, freehand quality of the linear foliate motif contrasts with the formal pose, frontality and high relief of the figures. The well-defined musculature of the legs on this plaque is unusual and may be the style of a particular artist.
This recurring emphasis on wealth and foreign trade leads back to the most basic and blatant of symbols, the metal itself. The most obvious effect of Benin’s overseas trade with Europe was a dramatic increase in the availability of copper and brass. European ingots and imported metal trade goods provided the raw material that was transformed into royal Benin art by metal casters who worked solely for the oba.”