This cast copper-alloy bracelet or cuff is distinguished by gilding, a decorative technique that is rare in Benin court arts and limited mostly to small objects such as pendants, bells, bracelets and hip masks. While cylindrical bracelets in ivory were reserved for the king or oba, those made of metal would have been worn by a lower-ranking chiefs when attending palace and public events. However, the presence of gilding on this example would likely have distinguished the wearer as a sub-chief of considerable importance.
The motifs adorning this bracelet have a distinctly local symbolic value, despite the depictions of Portuguese heads that alternate with representations of intertwined mudfish. Both are Edo symbols associated with Olokun who, in the Edo pantheon, is the eldest son of the creator god Osanobua. Olokun resides in a watery realm and is associated with wealth and fertility; the oba or king is his human counterpart and a mediator between the secular and the sacred. In a 1990 publication, art historian Kathy Curnow noted that the Portuguese, who traveled by sea and brought wealth in the form of luxury trade goods, were "a logical extension of the traditional belief system" surrounding Olokun, "the oba's spiritual counterpart who possessed and distributed riches." When rendered on plaques, bracelets, pendants and tusks, the Portuguese are usually identified by their long hair and sixteenth-century European garb, including a rounded helmet or a tall brimmed hat.
The mudfish also depicted on this bracelet is associated with power and the watery realm of Olokun. In a 1987 publication, art historian Bryna Freyer noted that, depending on the species, a mudfish can deliver an electrical charge, walk on dry land, or survive long periods of drought by burrowing into the muddy banks of streams and rivers. It serves as an appropriate symbol for the protective, aggressive and transformative powers of the king. Freyer also noted that in juxtaposing mudfish and Portuguese imagery on plaques, armlets and pendants, Edo brasscasters employed a similar visual vocabulary in rendering the barbels, fins and tails of the fish and the mustaches, beards and hairstyles of the Portuguese, furthering strengthening their related functions as symbols relating to Olokun.
Cylindrical cuff bracelet with alternating relief images of Portuguese heads and paired opposing mudfish heads. The ends are edged in a cord design. Overall traces of gilding.
James Hooper, England
Hooper estate, sold 1976
Currents: Water in African Art, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., June 2016-ongoing
Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries, National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., June 23-September 16, 2007; Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles
For Spirits and Kings: African Art from the Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1981
Levenson, Jay A. (ed). 2007. Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, p. 162, no. A-15.
Vogel, Susan (ed). 1981. For Spirits and Kings: African Art from the Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 130, no. 73.