Since approximately 1300 C.E., an oba, or king, and his court have governed a kingdom of Edo-speaking peoples from Benin City, the capital, located in what is today Nigeria. Within the kingdom, specialized artists belonged to guilds with hereditary membership and worked solely for the oba. Even today, the current oba, Ewuare II N’Odigigan, employs royal artists to produce the courtly arts of bronze casting and ivory carving.
Royal arts from the court of Benin are a particular strength in the museum’s collection and serve to educate visitors about the rich history and sophisticated artistic traditions of the kingdom. Over the years, the museum has ensured that Benin kingdom artworks in the collection are accessible to scholars and the general public alike through our exhibitions, publications, archives, and online collections database. Museum staff work closely with the court of Benin, which remains a powerful political and religious force in contemporary Nigeria.
Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria
Commemorative head of a king
Copper alloy, iron
33 x 23.5 x 23.2 cm (13 x 9 1/4 x 9 1/8 in.)
Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn to the Smithsonian Institution in 1979, 85-19-16
CURATORIAL RESEARCH | Head of state. Although once displayed on an altar honoring a particular oba, or king, this head is not a specific portrait but an image of the status and regalia of kingship. Particular emphasis is given to the collar and crown that would be made of imported coral beads, a royal privilege.