The Art of the Personal Object

Benin Palace Ancestral Altar, dedicated to Oba Ovonramwen, Benin City, Nigeria
photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

Once a powerful city-state, Benin exists today as a modern African city in what is now south-central Nigeria. The present-day oba of Benin traces the founding of his dynasty to A.D. 1300. In the late 1400s, a flourishing and wealthy royal court was in place, with a palace harboring a vast compound where metalsmiths, carvers and others created objects for the king and his court. The casting of brass was an art controlled by the king himself; anyone found casting brass without royal permission faced execution.

The Edo--the people of Benin--associated brass, which resists corrosion, with the permanence and continuity of kingship. Fundamental to Edo belief, as well, was the veneration of ancestors, whose spirits were thought to protect the living. Cast commemorative heads of deceased kings were displayed on altars at numerous shrines in the royal palace.

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