palace plaque depicting warrior

 
Culture
Edo people
Culture
Benin Kingdom
Creation date
Materials
brass
Dimensions
21 1/8 x 14 3/4 x 3 in.
Credit line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Eiteljorg
Accession number
1989.845
Collection
Currently On View In
Eiteljorg Suite of African and Oceanic Art - W302

Plaques made by the "lost wax" process were once displayed within the palace complex at Benin City.  The subject matter of the plaques includes formally posed kings, chiefs, court attendants, leopards and other animals.  Unfortunately, it is very difficult to link a particular individual or historic event with a given plaque.

This plaque depicts an important military leader.  The ceremonial sword in his left hand; anklets; bracelets; and collar assembly of coral beads, leopard teeth and brass bell indicate rank.  The barbed spear in his right hand and the sheathed sword at his waist are typical weapons.  He wears a garment from which beads or bells are suspended.  His hat has leather or cloth side pieces and a front panel possibly of metal.

The background surface of this plaque is adorned with leaf patterns and circular designs; the side panels are covered with a pattern of interlacing curved lines.  The holes reveal the placement of nails to attach this plaque to a palace wall.  As is typical of Benin court art, the surface of this object is completely covered.

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Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

Benin plaques commemorate notable military or religious occasions and feature kings, court attendants, and warriors of the mighty African kingdom of Benin, which was founded more than a thousand years ago. Two-dimensional sculptures are rare in African art from south of the Sahara, and the idea may have been introduced as early as the late 1400s by the Portuguese. This example portrays a high-ranking officer with a ceremonial sword in his left hand, a spear in his right, and a sheathed sword at his waist. The intricate design of his collar suggests coral beads, jutting leopard teeth, and a broad brass bell, all symbols of rank. The plaque was cast using the lost-wax technique: a model in beeswax is covered with clay, allowed to dry, then heated to melt the wax away, leaving a space in which to pour the molten brass.

Benin political and religious life centered around the Oba, a divine king. Court art was also closely related to the king, who controlled the distribution of precious resources such as coral, ivory, and copper, known as the "red gold of Africa." (This plaque is brass, an alloy of copper and zinc.) From these mediums, artists fashioned ritual objects for the court, including wall plaques, staffs, bells, and pendants, in honor of the Oba and his realm.

[Benin City] is divided into many magnificent palaces, . . . from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles.
-17th-century Dutch visitor describing Benin City