About This Artwork

Edo, Court of Benin

Oba's Altar Tusk, 1850/1888

150.5 x 195.6 x 12.7 cm (59 1/4 x 77 x 5 in.)

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin E. Hokin, 1976.523

Ivory's white color evokes spiritual harmony for the Edo; thus, its presence enhances an altar's sanctity. Ivory’s important role as a commodity controlled by the oba also made it attractive for use on royal altars. Since the 18th century, oba’s altars have been embellished with matched pairs of carved elephant tusks, reflecting the increase in ivory’s value at that time. The tusks were anchored on brass commemorative heads. Oba Adolo commissioned this tusk in the mid-19th century for the altar of his father, Oba Osemwende. The iconography, which prominently features the fish-legged oba motif, honors the 15th-century ruler Oba Ewuare.

— Descriptive special exhibition text, Benin: Kings and Rituals

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Art Institute of Chicago, Heads of State, Seats of Power, September 2–November 7, 1995.

Museum fur Volkerkunde, Vienna (organizer), Benin –Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, May 9–September 3, 2007; traveled to Paris, Musee du quai Branly, Oct. 2, 2007–Jan. 6, 2008, Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen, Feb. 7–May 25, 2008, Art Institute of Chicago, July 10-Sept. 21, 2008.

Publication History

Evan Maurer, "A Carved Ivory Tusk from Benin," Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 71, 3 (1976), pp. 6–9.

Art Institute of Chicago, Telling Stories in Art: The Story of the Exhibition and How It Was Created (Art Institute of Chicago, 1997), pp. 54–61.

Barbara Winston Blackmun, "Icons and Emblems in Ivory: An Altar Tusk from the Palace of Old Benin," African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 23, 2 (1997), pp. 148–163, no. 24, figs. 6–8, 10–12 (ill.).

Ownership History

Oba Ovonrramwen (died 1914), Benin City, Kingdom of Benin, before 1897. Mr. Edwin Hokin (died 1990) and Mrs. Grace E. Hokin (died 2009), Chicago, Ill., by 1970; given to the Art Institute, 1976.

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