Edo, Court of Benin
Nigeria
Oba's Altar Tusk
1850/1888

Ivory
150.5 x 195.6 x 12.7 cm (59 1/4 x 77 x 5 in.)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Hokin, 1976.523

The Kingdom of Benin (established about 1300) is located in the tropical rain forests of southern Nigeria. The oba, or king, is the central figure in the kingdom and is considered a divine ruler, descended from the son of a god. He provides a link between the human and spiritual realms and has the power to influence natural and supernatural forces that affect the well-being of the Edo people, the largest ethnic group in the kingdom. Since at least the 18th century, carved elephant tusks such as this one have been displayed on royal altars mounted atop brass heads, signaling the oba’s relationship to his ancestors. In the past, every new oba commissioned unique sets of brass heads and ivory tusks to commemorate his father and grandfathers. This practice abruptly ended in 1897 with the British conquest of the Benin kingdom. At that time, the reigning oba was sent into exile, and the kingdom was incorporated into the growing colonial territories of the British Empire. In 1914 the British allowed the new oba, whose father had died in exile, to return to the kingdom to be enthroned. He reestablished many important traditions, including the construction of royal altars.

Like most altar tusks, this example, which was commissioned by Oba Adolo (who reigned from 1850 to 1888) to honor his grandfather, is covered in relief sculpture depicting past obas, palace priests, warriors and officials, foreigners, and symbols of royalty and power. The figure of a mudfish appears several times. This catfish-like creature found in the rivers of southern Nigeria is often linked to the mystical powers of the oba. One species can give a powerful electric shock that is associated with the oba’s terrifying power over his enemies. Other types of mudfish are known for their ability to survive on land as well as in the water. The ability to exist in two worlds is also appropriate to the oba, who as a divine king is at once part of the human and spiritual realms.

The obas of the 18th and 19th centuries had a virtual monopoly on ivory, since they were entitled to one tusk from every elephant slain in the kingdom. In addition to being a valuable trade commodity, ivory was also an ideal medium for expressing the authority, spiritual power, and wealth of Benin’s ruler. Ivory recalls the wisdom, strength, and long life of the elephant, an important symbol of royal authority.

View tusk diagram.

Edo, Court of Benin
Nigeria
Plaque of a War Chief
16th/17th century

Brass
33.9 x 28.8 x 4.7 cm (13 3/8 x 11 3/8 x 1 7/8 in.)
Samuel P. Avery Fund, 1933.782

Like ivory, brass and coral have long been highly valued in the Benin kingdom. At one time all such materials were owned by the oba, who distributed them to chiefs, title holders, and other important individuals. The warrior in this brass plaque, one of many from the magnificent royal palace complex in Benin City that was destroyed by fire in 1897, wears a coral-studded cap and a coral-beaded collar, indications of his high rank. His necklace is embellished with leopard’s teeth, which signify strength and ferocious power. He holds a ceremonial sword, a gesture of loyalty to the oba. The raised horseshoe shape in the upper lefthand corner of the plaque represents a copper or brass ring, called a manilla, which were manufactured in Europe and used as a form of currency. When melted, manillas provided an important source of brass for Benin royal casting.

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