Plaque of a War Chief

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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

Ivory, brass and coral have long been highly valued in the Benin kingdom (established about 1300). At one time all such materials were owned by the oba, or king, 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 high coral-beaded collar, indications of his high rank. The raised horseshoe shape in the upper left corner of the plaque represents a copper or brass ring, called a manilla. Manillas manufactured in Europe were used as a form of currency and, when melted, provided an important source of brass for Benin royal casting.

— Descriptive text

Capitalizing on the influx of brass resulting from coastal trade in the 16th century, Oba Esigie (r. c. 1504–49) commissioned his royal brass casters to make plaques to decorate his palace. The plaques commemorated historic and mythic events and recorded court hierarchy and ritual. A Dutch traveler reported seeing Benin’s palace decorated with plaques in the mid-17th century, but they had been taken down by the 18th century. On this plaque, a war chief, identifiable by his leopard’s tooth necklace, holds a ceremonial sword aloft.

— Permanent collection label

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Houston, Texas, Museum of Fine Arts, Benin Exhibition, Sept. 21–November 17, 1968, cat. 19.

New Orleans, La., Delgado Museum, January 30, 1969.

Vienna, Museum fur Völkerkunde, Benin–Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, May 9–Sept. 3, 2007, cat. p. 241 (ill); traveled to Paris, Musée du quai Branly, Oct. 2, 2007–Jan. 6, 2008; Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Feb. 7–May 25, 2008; Art Institute of Chicago, July 10–Sept. 21, 2008.

Publication History

Helen MacKenzie, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, vol. 28, no.2 (Feb.1934), pp. 19–20 (ill.).

Allen Wardwell, Primitive Art in the Collections of the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago, 1965), pl. 47.

Melville Herskovits, The Backgrounds of African Art (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1967), p. 24 (ill.).

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, "African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago," African Arts, vol. 32, no. 4 (Winter 1999), p. 24, fig. 8.

Ownership History

Oba Ovonrramwen (died 1914), Benin City, 1888; taken [British “Punitive Expedition”], by George W. Neville (died 1929), London, 1897; by descent to his heirs, 1929; sold, Foster and Foster, London, May 1, 1930, lot 53, to Ernest Ascher (died early 1970s), Paris. Ladislas Szecsi (died 1988), Paris, by 1933; sold to the Art Institute, 1933.