Edo, Court of Benin

Altar Head for an Oba (Uhunmwun Elao), 18th/early 19th century

H. 32.4 cm (12 3/4 in.)
Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment, 2003.16

Altar Head for an Oba (Uhunmwun Elao)

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This commanding brass head served as the elaborate pedestal for a sculpted elephant tusk. It was commissioned by a newly enthroned oba to stand on an altar commemorating a previous oba, probably his father. The oba of Benin rules by divine right and is the channel through which his deified royal ancestors vitalize and protect the kingdom. In Benin, the head is a prominent symbol that refers to a person's ability to move successfully through life and to become a productive ancestor. This head's high, beaded collar and netlike cap depict an oba's coral regalia.

— Descriptive text

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

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

Ownership History

Dr. Hans Meyer (died 1929), Leipzig, Germany, from 1900 [Receipt from Jacques Seligmann and Company in curatorial file]; by descent to Mrs. Hans Meyer, 1929; sold to Jacques Seligmann and Company, New York, N.Y., 1933; sold to Mrs. George W. Crawford (née Annie Laurie; married Russell B. Aitken, 1957; died 1984), 1940; by descent to Russell B. Aitkens, 1984; sold, Christie’s, New York, April 3, 2003, sale 1278 (The Russell B. Aitken Collection of African, American Indian, and Oceanic Art), lot 62, to the Art Institute.