Benin Kingdom, Nigeria
Pair of Leopards, 16th/18th century
left: 50 x 15 x 79 cm (19 5/8 x 31 1/8 x 5 7/8 in.); right: 49 x 14 x 77 cm (19 1/4 x 30 1/4 x 5 1/2 in.)
The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, 52.13.1-2
Leopards are among the most emblematic symbols of the oba. Respected for their beauty, intelligence, and predatory skills, they are considered the oba’s kingly counterpart in the wilderness. Emphasizing this connection, when an oba dies it is said “the leopard has returned to his lair.” Prior to the 20th century, the oba kept semi-domesticated leopards in the palace to demonstrate his mastery over an opposing realm. This exquisite pair may have stood on the altar of a deceased oba or may have been placed on either side of the oba’s throne. In Benin, such ritual pairing evokes the importance of spiritual balance.