Altar Head of an Iyoba (Uhunmwun Elao)

Zoom image
Email to a friend
Print this page

Benin Kingdom, Nigeria

Altar Head of an Iyoba (Uhunmwun Elao), 16th century

H. 51 cm (20 1/8 in.)
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, III C 12507

In the early 16th century, Oba Esigie initiated the title of iyoba, or queenmother, to honor his mother, Idia. This exquisitely rendered head is believed to commemorate an early iyoba. It is the work of a highly accomplished brass caster, who was a master of the idealized naturalism that marked the époque. The iyoba wears a netted coral cap over her “chicken’s beak” hairstyle. Iron inserts (now missing) at the brow express her strong will. Four fish embellish the base, suggesting the role of the sea god, Olokun, in bringing wealth and power to the kingdom.