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Commemorative Head

A work made of terracotta.
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • A work made of terracotta.


Probably mid–17th/mid–18th century


Edo, Court of Benin
Coastal West Africa

About this artwork

Benin brass-casters traditionally make commemorative heads in both terracotta and brass. This terracotta head is distinguished by its fleshy, idealized facial features, scarification patterns above each eye, stylized hairstyle—arranged in a series of horizontal rows—and snuggly worn beaded collar. The fullness of the cheeks is best perceived from a profile view, and the delicate modeling of the eyes, nose, and lips testifies to the sensitivity and skill of the artist.

In the Kingdom of Benin, in southeastern Nigeria, the creation and display of ancestral commemorative heads is an ancient practice extending back to the first dynasty, before the 14th century. The heads were made of different materials to suit the varied political and social status of their owners. Sometime after the 14th century royal commemorative heads were cast in brass; however, oral tradition suggests that terracotta heads adorned royal altars at an earlier time. More recently, terracotta heads have functioned to commemorate important members of the brass-casters’ guild, adorning their ancestral altars.

Like the brass commemorative heads, this terracotta head has a hole on the crown. In the case of the brass heads, this hollowed-out space served to hold an ivory tusk, a symbol of royal prestige and power. Although it has been suggested that the holes on the terracotta heads served the same function, this seems unlikely given the fragility of terracotta and the exclusive royal claim for ivory.


Currently Off View


Arts of Africa




Commemorative Head


Nigeria (Object made in)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.





24.1 × 15.2 × 18.4 cm (9 1/2 × 6 × 7 1/4 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Richard Faletti, the Faletti Family Collection

Reference Number


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Extended information about this artwork

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