Altar Head for a Chief

A work made of wood and copper alloy.

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  • A work made of wood and copper alloy.

Date:

19th/early 20th century

Artist:

Edo, Court of Benin
Nigeria
Coastal West Africa

About this artwork

After death the obas (kings) of Benin are honored with altars that include stylized commemorative heads made of cast-copper alloy. This material has long been highly valued in Benin and until the early 20th century, it could only be used with permission of the oba. Important commoners have wood heads placed on their altars that are fashioned in a similar style to the royal commemorative heads. This wood head is embellished with decorative copper-alloy sheeting and would likely have been made for a high-ranking titleholder or chief loyal to the oba. There is a narrow cavity in the back designed to hold a wooden rod decorated with cowrie shells in imitation of the tall ivory tusks that rise from the commemorative heads of obas. The band of copper, pounded to appear as separate rows, likewise imitates the decorative bands encircling the oba commemorative heads, which reference the coral beads worn by actual obas as a symbol of divine leadership. The top of this head is crowned by a helmet patterned with alternating lines within a grid and a vertically projecting element on the left side. The figure’s face is relatively long and narrow, with full eyes and heavy lids, a wide nose and two parallel rows indicating a mouth.

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Arts of Africa

Artist

Edo

Title

Altar Head for a Chief

Origin

Nigeria

Date

1800–1925

Medium

Wood and copper alloy

Dimensions

H. approx. 30.5 cm (12 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Balint B. Denes from the Alexandra Collection

Reference Number

2007.387

Extended information about this artwork

Object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge. To help improve this record, please email .

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