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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.


19th/early 20th century


Edo, Court of Benin
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




Altar Head for a Chief


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.



Wood and copper alloy


Approx: H.: 30.5 cm (12 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Balint B. Denes from the Alexandra Collection

Reference Number


Extended information about this artwork

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