Benin Brass Head of an Iyoba (Queen Mother) - LSO.570 (PF.4578)
Origin: Southcentral Nigeria
Circa: 18 th Century AD to 19 th Century AD
Dimensions: 14" (35.6cm) high x 7" (17.8cm) wide
Collection: African
Style: Benin
Medium: Brass


The vast majority of Benin’s artworks are designed to honour the achievements and/or memory of the Obas, the divine rulers of the Benin polities. Until the late 19th century, the Benin centres were a ruling power in Nigeria, dominating trade routes and amassing enormous wealth as the military and economic leaders of their ancient empire. This changed with the appearance of the British forces, which coveted the wealth of the royal palaces and found a series of excuses to mount a punitive expedition against the Oba’s forces in 1897. It was only at this point, the moment of its’ destruction, that the true achievements of the Benin polities became apparent to western scholars. The palaces were a sprawling series of compounds, comprising accommodation, workshops and public buildings. As it grew, the buildings pertaining to previous Obas were either partially refurbished or left in favour of newer constructions; this led to a long history of royal rule written in sculptural works that rank among the finest that African cultures have ever produced. The technology of bronze and copper smelting, ironworking and sculpting in a range of materials that particularly included ivory was extremely refined and effective; indeed, smelting, forging and cire perdue (lost wax) metalworking methods exceeded any seen in Europe until the 19th century. Brass or bronze Oba heads were made to honour the memory of a deceased king. Typically, the son of the dead king – the new Oba – would pay tribute to his father by erecting an altar in his memory. These altars, low platforms of mud that were arrayed around the perimeter of the royal courtyards, were decorated with various artefacts alluding to the Oba’s achievements in life. Further decorations included spears, statues, cast brass altars depicting the Oba and his followers, brass bells to awaken the spirits, rattle-staffs (ukhurhe) and magical objects that included Neolithic celts (known as “thunder stones”). In traditional Benin society, the queen mother (Iyoba) is also commemorated in this way, following a edict laid down by Oba Esigie in the early 16th century. The first wife of the Oba to give birth to a live male son receives this title, for in a divine kingship system she is as important as Mary is to Christians, or Amina to Muslims. In social terms, her duties usually include the running of an administrative area for her son. She was thus entitled to wear the exclusive coral-bead crown as shown here. In death, she is honoured in a manner similar to that of her husband/son, with a low mud platform bearing religious and magical paraphernalia, including heads such as the present example. The purpose of these items, incidentally, was to hold ivory tusks, hence the aperture at the apex. Iyoba heads can be differentiated from those of Obas by the forward-pointing “chickens beak” hairstyle which forms a shape known as the “ede Iyoba”. There are two major types – the thin-walled and delicate type that is usually deemed to be earlier, and the current, heavier type with a mouth-high cylindrical beaded collar that is associated with Oba head grades 4-5 of Dark’s monumental typology. This style has been dated to the 18th and early 19th centuries, along with various other metal artefacts such as roosters that were also placed on the altars. This piece may be said to be typical of the time. The face is more expressionistic than earlier models, with a highly prognathic lower section, disproportionately wide eyes with distinct rims, an aquiline nose with pierced nostrils and simple lips in a slight moue. The cheeks are stamped with <11 circular marks denoting scarifications, and the eyes show signs of originally having been inlaid. The forehead is adorned with eight pellets (scars) divided into two groups of four. The face, the back of the head and the ear are delineated by the bands of coral beads that hang down from the crown. The ears themselves are simplified crescent-dot motifs. Surmounting all this is the crown, comprising a raffia-like patterned surface with a superior spike, six-point stars in high relief at each temple, a central diadem that divides the forehead scars into two groups, and four bands of beads as previously mentioned. The anterior and posterior bands of beads are four and five rows wide, respectively. The aperture at the apex, designed to take the tusk (mounted on a peg) is worn, indicating some use. The neck collar is made up of about eighteen stepped bands, and the head sits on a rim cast to look like raffia twine. The piece is in excellent condition with no flaws and no restoration, and would take pride of place in any collection. - (LSO.570 (PF.4578))



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