H x W x D: 23.2 x 15.9 x 20 cm (9 1/8 x 6 1/4 x 7 7/8 in.)
Benin, Edo State, Nigeria
Late 15th-early 16th century
The rulers of the ancient Benin Kingdom exercised a monopoly over the use of copper alloy, and the majority of sculptures made of it once were displayed within the palace--atop altars, attached to piers or as regalia. Coral beads were a similar royal prerogative, worn as crown jewels and allocated to others in the court. This representation of a male head with beads totally covering the neck would seem to have a royal association, but the tight-fitting collar differs from the looser style shown on images of Benin kings. The substitution of an elaborate but unadorned hairstyle for a beaded crown also separates this individual from Benin royals. This style of head is probably a trophy head representing a powerful defeated enemy. A foreigner is suggested by the four raised scars over each eye, which are generally explained as denoting someone who is not Edo; most depictions of Edo men show three scars over each eye. This identification is in keeping with present oral tradition maintained by a chief of the Benin casters' guild, who avows that his guild cast trophy heads of the most stubborn defeated enemies. Iron inlay in the eyes and forehead signifies strength of character, just as the English cliché "steely eyes" denotes determination or a "furrowed brow" signifies deep thought. The depiction of a worthy, yet beaten, enemy reinforces belief in the awesome magical and military powers of the Benin king. He triumphs where ordinary beings would fail.
This piece displays the caster's technical skill in the lost-wax method as shown by its uniform thickness, the clear detailing of the hair and beads, and a general absence of casting flaws such as cracks, holes or flanges. The maker not only was adept in modeling the original form but ably constructed a mold over it that yielded a sculpture that did not require filing or post-casting repairs. This is particularly remarkable because of the high copper content of the head (tested at 94.4 percent). Copper lends itself to hammering in its pure form, but to pour and mold it easily requires alloying it with other metals.
Naturalistic human head with circular opening in the top of the tiered twisted-strand hairstyle. A beaded collar covers the neck and two vertical iron inlay lines adorn the forehead over the nose with four raised keloids over each eye.
Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, Farnharm, Dorset, -- to 1900
Pitt-Rivers estate, 1900
Private collection, New York, -- to 1982
African Mosaic: Selections from the Permanent Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 19, 2013–August 12, 2019 (installed August 6, 2014 to August 12, 2019)
Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries, National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., June 23-September 16, 2007; Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles
Treasures, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 17, 2004-August 15, 2005
Images of Power and Identity: The Ancient West African City of Benin, A.D. 1300-1897, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 28, 1987-June 1, 2004
Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., October 12, 1991-January 12, 1992
The Ancient West African City of Benin, A.D. 1300-1897, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 28, 1987-June 1, 2004
History, Context, Materials: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 12, 1985-January 5, 1986
Arnoldi, Mary Jo and Christine Mullen Kreamer. 1995. Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, p. 13, no. 1.3.
Freyer, Bryna. 1987. Royal Benin Art in the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, p. 21, no. 1.
Hornbeck, Stephanie E. 2009. "A Conservation Conundrum: Ephemeral Art at the National Museum of African Art." African Arts 42 (3), p. 57, no. 10a-b.
Koslow, Philip. 1996. Benin: Lords of the River. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, p. 26.
Levenson, Jay A. (ed). 2007. Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 160-161, no. A-14.
Moffett, Dana L. 1996. "Wax Coatings on Ethnographic Metal Objects: Justifications for Allowing a Tradition to Wane." Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35, pp. 2-3, 6, nos. 1-4.
Nash, Gary B., et al. 2009. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. London: Pearson.
National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 80, no. 52.
Neumann, Erich. 1963. The Great Mother, an analysis of the archetype. New York: Bollingen Foundation; Pantheon Books, pl.19
Park, Edwards. 1983. Treasures of the Smithsonian. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, p. 395.
Patton, Sharon F. 2004. Treasures: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. Folio.
Pitt-Rivers, Augustus.  1976. Antique Works of Art from Benin. [London] New York: Dover, p. 15, nos. 88-89.
Robbins, Warren M. and Nancy I. Nooter. 1989. African Art in American Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, p. 214, no. 552.