During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a remarkable series of cast brass plaques were created to adorn the exterior of the royal palace in Benin City. A seventeenth-century Dutch visitor to the court of Benin, Olfert Dapper, described the sprawling palace complex—with its many large courtyards and galleries—as containing wooden pillars covered from top to bottom with rectangular cast brass plaques. These plaques are understood to have autonomous meaning and to tell complex narratives in relationship to one another.
The authors of such works were far more concerned with the communication of hierarchies and status than in capturing individual physical features. These plaques conform to a convention of “hierarchical proportions,” wherein the largest figure is the one with the greatest authority and rank.
In this example, a warrior chief is in the center, flanked on either side by attendants and soldiers of lesser importance. Regalia and symbols of status are emphasized above all other aspects of the subject. For example, the warrior is shown with leopard-spot scarification marks and a leopard-tooth necklace, which associate him with the stealth, speed, and ferocity of the leopard. As “king of the bush,” the leopard is one of the principle symbols of Benin kingship. Additionally, the warrior chief wears a coral-studded helmet and collar, a lavish wrap, and a brass ornament on his hip. In his left hand he carries a ceremonial sword, a gesture of honor and loyalty, and holds a spear in his other hand.
Date: 16th–17th century
Geography: Nigeria, Court of Benin
Culture: Edo peoples
Dimensions: H. 18 3/4 in. (47.6 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1990
Accession Number: 1990.332