May 19, 2014

At the Met: The Sensitive Sculpture of Benin

Queen Mother Pendant Mask:Iyoba; Nigeria, Kingdom of Benin, Edo peoples, 16th century; ivory; 
9 3/8 x 5 x 3 1/4 in. See hi-res images here.

The collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are so extensive and varied that I can always discover something that I hadn't noticed before. When I went to the gallery 352 containing African art during my last visit, I was struck by this small portrait head, so sensitively rendered and so powerful. The pendant mask of the Queen Mother has a perfect blend of naturalism, and simplification of form, realism and idealism, which makes the work seem of this world, yet transcends it. The warmth of the material, ivory, adds more life to the sculpture. I learned, on the Met's website, that for the Edo people ivory is "related to the color white, a symbol of ritual purity that is associated with Olokun, god of the sea." King Esigie honored his mother Idia with this portrait; it is a rare depiction of a woman in Benin's art.

Bracelet, Nigeria, Kingdom of Benin, Edo peoples, 16th century?; ivory, copper?;
5 1/8 x 3 9/16 in.

This long bracelet, which would have been worn by kings or chiefs at important festivals, is a inventive combination of figurative and abstract elements. Like the ivory mask above, its color white is related to the god of the sea. From the sea came the Portuguese, whose faces are stylized on this work, and on the crown of the Queen Mother above, along with mudfish, a symbol of the King's nature as human and divine, as they live on land and in the sea. The Portuguese brought wealth to the Kingdom of Benin with their trade, much of which was in ivory. 

Leopard, Nigeria, Kingdom of Benin, Edo peoples, late 17th-early 18th century; bronze;
15 1/2 x 5 x 15 11/16 in.

The artists of the Kingdom of Benin also had great sensitivity when depicting animals. This sleek leopard with his decorative spots stands solidly on his feet, his face alert and expectant.

Elephant, Republic of Benin, Kingdom of Danhomé, Fon peoples, 19th century; silver;
12 x 23 5/8 in. 

 The elephant is another elegantly rendered animal, made much later than the leopard and by a different culture. I love the heft of its body sweeping out to the line of the upturned trunk. In the extensive information on this work on the Met's website, I found out that the elephant is associated with Dahomey Kings Guezo and his son. The elephant is a symbol of "strength, royal legacy, and enduring memory". An object of silver carried with it power and prestige.

Staff, Republic of Benin, Kingdom of Danhomé, Fon peoples, 19th-20th century; silver.

Another silver work from the Kingdom of Dahomey (there are different spellings on the website and on the museum explanatory labels) is this intricately designed ceremonial staff. The rounded shape at its end seems to be a plant form, but there was no information about the work on the Met's website. Like the elephant, I can imagine that it has a symbolic meaning. With all the work I see from another time, another culture, I admire the beauty I see but I am also always interested to enlarge my understanding of their meaning.

Junior Court Official with Sword, Nigeria, Kingdom of Benin, Edo peoples, 16th-17th century; brass.

Warrior, Nigeria, Kingdom of Benin, Edo peoples, 16th-17th century; brass.

These lively plaques are part of what had been a large installation on the exterior of the extensive palace of the Kingdom of Benin in the 16th and 17th centuries. A 17th century Dutch visitor described wooden pillars in the palace complex being covered with them from top to bottom; there are 900 extant today. It must have been a remarkable sight, certainly as dramatic as a European castle wall covered with tapestries. The plaques pictured the various men who would be part of the court, singly or in groups, with their characteristic attire. Why is the warrior accompanied by fish? I don't know, but the arrangement of them on the surface, and of the medallions on the one above, show a care in the formal arrangement of shapes. I've always loved the medium of relief sculpture––you can see some examples in my blog post on relief sculpture at the Met––and these pieces are a strong part of that tradition.

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