Today one of Benin’s most celebrated artistic masterpieces, rectangular plaques were originally crafted by a guild of craftsmen who worked exclusively for the Oba, Benin’s absolute monarch in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This particular piece depicts the lively scene of a chief flanked by two warriors on their way to honor the Oba. The marginally present Portuguese soldiers seen in the background speak to Benin’s heightened military power and economic prosperity following European contact. J.W. and M.J.
Reliquary Guardian Figures
These female and male reliquary guardian figures originated in Cameroon or Gabon, West Africa. Carved around 1850, they speak to the Pangwe sculptor group's renowned sculptural mastery and demonstrate how cultural beliefs manifest in artistic forms. After an extended finishing process they were most likely mounted on bark boxes (bieri) that contained bone and other relics from honored family members or defeated enemies. The bieri were kept in the men’s council house and access was restricted to male heads of households. The figures, which received offerings and heard a wide range of pleas, were intentionally designed to embody both adult and infantile features of vitality that symbolize the Fang ancestral cult’s focus on fertility and generational growth. M.A.
These two whistle finials’ fine carving and composition unite sculptural mastery with practical application. Originally belonging to prominent males of different cults in Western Zaire, whistle finials of this nature were endowed with magical powers to protect their owner and ward off dangerous spirits. M.J.
Large, Carved Black Ladle
This carved food ladle is attributed to a renowned Kran sculptor nicknamed Zlan or Sra, or “god,” out of respect for his numerous artistic accomplishment. The great scoop’s elaborate design and impressive size speak to its social value as well as artistic merit. Crafted by farmers on the Ivory Coast and Liberia, large spoons of this variety were given to the village’s most hospitable woman or “wunkirle.” Beyond the spoon’s practicle function of ladling out rice at feasts, this symbol of female beauty represented the spirit that assisted the wunkirle in her role as an industrious and gracious entertainer. M.A.
Benin Ivory Figure
This stunning figure was carved by a special guild of artists specifically for use by members of Benin’s royal court. In this court society that valued costuming and presentation, this female sculpture’s decorative nudity suggests a specific social and ritual role. Along with her original ornamentation and scarification, her scorched base may offer interesting evidence that she was present in the court during the damaging fire of 1897 that followed a punitive British attack. J.W.
Small Fetish Figure
This figure shares aesthetic similarities with the fetish figure from Surinam (see South American masterpieces), characteristic of fetish figures carved in the area around the mouth of the Zaire River. Such figures were endowed with magically meaningful paraphernalia during ritual initiations. Their powers were then evoked for both personal gain and enemy detriment. The two figures’ early date of collection adds to their value as guides to African art and their surprising similarity enlightens discussions of cultural transmigration. M.A.