Nok c500BCE-200CE
Ife 1100-1300 CE
Benin Art c1400-1800 CE
"Once a powerful city-state, Benin exists today as a modern African city in what is now south-central Nigeria. The present-day oba of Benin traces the founding of his dynasty to A.D. 1300. In the late 1400s, a flourishing and wealthy royal court was in place, with a palace harboring a vast compound where metalsmiths, carvers and others created objects for the king and his court. The casting of brass was an art controlled by the king himself; anyone found casting brass without royal permission faced execution.

The Edo--the people of Benin--associated brass, which  resists corrosion, with the permanence and continuity of kingship. Fundamental to Edo belief, as well, was the veneration of ancestors, whose spirits were thought to protect the living. Cast commemorative heads of deceased kings were displayed on altars at numerous shrines in the royal palace. "

Nok Culture c500 BCE - 200 CE
Nok Head 500BCE - 200CE terracotta 14 in

The following is quoted from

In 1928 a tin miner working near the town of Nok, in central Nigeria, discovered a ceramic sculpture fragment in a previously unknown style. In succeeding decades, hundreds of such fragments were discovered in tin-bearing gravel deposits, often 25 feet or more below the modern surface level. Radiocarbon and thermo-luminescence tests (used, respectively, to date organic materials and ceramics) have confirmed that the Nok terracottas were made between 600 BC and AD 250. 

In 1994 the museum acquired an exceptionally large and well-preserved Nok head that was probably once part of a nearly life-size seated figure posed with knees drawn up and chin resting on a forearm. In style, the head belongs to a group characterized by exaggerated length and a large rounded forehead that tapers gradually to a small chin. A similarly shaped head with a moustache was uncovered in 1951 on the grounds of a school in Atsina Ala, in the southern portion of the Nok style's known range.

While the surfaces of most Nok sculptures have been badly eroded by moisture, the museum's head is in excellent condition. The original surface of the face is largely intact, preserving the appearance of taut, shiny skin. The artist rendered the facial features with great sensitivity, from the graceful sweep of the nose to the lips, which are parted slightly to reveal the teeth. The large, contemplative eyes have delicate indentations on the rims to indicate lashes; the gently curved brows are similarly indented. A triangular area of tattooing or scarification is preserved on one cheek; only traces of similar markings remain on the opposite side of the face. The jaunty tilt of the textured cap enhances the work's subtle asymmetry and adds to its liveliness. Remarkably, the hair extending below the cap is modeled in the form of fingers that cover the ears.

Like most Nok ceramics, the head was shaped by hand from a coarse-grained clay. After some drying, the sculpture was covered with slip (a suspension of fine clay and water) and burnished to produce a smooth, glossy surface. The head is hollow, with several openings to facilitate thorough drying and even firing. The firing process probably resembled that used today in Nigeria, in which ceramic pieces are covered with grass, twigs, and leaves and burned for about two hours. Successful firing of a large ceramic sculpture requires considerable technical mastery. 

Unfortunately, little is yet known of the original functions and meanings of Nok ceramic sculptures. Some, with human or animal figures posed atop a dome-shaped base, may have served as finials for the roofs of dwellings, shrines, or tombs. Others could portray ancestors, for, by honoring the dead, the living may have hoped to prevent problems such as crop failure, infertility, or bad health. The specific meaning of Cleveland's Nok head, on view in gallery 241, will probably always remain a mystery. Yet with its bold modeling and sensitive expression, this work communicates very directly across the millenia, a testament to the power and antiquity of African art.

Margaret Young-Sanchez, Associate Curator of Art of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania

Nok is sub-Sarahan Africa's earliest known sculptural tradition. Ceramics like this almost life-size head are approximately contemporary with works created in ancient Egypt during the Late Dynastic, Ptolemaic, and Roman periods (600 BC-AD 250, terracotta, h. 34 cm, Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund 1995.21)

The following is quoted from:
Nok Culture

Nigeria is part of the Central Sudanic Stylistic Region. Nigeria is unusual in that its modern-day inhabitants either settled there very early in its history or adapted to the long established traditions they found there. The first objects connected to the early Nok culture were discovered on the site of a tin mine. They were identified as Nok by the archaeologist Bernard Fagg in 1943. Radiocarbon dating has place the original pieces to between 500 BC and AD 200. Terra-cotta sculptures from c.600 BC to AD 200, associated with the Nok culture, have been unearthed over a 300-mile stretch of uplands in the southern part of the region. The Nok tradition represents the earliest known sculpture yet found in sub-Saharan Africa and seems to have paved the way for the tradition of superb portrait terra-cottas and bronzes that later developed at the holy city of Ife in western Nigeria. The art of Ife in turn inspired and stimulated the later Benin and Yoruba artforms.

The pieces of sculpture associated with the Nok culture seem to represent a mature, developed style. They show none of the traces of tentativeness usually associated with a beginning phase of an artistic tradition but rather a stylistic unity characteristic of an established one.

The styles to be found in the art of the Nok swings between an almost abstract stylization to that of a more naturalistic mode. This head exhibit naturalism but in a minimal fashion. It is the earliest example in Africa of human figural sculpture on a scale approaching life-size. From the nature of their breaks near the neck many of the head seem to have been part of or destined to be part of a body. Looking to later cultures such as the Benin where naturalistic modeled bronze heads were part of royal ancestral altars it could be hypothesized that these heads might have been part of the art objects connected with royalty and the worship of the ancestors. As of now there is insufficient evidence to do more than hypothesize from later cultures that developed in Nigeria.
Modern Day Zaire, King in Full Regalia

Title: Fante (Ashante) chief
(with cermonial sword, crown,
and bente cloth, being carried 
on a palanquin)
Date: c. 1930's
Location: Ghana


African peoples have also long developed social stuctures of state and authority, constituting an aristocracy and royal court. As in Europe, such power structures are marked by displays of both literal and symbolic power. For instance, since the early 18th century rule of Osei Tutu, the Asante people of modern Ghana have invested the image of the small chair (formerly an item of individual prestige), with national identity as a throne. A special Golden Stool, said to have descended directly forom the heavans to Osei Tutu's lap, is still carried in procession and imbues a sense of national consciousness. Members of the royal court are each announced by their own side-blown horns (which being made from animal horns have their own particular voice or sound) and each has a golden crown and secpter, and their own weave to the luxurious robes of Kente cloth (figure 13). Traditional symbols of authority and economic power is also projected by the ceremonial costume of the Kuba people (figure 16). The king sits elevated on a dias, and is veritably swathed skins of the supreme killer since ancient Egypt, the leopard. He holds a sword and lance, human counterparts to the physical aggression of the leopard. The mottled pattern of the skins also pun visually on cowrie shells, used in much of the continent as money. Nature's powers are alluded to in ram's hair and potent leaves; a crown with white feathers shoots upward to the celestial realms, invoking the invisible powers that reside there, too.

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Ife, Oba Figure 10th-12thC 
bronze/brass 18in
The Ife and Benin Cultures

Benin was originally a city but is now the capital of the Edo people.
Edo and Benin are often interchangable terms.
The Ife were probably the ancestors or even the same people as the Benin.

The Creation Legend of the Ife according to the Modern Day Yoruba

  • At Ife, the high god, Olorun, let his son Oduduwa down from heaven on a chain.
  • He had with him a handfull of earth, a palm nut, and a five toed cockeral.
  • Bird spread earth, he plants seeds and the world begins.

  • The branches represent Yoruba families.

    The Legend revised by the Benin and Yoruba

    • Benin is founded by the Ife but there is fighting over who will rule.
    • King Oduduwa of Ife sends his son Oranmiyan son to resolve the dispute.
    • Oranmiyan married a Benin woman and their son is named Euware.
    • Euware becomes the King (Oba).
    • Euware is therefore responsible for bringing the metalworking technique from Ife.

    • "bronze" is actually brass (copper/zinc alloy)

Is African Art primitive?  Historians have debated for much of the last century whether or not so called "tribal" or "non-technological" cultures are primitive.  Here's how Webster's defines "primitive."

prim.i.tive adj [ME primitif, fr. L primitivus first formed, fr. primitiae first fruits, fr. primus first--more at prime] (14c) 1 a: not derived: original, primary b: assumed as a basis; esp: axiomatic <~ concepts> 2 a: of or relating to the earliest age or period: primeval <the ~ church> b: closely approximating an early ancestral type: little evolved <~ mammals> c: belonging to or characteristic of an early stage of development: crude, rudimentary <~ technology> d: of, relating to, or constituting the assumed parent speech of related languages <~ Germanic> 3 a: elemental, natural <our ~ feelings of vengeance --John Mackwood> b: of, relating to, or produced by a people or culture that is nonindustrial and often nonliterate and tribal <~ art> c: naive d (1): self-taught, untutored <~ craftsmen> (2): produced by a self-taught artist <a ~ painting> -- adv -- prim.i.tive.ness n -- prim.i.tiv.i.ty n ²primitive n (15c) 1 a: something primitive; specif: a primitive idea, term, or proposition b: a root word 2 a (1): an artist of an early period of a culture or artistic movement (2): a later imitator or follower of such an artist b (1): a self-taught artist (2): an artist whose work is marked by directness and naivete c: a work of art produced by a primitive artist d: a typically rough or simple usu. handmade and antique home accessory or furnishing 3 a: a member of a primitive people b: an unsophisticated person

If you look at these definitions, however, you will find that the Ife and Benin do not really fit into these classifications and this has been the cause for much debate.  Part of the debate comes from ideas such as Linda Nochlin's, that we call people's primitive in order to grant ourselves permission to exploit them or look down on them.

Greek, Archaic, 
Kouros Figure c600 BCE

Greek, Classic,
Polykleitos, Doryphoros c450BCE

Greek, Late Hellenistic, 
Praxiteles, Hermes and Dionysos c340BCE
Another part of the debate comes from Europeans' mistaken notion that African Art has not eveolved yet and that it is unsophisticated.  For example, Ernst Gombrich (in his original theory of "schema and correction" believed that as art evolved it became more and more realistic (as in the Greek example at left.) 

However, if you look at the Benin art below, it evolves over time into a much more abstract and iconic form of representation.  This choice, to become more symbolic and less representational over time is a very sophisticated idea that parallels the developments in European and American Art during the late 19th and mid 20th Centuries.


Ife 13th Century

Benin 14th-15th Century

Benin 15th-16th Century

Benin 17th-19th Centuries

The rulers of Benin, Obas, were often commemorated by their sons, the heirs to their royal seat, with brass or copper heads. This particular figure is representative of the royal heads of the middle period (mid-16th to late 17th century), which are progressively more ornate than the heads of the previous period. These heads are symbolic rather than naturalistic, and very stylized, portraying the Oba in full regalia. The lattice-work beaded crown and coral beaded collar rising to the mouth of the Oba are stylistic qualities suggesting the great wealth and power of the Oba. The eyes are also a significant feature of these commemorative heads. The irises are depicted as inlaid, which has the effect of creating a menacing stare appropriate to the stature of the deceased. Above the eyes are three scarification marks called “ikharo” believed to denote gender (three marks indicating a male, four a female). The head is usually made of a brass or copper alloy, a very important metal that symbolizes permanence, for it is a proverb of the Benin people that “brass never rusts, lead never rots.” The reddish color of the metal is also a significant feature of the figure. It is a threatening color thought to drive away malicious forces and potentially dangerous deities.

quoted from

Title: Commemorative Head of an Oba, 
collected by Picasso in 1944
Date: Mid 19th Cen
Original Location: Benin, Nigeria.
Current Location: Musee Picasso, Paris

Benin 17th-19th Centuries
Many Benin bronzes are of three-dimensional heads, their necks encased in necklaces, their heads topped with symbolic coral-beaded caps or in many cases, originally surmounted with carved elephant tusks. These portrait works are somewhat more abstract than Ife, with sharper edged eyes and eyebrows, but nevertheless, as at Ife, commemorated specific historical ancestors of the Oba. The tusks bear images recording the events of an Oba's reign, culminating with an interlaced pattern of community solidarity at the base. (As in Europe since Celtic times, 'the head' was also considered the locus of the intellegence, personal will, and success in the world.) As such, the ancestral heads of Benin constituted tangible documentation of national history, the geneology and justification for an Oba's rule, as well as representing the ideal of his authority, which was thus transmitted from forebearers (now present in the world as spiritual forces) to descendants. These powerful heads were gathered in shrines as accumulations of this (spiritual) power, and demonstrate the importance of ancestor worship in many African peoples. 

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cire perdue (lost wax process)
These sculptures were made with thecire perdue or lost wax process.   The process is referred to as lost wax not because we have lost the process, but because the figure is originally sculpted from wax which is lost in the process.  The original is encased in clay.  Two drainage holes are placed in the clay and when the clay is heated, the wax runs out of the hole leaving a cavity.  Bronze is then poured into the cavity and when the bronze cools the clay mold is broken open revealing the bronze sculpture.  Since the bronze is a fairly soft metal, details can be etched and molded while the bronze is cool.


Benin, Leopard 
16th-18thC 19in
Benin Bronze Leopards 

Leopard aquameniles have been identified with King Ewoare, (16th century). 

Tradition maintained that one day as the king was sleeping under a tree, a leopard lying on one of its upper branches dripped blood down on him. On waking King Ewoare killed the leopard. 

The danger and quickness and speed of the leopard served as a potent metaphor for royal power. Benin kings often being referred to as "leopards of the house". Leopard teeth and pelts were given by Benin monarchs to important chiefs and military commanders under their command.

In Benin cosmology the leopard is a symbol of royal power. At one time leopards were sacrificed to ensure the well-being of the kingdom. In the seventeenth century the Oba kept tame leopards that he led about in chains when he paraded through the city. This showed his power and domination over the 'King of the Bush'.


Benin, General and Officers, c1550 brass 21in
Brass plaques with figures in high relief like this exquisite example were made to decorate the royal palace of the Benin king. Hundreds of such plaques once covered the wooden pillars of his palace courtyard. Using the lost-wax casting method, they were made by a guild of metal casters at the Benin court. Brass was traditionally considered a sacred medium and the exclusive property of the oba. Imported as a result of overseas trade with Europe, the metal was the ultimate sign of wealth and power. Yet the plaques are not mentioned in travel accounts after 1700, and in 1897, at the time of the British punitive expedition, about 900 were found amassed in a palace storehouse.

Aside from displaying power and status, Benin art also served as a record of court life. Thus, most plaques also show one or more male figures, including nobles, officials, and the king himself, in court regalia and elaborate costumes. Typically, the plaques are entirely covered with imagery, with repeated incised quatrefoil leaves such as those depicted on this plaque as the preferred backdrop. Although the exact meaning of most scenes has been lost and whether this particular one reflects a ritual or ceremony cannot be confirmed, it seems unlikely to represent a historic event.

Mudfish Stool 

Rattle Staff (at Left)
The mudfish was an important image of kingship, for it suggested the mythological origins of the Oba, as well as his divine spiritual powers. (Look at the slide again). There are several species of mudfish, some of which are capable of surviving for extended periods out of water, symbolizing the Oba's power as ruler of land and sea. Some mudfish are capable of delivering electric charges, pointing to the Oba's terrifying power. It is also among the most robust fish, and an apt image for the prosperity which the Oba brings. The image of the mudfish can also be seen in the ceremonial staff of the Oba, its curled fins wrapping around the Oba's hand at the top.

The mudfish also identifies the Oba with the God of the Sea, Olokun, the ancestor of the Obas of Benin. The living Oba, then, is considered the counterpart of Olokun. Like Olokun, he provides for the prosperity of the kingdom. In many plaques, the Oba is depicted as a human whose legs end in the curled legs of the mudfish. (slide) This image not only conveyed the power of the Oba, but also reminded him of his own obligation not to overstep his authority. According to legend, the fifteenth century Oba Ohen, who was paralyzed, attempted to hide his malady from his followers. The paralysis was reported as a manisfestation of divine power. When the deception was discovered, the Oba ordered the perpetrator killed. Because the Oba had deceived his subjects, he too was stoned to death. Thus the universal order occasionally took precedence over the divine power of the Oba. This reminder of the oba's obligations is also seen on ivory bowls and on cermonial staffs..

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Benin, Queen Mother (Iyoba)
Hip Mask 9" ivory, iron, copper

detail of headdress showing Portuguese faces and mudfish.


This ivory pendant mask is one of a pair of nearly identical works; its counterpart is in the British Museum in London. Although images of women are rare in Benin's courtly tradition, these two works have come to symbolize the legacy of a dynasty that continues to the present day. The pendant mask is believed to have been produced in the early sixteenth century for the Oba Esigie, the king of Benin, to honor his mother, Idia. The Oba may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification.

 In Benin, ivory is related to the color white, a symbol of ritual purity that is associated with Olokun, god of the sea. As the source of extraordinary wealth and fertility, Olokun is the spiritual counterpart of the Oba. Ivory is central to the constellation of symbols surrounding Olokun and the Oba. Not only is it white, but it is itself Benin's principle commercial commodity and it helped attract the Portuguese traders who also brought wealth to Benin.

 The mask is a sensitive, idealized portrait, depicting its subject with softly modeled features, bearing inlaid metal and carved scarification marks on the forehead, and wearing bands of coral beads below the chin. In the openwork tiara and collar are carved stylized mudfish and the bearded faces of Portuguese. Because they live both on land and in the water, mudfish represent the king's dual nature as human and divine. Having come from across the seas, the Portuguese were considered denizens of the spirit realm who brought wealth and power to the Oba.

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Benin Plaque
Edo, Kingdom of Benin Ca 1600
Bronze, De Young Museum SF
Form: Carved plaque, bronze.

Iconography: "The extraordinary bronzes of the Benin kingdom in what is now Nigeria exhibit a virtuosity and sophistication of style that has astonished the Western world since they were visited in the 15th Century. Their work was brought to Europe following a punitive expedition by the British in 1897, causing a great sensation. The people of Benin, called Bini, are descended from the Ife, also known for their remarkable bronzes. Almost all Benin art was created to honor the king , or Oba, who has reigned, with his ancestors, from the 15th century. Styles have changed over the years... Each is  still sculpted by hand, then cast in bronze by the lost wax process...The plaques were mounted on the walls of the Oba's Palace and record the history of the Benin kingdom. Most depict the king or warrior chiefs.Cast pieces are copper alloys, bronze (copper and tin) or brass (copper and zinc). The alloys are not always pure and pieces historically labelled "bronzes", often are not." 

Context: The fact that copper was used shows that the Oba of the Benin was a very rich ruler. It was often used as well for trade with the English and with other tribes, and was often made into bells to be hung on clothing or in ceremony. The markings found on the figure may be representative of a leopard, which was considered the 'king of the bush', and is a symbol of the Oba, who was known as 'king of the home.' A small leopard head is usually found somewhere around the figure as well, usually hanging around the hips or beside the head.

Benin Palace Ancestral Altar,
dedicated to Oba Ovonramwen,
Benin City, Nigeria
photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

Form: household altar.

Iconography: "Special palace altars honor the Oba's ancestors. Each new oba commissions royal artists to create objects for an altar to honor his deceased father. One of the Oba's duties is to make regular offerings at the altars of his ancestors. In times of celebration or crisis, the Oba offers thanks or calls on his ancestors for guidance, help or blessings. Like many Africans, the Edo believe that ancestors continue to be concerned with the well-being of their descendants. Because the Oba's ancestors are considered the ancestors of his entire nation, fulfilling his responsibility to them is one way he cares for the Edo people. Altars are adorned with sacred objects. Pairs of bronze heads always appear on the Oba's altar. Memorial heads symbolize the Edo belief that the head directs a successful life. No memorial head is a portrait of a particular  individual. Instead, each head represents the power of all the past obas.  All Edo people make altars to their ancestors, but only the Oba's altar bears brass or bronze heads. Because brass neither rusts nor rots, it symbolizes the enduring nature of the Oba's power."


"Once a powerful city-state, Benin exists today as a modern African city in what is now south-central Nigeria. The present-day oba of Benin traces the founding of his dynasty to A.D. 1300. In the late 1400s, a flourishing and wealthy royal court was in place, with a palace harboring a vast compound where metalsmiths, carvers and others created objects for the king and his court. The casting of brass was an art controlled by the king himself; anyone found casting brass without royal permission faced execution.

The Edo--the people of Benin--associated brass, which  resists corrosion, with the permanence and continuity of kingship. Fundamental to Edo belief, as well, was the veneration of ancestors, whose spirits were thought to protect the living. Cast commemorative heads of deceased kings were displayed on altars at numerous shrines in the royal palace. "

Tell me what you know.