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Benin kingdom court style
Edo artist
Mid-16th to 17th century
Copper alloy
H x W x D: 44.1 x 19.7 x 6 cm (17 3/8 x 7 3/4 x 2 3/8 in.)
Credit Line
Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn to the Smithsonian Institution in 1979
Object number
Label Text
In the early 1600s, a Dutch report described the royal palace of the Benin court as having "beautiful and long square galleries . . . one larger than another resting on wooden pillars . . . covered with cast copper . . . pictures of their war exploits and battles." Later travelers' accounts did not mention the plaques; however, the British military punitive expedition found them in a palace storehouse in 1897.
Today, over 900 plaques are in public and private collections, but there is no documentation explaining how they were arranged on the palace walls. Allowing for damage, they are relatively uniform in size and shape. While some plaques show scenes, such as battles and hunts, and others hierarchical multiple figures, many have one or two male figures in court regalia. They depict members of the royal court in the proper trappings for different ceremonies.
This plaque shows a male, as do all but one of the known examples. He is an Edo, a citizen as identified by the vertical scarification marks on his torso. Like the figure on this plaque, contemporary chiefs in Benin wear pendants on their left hips and carry ebens, fanlike swords, on ceremonial occasions. The eben is held high and twirled as a gesture of repect to the ruler.
Cast copper alloy plaque with a standing male figure with an eben, a leaf blade ceremonial sword, in his upraised proper right hand. The figure is bare chested with a leopard's teeth collar and a face form hip mask on his proper left. The plaque has a repair or restoration in the proper left lower corner.
Benin Punitive Expedition, 1897
Galerie Kamer, Paris, 1968
Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1968 to 1979
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1979 to 1985
Exhibition History
Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 4, 2017-ongoing
Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 17, 2014-July 31, 2016
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
Published References
Freyer, Bryna. 1987. Royal Benin Art in the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, no. 14.
Schrenk, J. L. 1994. The Royal Art of Benin: Surfaces, Past and Present. Ancient and Historic Metals. Proceedings of a symposium organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and Getty Conservation Institute, November 1991. Ed. D. A. Scott, J. Podany and B. Considine. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust.
Data Source
National Museum of African Art
See more items in
National Museum of African Art Collection
Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts
On View
NMAfA, Second Level Gallery (2193)