Benin ivory mask

The Benin ivory mask is a miniature sculptural portrait in ivory of Idia, the first Iyoba - or Queen Mother - of the 16th century Benin Empire, taking the form of a traditional African mask.

Benin ivory mask
Queen Mother Pendant Mask- Iyoba MET DP231460.jpg
This 16th century ivory portrait of Queen Mother Idia is among The Met's most celebrated works. It is one of four related ivory pendant masks, that were among the prized regalia of the Oba of Benin, among the prestige items taken by the British during the punitive expedition of 1897.
MaterialIvory, iron inlay
Height9 3/8 in (23.8 cm)
Width5 in (12.7 cm)
Depth3 1/4 in (8.3 cm)
CreatedEarly 16th century
Present locationMetropolitan Museum of Art, British Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Linden Museum, private collection

Two almost identical masks are kept at the British Museum in London and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.[1][2] Both feature a serene face of the Queen Mother wearing a beaded headdress, a beaded choker at her neck, scarification highlighted by iron inlay on the forehead, and all framed by the flange of an openwork tiara and collar of symbolic beings, as well as double loops at each side for attachment of the pendant.

There are also examples on the same theme at the Seattle Art Museum[3] and the Linden Museum,[4] and one in a private collection,[5][6] all taken during the British Benin Expedition of 1897.

The British Museum example in particular has also become a cultural emblem of modern Nigeria since FESTAC 77, a major pan-African cultural festival held in 1977, which chose as is official emblem a replica of the mask crafted by Erhabor Emokpae.[7]


Three of the ivory masksEdit

Benin EmpireEdit

In the early 16th century, the dynamic Esigie ruled the Benin Empire of the Edo people as its Oba. He came to power as Portuguese explorers first made contact with the empire. Trade and diplomacy with Europe brought Esigie and the Edo prosperity and regional influence as the empire traded pepper, ivory, local textiles, and slaves for brass, cloth, coral beads, and mercenaries for protection. Esigie engaged in two major conflicts. First, his half-brother fought a protracted civil war over the line of succession that would crown Esigie, the firstborn. Second, Esigie successfully defended against an invasion from the northern Igala Kingdom and captured their leader.[8] Esigie rewarded his key political and mystical advisor during these trials, his mother Idia, with the title of Iyoba (Queen Mother)—the first in a tradition of Queen Mother advisors.[9] The identification with Idia was made by Oba Akenzua II in the mid-20th century.[10]

Ritual useEdit

The Oba of Benin commissioned works from his guild of ivory and wood carvers, the Igbesanmwan. Their works were customized for their ruler, between the material connotations of ivory and the visual motifs in the carvings.[11] At least two of the masks feature Portuguese imagery (although this imagery outlasted the actual Portuguese presence)[12][13] and thus were likely created during Esigie's early-16th century rule (possibly ca. 1520),[14] either during Idia's life or soon after her death.[8] The similarities between the masks indicate that they were likely created at the same time[15] by the same artist.[8] Their details match the comparable carving qualities of ivory spoons and salt cellars commissioned during the same period,[8] the early period of Benin art, the phase of strongest affiliation with Ife or Yoruba art.[16][17] Ivory works from Benin were mainly for the Oba to use in ritual.[18] The masks may have been used in ceremonies including the Ugie Iyoba commemoration of the Oba's mother, as well the Emobo purification ceremony to expel bad spirits from the land.[8][19][20] Similar pendant masks are mainly used in contemporary Emobo ceremonies focused on bad spirits, though the traditions of Emobo may have changed throughout history.[19]

Four rungs on the side of the masks, above and below each ear, let the masks hang in suspension[8] and indicate that the masks were suspended from a cord,[15] though experts have disagreed on how they were worn.[8][15] British Museum art historian William Fagg concluded that unlike the small brass pendant masks worn at the waist by modern kings, the ivory mask was likely worn around the neck. An 1830s drawing of a similar mask worn at the breast by a neighboring ruler confirms Fagg's theory.[15] Based on the position of the rungs, Metropolitan curator Alisa LaGamma also affirmed the theory.[8] Benin specialist and anthropologist Paula Ben-Amos, however, wrote that the masks were worn on the waist as pendants during the Ugie Iyoba and Emobo ceremonies.[8] The hollow masks likely served as amuletic containers.[8] Below the mask's collars, the ring of small loops are attachment points for crotal bells.[21]

Description and interpretationEdit

They are made of ivory, long and ovular in shape,[22] and thinly carved, approaching semiopaqueness.[11] The similar British Museum and Metropolitan pendant masks have elaborate ornament at their hair and collar. Each mask's gaze is accentuated with iron inlay at its pupils and lower eye outline, and the eyes are slightly diverted by the eyelids.[22][23] This use of inlay departed from the ways in which Europeans used ivory.[15] Above the eyes, the four supraorbital marks are associated with Benin women.[24] The masks' facial features are symmetrical and skillfully precise.[15] Their lips are parted, nostrils slightly flared, and hair dense with tiny coils and a rectilinear hairline.[8] The masks' expression of "impersonal coolness" reflected the stylistic conventions of the Oba's ivory carvers guild, with a naturalism typical of craft in early Benin art.[15]

A powerful womanEdit

The depiction of women is rare in Benin art,[2] though the position of Idia, known to Edo tradition as "the only woman who went to war", is exceptional, and the very title of Iyoba or Queen Mother was created for her.[25] The headdress forms part of the ukpe-okhue ("parrot's beak") hairstyle she originated, and is more clearly seen on the Bronze Head of Queen Idia.[26] The depicted precious coral of the headdress and choker are in the form of cylindrical ileke ("royal") beads, which it was the specially-granted privilege of the Queen Mother to wear, being usually reserved for the Oba and the Edogun (war chief).[26][27][28][29] The Linden Museum mask also has a string of actual ikiele beads of coral wrapped around its forehead.[30] These red beads and red cloth, once reserved for leadership figures, have in modern times been popularly adopted as elements of Edo traditional dress.

Modern Edo women wearing ileke-style beads.

The foreheads of both masks were are inscribed with four vertical cicatrices over each eye, with inlays of a pair of iron strips highlighting the scarification.[31] Iron is also used in the pupils and rims of the eyes.[14]

Trade symbolismEdit

Detail of Portuguese merchant head and mudfish

Ivory, both then and now, connotes royal wealth, power, and purity.[11] Ivory, already a luxury commodity in Africa, became increasingly coveted with the growth of the European ivory trade.[32] When an elephant was killed in Benin, the Oba received one tusk as a gift and was offered the other in sale. Thus, the Oba had many tusks and controlled the ivory trade.[33] Ivory is associated with the Edo orisha of the sea, Olokun. As this orisha gives wealth and fertility, it the spirit world's equivalent of the Benin Oba. Ivory gave wealth similar to Olokun, as it enticed the Portuguese merchants who, in turn, returned wealth to Benin.[33] The Portuguese belonged to Olokun, having arrived from the sea.[18] The whiteness of ivory also reflects the symbolism of white chalk, whose ritual purity is associated with Olokun.[33][34][35]

The openwork of the tiara and collar represent tiny heads of Portuguese men in the tiara of both the Met and the British Museum examples, with eleven figures in the British Museum mask, and in the Met mask seven figures of Portuguese men alternating with six representations of mudfish, the West African lungfish.[30] The Portuguese, who had only recently arrived in the area, were a symbol of power and affluence to the royal court.[8] Their iconography is identifiable by their long hair, hanging mustaches (often described as bearded), and domed hats.[11] Benin art historian Barbara Blackmun interprets these crown adornments as a reference to Idia's ability to conduct the Portuguese power to her son's favor.[9] Mudfish were a common theme in Benin royal arts,[8] and reflected the divinity of the Oba.[18] Edo cosmology believed that spirits crossed the ocean to reach the afterlife, where their leaders lived like gods. As creatures who could live on land and sea, the mudfish symbolized the duality needed for the leader's final journey,[8] and this duality represents the seafaring Portuguese as well.[2][36] The mudfish also appear in a pattern on the Linden Museum mask's crown, while the private collection mask's crown has bird elements, also formerly present on the similar Seattle Art Museum mask.[15] The masks also differ in pattern along their bottom, collar edges. The collar of the Met example is similarly decorated with eleven Portuguese men (with damage on its proper right side), while the collar of the British Museum mask is instead an abstract guilloché latticework.[8][15]


Harry Rawson (left) led the British 1897 Benin Expedition to kill Ovonramwen, Oba of Benin, and destroy the kingdom's towns and villages. The ivory pendant masks were looted from the Oba's bedroom.

During the 1897 punitive Benin Expedition, the British stole a group of similar ivory masks in the Oba's palace bedroom. The expedition's civil leader Ralph Moor took the two finest masks, which were later collected by British anthropologist Charles Gabriel Seligman and transferred to the London Museum of Mankind (now the British Museum) and the New York Museum of Primitive Art (now the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Two additional masks from the bedchamber group were taken by British officers and now reside in the collections of the Seattle Art Museum (formerly Principal Medical Officer Robert Allman) and the Linden Museum in Stuttgart (formerly W. D. Webster[37] and then Augustus Pitt Rivers),[16] and there is one in a private collection of the heirs of Henry Galway.[6]

Five to six masks of this type[38] were found in a large chest in 1897 in the bedchamber of the then-reigning Oba Ovonramwen, the ruler at the Benin court. They were taken at a time of great civil unrest during the British punitive Benin Expedition of 1897, the British burned the royal palaces of the Oba and the Queen Mother and looted thousands of ivory, brass and wood from the ancestral altars, private quarters and storerooms and many were sold in England to western museums and collectors to offset the cost of the expedition.[39][6] The British Museum's pendant was purchased in 1910 from the British anthropologist Prof Charles Gabriel Seligman.[13]

Rockefeller founded the Museum for Primitive Art. Its director claimed that the mask would become as recognizable as Rousseau's Sleeping Gypsy.

The Met's mask was acquired in 1972 as a gift of Nelson Rockefeller.[2] He founded the Museum of Primitive Art in 1954 after the Metropolitan Museum did not reciprocate his interest in Precolumbian art. The museum collected works for their artistic—and not anthropological—value,[40] contrasting with the earlier history of African art in Western collections. The Queens College art historian Robert Goldwater became its director and recommended acquisitions.[41] His argument to collect the ivory pendant mask was among his longest, at the end of 1957. He called it "the best object of its kind known, nor will any others ever turn up". Goldwater wrote that the mask was higher in quality than the similar, renowned one owned by the British Museum. The mask, he predicted, would redefine the collection and go on permanent display, on par with the Museum of Modern Art's well-known Sleeping Gypsy (1897) by Henri Rousseau. Rockefeller purchased the mask at a record price and unveiled it in September 1958. The purchase solidified a policy that Goldwater believed the museum should center around permanent collections of masterworks.[42]


Festac 77, a major cultural festival in Nigeria, united African nations under the Idia mask emblem (pictured on the right).

The Benin Pendant Mask has become an iconic image of Benin art, and the British Museum version in particular was featured on Nigerian one Naira banknotes in 1973,[43] and was chosen as the official emblem of the pan-Africanist FESTAC 77 cultural festival in 1977, so that this design is often known in modern Nigeria as the FESTAC Mask.[44][45] The Nigerian government was unsuccessful in securing a loan of the work from the British Museum, and commissioned Edo artist Erhabor Emokpae to recreate the mask as a 20-foot tall bronze centerpiece for the festival (on display at the National Arts Theatre since 1979).[7][46] He also designed a FESTAC flag[47] with the mask as central charge on an unequally banded black-gold-black vertical tricolor, and being responsible for the event's extensive graphic design.[48] Another Edo artist, Felix Idubor, was commissioned to carve two replica masks in ivory for the Nigerian National Museum.[49] A 150 kg bronze reproduction was also donated to UNESCO in 2005.[50]

The Met's Queen Mother pendant mask is considered among the museum's most celebrated works.[42] African art historian Ezio Bassani wrote that the profile of the Met's mask was "at once delicate and strong" with a "musical rhythm", and that its use of iron and copper inlay was both "discreet and functional".[15] He wrote that the Metropolitan and British Museum masks were among the most beautiful ivories carved in Benin, and that their artist was both refined and sensitive.[15] Kate Ezra wrote that the mask's thinness showcased the "sensitivity and solemnity" of early Benin art.[11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Ivory mask - Google Arts & Culture". Google Cultural Institute. Retrieved 2017-02-24.
  2. ^ a b c d Metropolitan Museum Collection Queen Mother Pendant Mask: Iyoba, MetMuseum, retrieved 1 November 2014
  3. ^ "Collections - SAM - Seattle Art Museum". Archived from the original on 2017-11-09. Retrieved 2017-02-22.
  4. ^ Lindenmuseum. "Linden-Museum - Afrika". (in German). Retrieved 2017-02-22.
  5. ^ "Sotheby's to auction 'Oba' mask". Financial Times. Retrieved 2017-02-22.
  6. ^ a b c "Sotheby's cancels sale of 'looted' Benin mask". The Independent. 2010-12-29. Retrieved 2017-02-22.
  7. ^ a b Falola, Toyin; Ann Genova, eds. (2009-07-01). "World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture". Historical Dictionary of Nigeria. Scarecrow Press. p. 369. ISBN 978-0-8108-6316-3.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o LaGamma 2011, p. 28.
  9. ^ a b LaGamma 2011, p. 29.
  10. ^ LaGamma 2011, p. 26.
  11. ^ a b c d e Ezra 1984, p. 21.
  12. ^ Ezra, Kate (1992-01-01). Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870996337.
  13. ^ a b British Museum Collection, British Museum, retrieved 1 November 2014
  14. ^ a b Hansen, Valerie; Curtis, Ken (2016-01-01). Voyages in World History. Cengage Learning. ISBN 9781305888418.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Bassani 1991, p. 183.
  16. ^ a b Bassani 1991, p. 182.
  17. ^ Goldwater, Robert (1969-06-01). Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  18. ^ a b c Ezra 1984, p. 18.
  19. ^ a b Ezra 1984, pp. 20–21.
  20. ^ Ezra, Kate (1987). The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 84. ISBN 0870994611. Retrieved 1 November 2014.
  21. ^ Ezra, Kate (1992-01-01). Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870996337.
  22. ^ a b LaGamma 2011, pp. 26–28.
  23. ^ The Met's mask uses iron inlay in the pupils and forehead markings, and copper inlay for the eyelid outline.[15]
  24. ^ Ben-Amos 1980.
  25. ^ Bortolot, Author: Alexander Ives. "Idia: The First Queen Mother of Benin | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved 2017-02-24.
  26. ^ a b Smith, Bonnie G. (2008-01-01). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Set. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 9780195148909.
  27. ^ Ezra, Kate (1992-01-01). Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870996337.
  28. ^ The Art of Benin. British Museum Press. 2010-01-01. p. 13. ISBN 9780714125916.
  29. ^ Meade, Teresa A.; Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. (2008-04-15). A Companion to Gender History. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9780470692820.
  30. ^ a b Luschan, Felix von; Ankermann, B; Arthur Baessler-Stiftung (1919-01-01). Die Altertümer von Benin (in German). Berlin; Leipzig: De Gruyter.
  31. ^ Africa. Prestel. 2001-01-01. p. 74. ISBN 9783791325804.
  32. ^ Ezra 1984, p. 14.
  33. ^ a b c Ezra 1984, p. 16.
  34. ^ Ezra, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; introductions by Douglas Newton, Julie Jones, Kate (1987). The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 84. ISBN 0870994611. Retrieved 1 November 2014.
  35. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete; Mazama, Ama (2008-11-26). Encyclopedia of African Religion. SAGE Publications. ISBN 9781506317861.
  36. ^ Clarke, Christa; Arkenberg, Rebecca (2006-01-01). The Art of Africa: A Resource for Educators. Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9781588391902.
  37. ^ Cunard, Nancy (1934-01-01). Negro. Anthology made by N. Cunard, 1931-1933. [With illustrations. London: Nancy Cunard.
  38. ^ Fagg, William Buller (1978-01-01). Divine Kingship in Africa. Trustees of the British Museum. p. 29.
  39. ^ Kaplan, Flora Edouwaye S. (2014). "Sacrifice and Sanctity in Benin". In Olupona, Jacob Kẹhinde (ed.). Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780415273190.
  40. ^ LaGamma 2014, pp. 4–6.
  41. ^ LaGamma 2014, pp. 5–7.
  42. ^ a b LaGamma 2014, p. 7.
  43. ^ The wealth of Africa, British Museum, retrieved 1 November 2014
  44. ^ Hauser-Schäublin, Brigitta; Prott, Lyndel V. (2016-06-10). Cultural Property and Contested Ownership: The Trafficking of Artefacts and the Quest for Restitution. Routledge. ISBN 9781317281832.
  45. ^ Salami, Gitti; Visona, Monica Blackmun (2013-10-22). A Companion to Modern African Art. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781118515051.
  46. ^ "FESTAC at 40: The history and mystery behind the mask". Vanguard News. 2017-02-27. Retrieved 2017-02-28.
  47. ^ Apter, Andrew (2008-10-01). The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226023564.
  48. ^ Kelly, Bernice M.; Stanley, Janet L.; Smithsonian Institution. Libraries. National Museum of African Art Branch (1993-01-01). Nigerian artists : a who's who and bibliography. London; New York : Published for the National Museum of African Art Branch, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington, DC [by] Hans Zell.
  49. ^ Robinson, Alma; Robinson, Alma (1977-02-11). "The Controversial Mask of Benin". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2017-02-28.
  50. ^ Matsuura, Koïchiro (2005-05-25). "On the occasion of the unveiling of Queen Idia's Mask" (PDF). UNESCO.


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