Figure of a town chief (iyase)

Edo peoples, Benin Kingdom Provincial Style
16th century
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General Description

This figure represents an iyase (town chief) of Udo, a provincial town in the Benin Kingdom. Elements of royal regalia are detailed on the sculpture: a beaded tulip-shaped crown, a high beaded collar, a leopard's-teeth necklace, paired brass bracelets, a beaded band across the scarified torso, a kilt fastened with a minature head of a leopard, and beaded anklets. He carries the remnant of a ceremonial sword. The coral beads were luxury items obtained through trade with Portugal.

The figure relates to a story about the deadly rivalry between two late 15th-century princes, half-brothers Esigie and Arhuanran. Arhuanran, who lived in Udo, was the heir to the throne. During a battle for the kingship, Esigie outmaneouvered Arhuanran and became the oba (king) of Benin. Esigie subsequently created a separate court for his brother at Udo with the stipulation that the iyase would always be appointed by the oba.

Excerpt from

Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.