In Focus

Figure of a town chief (iyase)

In the 16th century, following the death of his father Oba Ozolua, Prince Esigie of Benin City challenged his half-brother Prince Arhuanran, “a man of giant stature” and ruler of Udo, over the leadership of the Benin kingdom and its center. Esigie defeated Arhuanran in the fierce battle of Okuo-Ukpoba or Battle of Blood to become the oba of the kingdom and its capital Benin City. Since then, the Oba of Benin has appointed town chiefs (iyase) to rule Udo. This figure represents the Iyase of Udo.

The Oba of Benin determined the iyase’s prerogatives and regalia, establishing the oba’s power and authority over Edo and non-Edo vassal. The iyase wears a helmet, a necklace of leopard teeth around the lower edge of the high-beaded collar (odigba) that identifies titleholders, a single band of beads across his naked and scarified torso, a wrapper or kilt made of pangolin skin, and a belt decorated with serpentine pendants. A mask depicting a leopard head is attached to the belt at his hip.

In Benin, headwear is an important indicator of identity and status and distinguishes Benin town chiefs from other vassals. The helmet, shaped like an inverted tulip and surmounted by a spool-shaped miniature replica of a special type of container, is decorated with vertical bands of slithering snakes and beads cast in relief. Real containers (ekpokin) held sacrificial offerings, ceremonial gifts for the Oba of Benin, or an herbalist’s secret materials and implements used to heal soldiers on the battlefield.

Leopard imagery occurs frequently in Benin art. Admired for its effectiveness as a predator, its handsome markings, and its qualities of restraint and moderation, the leopard is an appropriate symbol for the oba. Although the leopard is seen as the Lord of the Forest and the oba, the Lord of the Town, they were not equals. The oba, by his exclusive right to have leopards slain as sacrificial offerings, had ultimate power over the leopard. He kept tamed leopards in the palace and paraded with them during annual processions. Some bronze plaques show the oba twirling leopards by their tails. War chiefs wore cast bronze leopard masks on their left hips to signify that, as the oba’s representatives, they were authorized to take human life, a divinely sanctioned and exclusive power of the king. Leopard head masks and teeth also protected their wearers from danger.

War captains and town chiefs have worn wrappers or kilts made of pangolin skins since the 16th century. Because the pangolin, an anteater- like animal with scaly skin, has the ability to curl up and become invulnerable when in danger, it is an appropriate metaphor for the traditional tensions that exist between the Oba of Benin and the town chiefs and some vassals (i.e., men who were self-made rather than heirs to political power). Thus, the expression “the pangolin is the only animal the leopard cannot kill” is apropos.

Serpents, regarded as liminal creatures, are at home both in the water and on land. In Benin art they represent Olokun, the god of all waters and wealth, and serve as the messenger between the realm of the waters and the land—that is, Olokun and the Oba of Benin. In addition to their appearance on chiefly regalia, cast bronze pythons were hung from the gables of the palace roof for protection and as links between the sky and the earth.

This figure is one of several sculptures—memorial heads, figures of Portuguese soldiers, and standing male figures like this one—that are believed to have been cast in Udo during the 16th century. Edo oral traditions regarding their origin vary. According to one tradition, Benin brasscasters were forced to reside and work in Udo during the war between Esigie and Arhuanran, while another asserts that the brasscasters temporarily resided in Udo during their annual visit from Ile-Ife, the ancient capital of the Yoruba kingdom and center of casting brass since the 12th century. In these oral traditions the brasscasters are members of the royal guild at Benin. The distinctly provincial character of the Udo sculptures suggests that their makers were not royal guild members from Benin. Their style may be explained by yet another oral tradition: after defeating Arhuanran, Esigie allowed his half-brother to rule at Udo where the institutions parallel to those at the capital, including a brasscasters guild, were established. A peculiar feature of these castings, including the Dallas figure, is an unexplained opening in their backs. The Dallas figure is also missing a ceremonial sword (eben) from its right hand.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 52-54.