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Head of an Oba

Head of an Oba
Nigeria. Kingdom of Benin. Edo peoples.
16th century
Head Representing an Oba.
Edo. African, Nigeria, Kingdom of Benin (early-late 19th century). Brass.
The Baltimore Museum of Art

Upon the death of the Oba, his first born son retains the title of Oba. To honor his father, the new Oba casts an idealized portrait of his father in bronze and places it on an altar at the palace. The casts are simply known to the western world as a "Head of an Oba" because they are not physical portraits of the previous Oba. This ancestral altar is ritually used to incorporate influences of past Oba's to the present one for guidance and support.

The head is believed to be the center of a man's knowledge, authority, success, and family leadership. Providing for his family and getting them through hardships is described as being 'on his head'. The Oba head portraits are thought to depict the Oba at his prime, usually in his youthful ages. The eyes, which would have iron inlays, can see into the other world. This is why they are large and forward gazing. These eyes also allow the Oba to survey the whole kingdom.

18th century Oba Head with Tusk

During the 1500-1800's the Benin Kingdom grew wealthy and more powerful through trade with the Portuguese. This reflected in the casts stylistically. The physical size of the cast grew and the headdress' grew in size as well. The headdress and collar the Oba's wore, adopted coral beading. The beading associates with the ancestral realms of the sea and the immense wealth the kingdom gained in trade with the Europeans by an ocean route. Earlier casts were of brass from their lands and were smaller in size, light weight and thinner. Other characteristics of the earlier casts were the faces being visible and natural looking, and the collars were tight to the neck. Proceeding those were casts that contained imported bronzes and the collar came up over the chin, reaching the lower lip. They were featured with swollen cheeks and Ikharo,raised marks above each eye to represent scarification. The eyes are heavily outlined and the lips are no longer wide. The later syle of the Oba heads include other additions to the headdress.

see also Iyoba