The Benin kingdom was a thriving empire situated in present-day Nigeria. Accruing its economic wealth through commerce with countries north of the Sahara, Benin rose during the 16th century and became the dominant military power and imperial force on the West Coast of Africa. At its political and religious center was a fortified city surrounded by a wall almost ten feet high. The king, or oba, of Benin, was both a political and a religious leader, and believed to be divine. To exalt him and his lineage, artists created a vast variety of cast-metal objects in the technically challenging ciré perdue technique. For the specifics of the lost wax cast technique as applied by Benin artists cf. Dark (1960: 26-27, fn 14) and Dark (1966: 220-230). While it is customary to refer to Benin castings as 'bronzes', it seems highly probable that all castings were of brass. The composition of the metal varied, but the main constituents were copper, zinc, lead, and tin (Dark 1975: 29). The expansive royal palace consisted of a series of structures that were connected by long colonnades of wooden pillars. The pillars were covered with 'bronze' plaques depicting images of battles and royal processions. The most important among the castings, however, were the commemorative heads of the ancestors of the reigning oba (for other interpretations see Schaefer in Ben-Amos and Rubin 1983: 75) that were venerated on specific altars inside the palace.
The production and placement of new heads was a ritual affair which formed part of the installation ceremonies of every new oba (Dark 1975: 30). '[W]hile acting as a visible reminder of a deceased king, [the 'bronze' heads also served] in a symbolic manner as a vehicle or a means of communication with the spirit of the departed and as such [were] not personal but general and commemorative. [The] heads [were] not portraiture but memorials (ibid.: 31).' Furthermore, there were two separate annual series of rites (ugioro and ugigun) at which sacrifices to individual oba were performed on every fifth day. Each series was brought to a close with a public festival in honour of the reigning oba's father at which 12 humans were sacrificed (ibid.: 30). Such practices had earned Benin the arguable reputation as "the city of blood" (cf. Spencer 1897).
Both the dominance of the Benin Empire and the flourishing of its art came to an end in 1897, when the British army, responding to the murder of a British vice-consul, captured Benin's capital and destroyed the royal palace. Around 3,000 castings, most probably also the Albright-Knox head, were taken as loot to London and later dispersed throughout museums and private collections around the world. The technical perfection and mastery of Benin castings had been unheard of for objects coming from Africa. Their arrival in Europe significantly changed the perception of African people and their culture in the eyes of Westerners, earning Benin artists a legendary reputation until today.
Typology and Chronology
The current opinion regarding the dating of Benin Bronzes is based on the research of William B. Fagg and Philip J. C. Dark. Both scholars take as point of departure the oral tradition indicating Benin artists obtained the knowledge of brass casting from Ife (Fagg 1963: 32; Dark 1975: 34). Fagg (1963: 32 et seq.) divides the commemorative heads stylistically into three groups and suggests they were created at different time periods, the oldest casts being those closest in style to Ife works of art: 1) heads of the 'early period' from the fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries; 2) heads of the 'middle period' from the mid-sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries; 3) heads of the 'late period' from the early eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. Fagg based his definition of these periods on an evolution in style, a decrease in naturalism in favour of an increase in abstraction, as well as a coeval development from simple to heavily ornate regalia.
While according to Fagg (1963: 35) the early period is distinguished by works of an archaic style in the tradition of the art of Ife, the middle period marks a turning point in Benin art history when artists chose instead of repeating old traditions to develop a new, original approach to artistic representation. In Fagg's (loc. cit.) words, the art of the middle period exhibits 'an admirable consistency of design and proportion, saved from excess by the trammels of a rigid classicism. This measured quality - undoubtedly reflecting political stability and commercial prosperity - is seen at its best in the bronze heads of this period.' The Albright-Knox head can be placed at the very beginning of the middle period and given the importance of the commemorative heads within the corpus of Benin art be considered a milestone in this artistic development.
Dark (1975: 31 et seq.) retains Fagg's basic concept of stylistic development but refines his classifications. Compiling sources from oral tradition, old accounts from European travellers and comparisons with firm historical data and analyses of other Benin art creations, especially cast plaques, he abandons the idea of consecutive periods and suggests instead a typology of five styles that he associates with the following relative chronology: 'The essential assumption [...] for arguments on the chronology and development of the styles of Benin memorial heads, is that those which look most like the classic Ife bronzes are the earliest in time and those which are least like them are the most recent. [...M]ethodologically, one must proceed from the known to the unknown [...We do] not know when the Ife bronzes were made but we could proceed by starting from the present and, moving back in time, establish a developmental sequence, accepting certain oral traditions as markers to aid the chronological arrangement advanced. Following this procedure, one arrives at a chronological arrangement where type 5 heads, high collar heads with flanged base and winged cap, which appear on the present Oba's ancestor shrines, are the most recent, and the most ancient moving in reverse order through types 4, 3 and 2, is type 1. Further, it is possible that the [...] 5 types did not follow each other in a simple sequence but overlapped (Dark 1975: 35-36).' The five relevant types according to Dark (1975: 32-33) are: Type 1, heads with a collar tight around the throat ending below the chin and wearing no coral cap (e.g. von Luschan 1919: pl. 56, figs. A and C); Type 2, heads with a rolled collar and wearing a simple coral beaded cap (e.g. von Luschan 1919: pl. 56, figs. B and D); Type 3, heads with a high collar covering the chin, without a flanged base and wearing a simple coral beaded cap (e.g. von Luschan 1919: pl. 54, figs. A-D); Type 4, heads with a high collar, with flanged base and wearing a simple coral beaded cap (e.g. von Luschan 1919: pl. 61); Type 5, heads with a high collar, a flanged base and wearing a coral beaded cap with wing-like elements on each side (the vast majority of Benin heads, e.g. von Luschan 1919: pl. 59).
Dark (1975: 64-68 and 1982: 2.4.5-6) classifies 57 heads as Type 3 and subdivides them further into three groups, the smallest of which is group 2A, composed of nine (Dark 1982: loc. cit. counts eight but omits a head sold at Christie's London, December 3, 1968, lot 76, listed as property of 'L. Hope, Esq.') heads believed to be the earliest examples of Type 3 heads. These heads are distinguished by a set of similarities which are: high collar without a flanged base; relatively low height between 23 and 25 cm (9 to 9 7/8 in.); three cast vertical scarification marks centered above each eye; iron irises and ikao (the two vertical scarification marks above the inner corners of the eyes) which were not set in the 'bronze' after the casting but laid in the wax before the form was made into which the metal was subsequently poured (Dark 1975: 49); flat caps of woven beads; two clusters of five pod-shaped beads on each side of the cap and one pod-shaped bead hanging above the top of the nose; two strands of plaited hair behind the left and one strand of plaited hair behind the right ear.
The Albright-Knox Head belongs to this small group of very early Type 3 heads and is listed in Dark's analysis as head 'X0/13'. The other heads are: one in the Leyden Museum (accession no. '1164/4', see von Luschan 1919: 355, fig. 522); a second in the Bristol City Museum (accession no. '7821', see Dark 1973: pl. 25, figs. 52 and 53); a third in the British Museum (accession no. '1944.Af.4.11', see Fagg 1963: 54, fig. 14a); a fourth in the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne (accession no. '17974', see Fröhlich 1966: pl. 63); a fifth in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin (see von Luschan 1919: pl. 54, figs. A and C); a sixth formerly in the Peter and Veena Schnell Collection, Zurich (see Leuzinger 1970: 167, fig. K 15; also Dark 1982: fig. 33); and a seventh in the collection of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University, Cambridge (unpublished).
Based on comparative stylistic analysis, Dark dates the ten heads from Type 3/Group 2A to the period around the two reigns of Oba Ehengbuda and Oba Ahuan (Dark 1975: 61). He suggests the Albright-Knox Head to have been created between 1575 and 1625 (loc. cit.).
The Master of the Albright-Knox Head
The group of eight (nine, respectively) heads defined by Dark (loc. cit.) as Type 3/Group 2A is distinguished by a set of similarities, as described above. Within this group, however, the Albright-Knox head is further distinguished by two very special characteristics: 1) First, the beaded necklace around the neck leads up so high that the lower lip of the mouth is completely hidden behind the top rows. The representation of the mouth is reduced to the upper lip rising over the edge of the collar-like necklace. While the heads in Leyden, Bristol City, Cologne, and the head formerly in the Schnell Collection show the lower lip hidden only half-way behind the top rows of the beaded necklace, only two other heads show a completely omitted lower lip like the Albright-Knox head: the head in Berlin and the one in the British Museum. 2) The second distinct feature is the treatment of the ears. The Albright-Knox head has relatively small and flat ears of naturalistic yet idealized form. The Anti-Helix is reduced to a dynamic loop in the shape of the number '9', the outline of which is mirrored by the Helix. The Tragus is depicted as a small oval segment below the curved in outside line of the Helix. Within the group of eight, the only head showing a similar treatment of the ears is again the example from the British Museum - the same head sharing with the Albright-Knox head also the particularity of the omitted lower lip.
Closer examination of the British Museum head reveals still more shared particularities:
- the position of the inset iron iris, leaving the eyeball fully visible between the upper and lower eyelid;
- the two braids behind the left ear, common to Type 3/Group 2A heads, are curving outwards on these two heads;
- the profile of both heads showing the rows of beaded necklaces forming the same concave line below the face;
- the slightly convex profile of the nose;
- the shape of the relatively flat beaded cap and the position of the attached coral bead decoration are also identical.
The similarity between the Albright-Knox and British Museum heads in two key particularities and five additional features raises the question whether both were made by the hand of a single artist. In spite of some differences as well - the horizontal axis of the eyes stand in different angles to each other, the three cast scarification marks above each eye are slightly closer to the edge of the beaded cap in the British Museum head, and also the beaded strands falling down the cap left and right of the temples are closer together than in the Albright-Knox head; most notably, while the two flaring braids behind the left ear of the British Museum head are cast in openwork and linked with the head by small supports, the negative space between the two braids and the neck of the Albright-Knox head is filled entirely - this assumption of a joint creator seems well defendable. The similarity of the ears is of major importance since comparison of 'bronze' heads of all types shows for one reason or another that the representation of this organ was one of the major points of focus for Benin artists (cf. already von Luschan 1919, pl. 53; also Dark 1975: 51). The treatment of the ears is so diverse across Benin commemorative heads, and their differences are so distinct that it appears every Benin artist developed his own individual style for the representation of this organ. Dark notes: 'Indeed, it is an established fact, that the ears present an immense variety of form in the casts of Benin commemorative bronze heads (Dark 1975: 50-51, 60), going from a sort of naturalism to a very abstract representation.'
The existence of a pair of sculptures is not unusual in Benin art. In fact, Dark (1975: 41) observed: a 'feature of Benin art seems to be its tendency to make pairs of objects.' Cf. a pair of 'bronze' leopard figures published in Dark (1973: pl. 13, fig. 27). Dark (1975: loc. cit.) continues: 'Some heads of type 3 suggest affinities between them.' A photograph taken by Mr. Cyril Punch in 1891 is of special interest in this context: It is the only photograph showing an ancestral shrine within the palace of the oba of Benin in its original state, i.e., before the invasion by the British troops. As a historic document showing how 'bronze' castings were displayed on altars, this image is of outstanding importance. Two Type 5 heads are visible on an altar, and even as we cannot see them in profile, their striking frontal similarity seems to demonstrate that this is a pair of commemorative heads by the same hand. Moreover, several bells of identical shape can be seen on top of the altar, and on the ground we find two other 'bronze' heads, again arranged symmetrically and virtually identical in appearance.
While we do not know why pairs of objects were cast for the same altar, but assuming that there was a tradition of casting heads in pairs, the Albright-Knox head and the British Museum head are very likely to have once formed part of the same ensemble for an ancestral altar. All the famous oba of the past had individual altars, each housed in a large walled compound (ugha). When the British came to Benin there were about 15 such compounds (Dark 1975: 30).
Assuming that the Albright-Knox head and the British Museum heads were created by one artist one wonders whether there are other works by this hand. Looking again at the individual characteristics of the heads and comparing them with other examples of Benin sculpture, the same facial criteria - i.e. eyes, lips and the specific '9'-shaped ears - are mirrored in two famous figures depicting royal Benin attendants blowing large horns: one in the collection of the British Museum (accession no. 'Ethno 1949.AF46.156'), and another, formerly in the Sturgis R. Ingersoll Collection, sold at Sotheby's London, July 8, 1974, lot 74. All the above mentioned details in these figures, as well as the overall quality of the modeling and technical control of the medium, are equal to the two commemorative heads from the British Museum and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Given the aforementioned preference for pairs in Benin artistic tradition and the preference for adding other objects of prestige (like bells, but also full figures such as those of the two courtly attendants) to the altars with heads, the horn-blower from the British Museum and the horn-blower from Sturgis Ingersoll, as well as the Benin head from the British Museum and the Benin head from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery could have been executed at one time for one altar. This ensemble would have been placed during the installation ceremonies of either Oba Ehengbuda or Oba Ahuan, whose reigns encompass the golden age or 'Renaissance' of Benin art. The importance of the early stage of the middle period can be compared to the transition from archaic to classical Greek sculpture, when artists like Phidias and Polikleitos dared to leave the traditional Egyptian canon and introduced a new ideal of human representation. Commissioned by the kings themselves, undoubtedly the four abovementioned sculptures would have been created by the leading artist of the time. We do not know the name of this artist, but his genius survives in this core group of his work. In absence of another name, this artist should be called 'The Master of the Albright-Knox Head.'
New York, Knoedler & Co. Galleries, The Art of the Kingdom of Benin, November 25 - December 15, 1935, cat. 4 (illustrated)
Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, The Art of the Benin Kingdom, 1937, cat. 50
Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Masterpieces of African Art, October 21, 1954 - January 2, 1955, cat. 59
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Paintings and Sculpture from the Albright Art Gallery, January 15 - September 24, 1961
Rochester, Memorial Art Gallery, Traditional Art of Nigeria, 1964, cat. 2
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Regalia of Kingship, March 5 - 31, 1972
Purchase, Neuberger Museum of Art, The Power of Bronze: Royal Sculpture from the Kingdom of Benin, November 21, 2004 - February 13, 2005
Cast, the hollowed form rising from a cylindrical neck encircled by 22 rows of coral beads, the face with delicately modeled lips, small flaring nose and wide oval eyes inset with iron for the pupils, three raised scarification lines above the eyes and a fourth larger rectangular line inset in iron above the inner corner of each eye (ikao), framed by flat diminutive ears and wearing an elaborate headdress with coral beads in a crisscross pattern with additional groups of five pod shaped beads attached to the surface, and eleven strands of beads at each side, two braids behind the left and one braid behind the right ear, each terminating in a single coral bead; '1114' in white pigment on reverse of head; mounted on rotating Inagaki base; exceptionally fine, varied gold brown patina with traces of red pigment. Height 9 1/4 in. 23.5 cm
Dorothy Dannenberg, 'Carré Shows Benin Bronzes and Ivories at Knoedlers,' Art News, Vol. 34, November 30, 1935, pp. 3, 6, 15
Time Magazine, December 16, 1935
Louis Carré, 'Benin - The City of Bronzes,' Parnassus, Vol. 8, No. 1, January 1936, pp. 13-15
Buffalo Evening News, February 7, 1936
Buffalo Fine Arts Gallery, Gallery Notes, Vol. 3, March 1936, p. 2, no. 5
Virginia Ford Menadue, 'Bronze Head Comes from Rich, Mysterious Kingdom in Africa,' Buffalo Courier-Express, June 29, 1941
Andrew C. Ritchie (ed.), Albright Art Gallery. Catalogue of the Paintings and Sculptures in the Permanent Collection, vol. 1, Buffalo, 1949, cat. 59, pp. 124-125 and 199
Erwin O. Christensen, A Guide to Art Museums in the United States, New York, 1968, pp. 98-99, pl. 220
Philip J.C. Dark, 'Benin Bronze Heads: Styles and Chronology,' in Daniel F. McCall and Edna G. Bay (eds.), African Images, Essays in African Iconology, New York and London, 1975, p. 64 (unillustrated, referred to as 'X0/13')
Philip J.C. Dark, An Illustrated Catalogue of Benin Art, Boston, 1982, pls. 2.1.103 and 2.4.6 (unillustrated, referred to as 'X0/13')
Steven A. Nash, with Katy Kline, Charlotta Kotik and Emese Wood, Albright-Knox Art Gallery: Painting and Sculpture from Antiquity to 1942, Buffalo, 1979, p. 115
Marie-Thérèse Brincard (ed.), The Power of Bronze: Royal Sculpture from the Kingdom of Benin, New York, 2004, p. 17, no. 4 (mistakenly listed as previously owned by Albert H. Tracy)
Reportedly collected and owned by a member of the British Punitive Expedition, 1897-1932
Louis Carré, Paris (accession no. '1114'), acquired from the above in London with the participation of Charles Ratton on March 20, 1932
Acquired by the Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, from the above through Knoedler & Co. Galleries, New York, on December 31, 1935 (accession no. '35:18')