Plankensteiner 2007 Throughout many areas of Africa, small animal horns are used as containers for ‘medicine’, such as crushed roots, bones, cemetery earth, dried flesh, herbs, insects, and other substances that have been combined in secret ways, in order to exude powers of their own. Bronze figures of rulers from medieval Ile Ife for instance are portrayed with horns in the left hand, suggesting the antiquity of the belief that a medicine horn is essentially to kingship (Willet 1967a: 49). Benin’s 18th century art is often extravagantly baroque, and these two elaborate container staffs are excellent examples of this tendency. They seem to have served as medicine containers for empowering substances, either during coronation or for other purposes. The bottom portion of each container suggests that it was intended as a hand-held implement. Perhaps each was used as an isevbere igho, a short proclamation staff, which strengthens the force of verbal blessings, predictions and commands made by the Oba. The Oba’s ability to pronounce a binding curse was greatly feared. Moreover this damning curse could never be removed, except by the Oba himself. Each of the motifs on these objects is a statement of extraordinary resources at the Oba’s command. The bronze version is the more unusual of the two. Below the regal leopard and the container vessel, a cavity opens to reveal a bearded European figure, which stands upon a second leopard. This figure is unique, in that the artists have not followed Benin’s conventions in forming his foreign beard, hair, or clothing. His pose is also unique. Each of the figure’s hands grasps one of two large coiled mudfish that enclose this central area on either side. This ‘hand with mudfish symbol’ is usually reserved for the Oba. This motif on a royal rattle staff alludes not only to his riches and accomplishments, but also to his fearsome ability to proclaim a binding curse. When the motif is found on a similar medicine horn, it is unlikely that the artists credited any European with similar occult powers. The handsome medicine horn that is carved in dark ivory is also complex. The lid with its dominating leopard is missing, but the lower part of the vase-like container transforms into a large leg and foot, which rests on the back of a three-dimensional and richly patterned elephant. Extending for some length on either side of these images are two coiled mudfish, each grasped by a human fist, extending from a wrist and arm that are transformed into small serpents. On the back of the pillar-like support below the elephant’s platform are three royal images: a dorsal bird, a rosette, and the conventional image of a European head. A suspension loop is carved on the front of this support, so that the medicine horn can be hung from a cord. The long pointed end of the blackened ivory tusk is fashioned into a beautifully wrapped handle, conceived as a spiral form inlaid with brass. This becomes the body and head of a descending serpent. Each of the images on the medicine horn is a multifaceted royal symbol. The large leg suggest firmness of command. The leopard, the elephant, and the serpent can represent the Oba himself. In totally different ways, two highly intelligent animals dominate the forest realm: the leopard with ferocity and beauty; and the elephant with enormous size and strength. Characteristic are added from a variety of serpents. Vipers do not need to hunt; they lie in wait until their prey comes to them. Pythons can crush and devour a human being, and slender water serpents are beautiful emissaries of Olokun.
Exhibitions Loans and Displays - Current and PastExhibition History
Exhibited: 1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa 2007 May-Sept, Vienna, Museum für Völkerkunde, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria 2007-2008 Oct-Jan, Paris, Musée du quai Branly, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria 2008 Feb-May, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria 2008 Jun-Sept, Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria