Leopard head hip mask. West Africa, Nigeria: Benin. Late 18th/early 19th century. Bronze, iron. h. 15.2 cm. Acquired 1972. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 233
JA4372MH-233Digital photo (MD)This leopard is baring teeth displaying fangs pointing up and down on either side of the mouth. The whiskers are shown as a pair of tridents on either side of the nose. The long, almond shaped eyes show hatching of the eye borders which first appears to have been introduced around 1775. A decorative loop effect runs round the bottom of the mask from one cheek to the other. The small, leaf-shaped ears hide suspension loops. The surface of the mask is pitted with tiny dots.
(VADS Helen Coleman)
Benin bronze heads, figures and masks, human or animal, may be divided into those which were made before or after about 1775, the criterion being the presence in the later ones of hatched eye borders. These masks, mostly human or leopard, are presented by the Oba to chiefs upon installation, and are tied on over the crossing of the skirt on the left hip. Chiefs of all ranks wear a bronze pendant-mask on the left hip when in full ceremonial regalia. In form they are related to the bronze pendant-masks sent to vassal rulers (Willett, 1971), and the ivory pendant-mask worn by the Oba.
Tradition relates that when Oba Ewuare (about mid fifteenth century) was in exile he slept under a tree, and in the morning found a leopard on a branch over him. He took this as a sign of future good fortune, and vowed that, if he became the King, he would sacrifice a leopard every year to his head, the locus of his luck and power. Leopards have a very special place in Benin symbolism (Ben-Amos, 1980: 64, 88), where the sacrifice of the leopard stands for triumph over the bush; the Oba as king of the settled land has shown that he has power of the leopard, who is king of the wild country. There was a guild for capturing wild leopards, and a leopard face on cloth was intended to strike fear into enemy's hearts.
There are two suspension loops inside the mask behind the ears. The surface of the leopard's face is covered with small rosettes made of impressed dots; the feline whiskers are shown as a pair of 'tridents' on either side of the nose. The rings bordering the lower edge may have been for pendant rings or bells.
(Margret Carey. In: Steven Hooper (ed.), 1997, Catalogue to the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. University of East Anglia.)
Benin City was the principal settlement of the Edo Kingdom of Benin, situated in the south of Nigeria. In February 1897 the city was attacked by British military, ending the ruling indigenous administration, and the Oba (King) Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (reigned 1888–1897) was exiled. The city was destroyed along with its Royal Palaces. The royal regalia and important religious and memorial sculptures that survived the raid, were looted by the combined forces of British Royal marines and other colonial forces. The Oba’s son, Aiguobasinwin Ovonramwen, Eweka II (reigned 1914-1933) returned to Benin City in 1914, restored the city and Palace complex and the Oba dynasty continues today as a regional and cultural administration in Edo state, Nigeria.
The number of artefacts taken in 1897 is believed to be around 2,500, which were shipped to the UK by the British Admiralty. About 40% of the objects were accessioned to the British Museum (700 works) and other works were given to individual military personnel. The remainder were sold at auction by the Admiralty to pay for the expedition, for example, at Stevens Auction Rooms, 38 King Street, London, May 25, 1897, followed by several sales at William Downing Webster, Bicester, between 1898 and 1900. The artefacts are now dispersed across museum collections, notably in Europe and the USA. Formerly in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Dorset (1900 catalogue). Purchased by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury from John Hewett, 1972 Donated by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury to the University of East Anglia, 1973 (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts)