JA4221MH-236Digital photo (MD)This bell-shaped head is heavily encrusted with sacrificial material, probably blood, and eggs. The vertical shaft down the centre of the head held a ceremonial rattle. The upward projection on the left side represents a feather and is carved to indicate this. Flat headed nails indicate the pupils of the eye. The patina on the right side of the head is breaking off to expose the wood and there is significant damage and loss of wood to the back of the head.
(VADS Helen Coleman)
There is a well-attested tradition in Benin, which relates how the chiefs of the royal lineage petitioned the Oba to allow them to decorate their fathers' altars with wooden human heads, instead of ram and antelope heads as hereto fore; and the Oba was graciously pleased to assent.
The traditional starting date for the use of wooden commemorative heads on chief's paternal ancestral altars is placed in the reign of Oba Osemwede (c.1816). They were certainly in use by 1862, when Sir Burton visited Benin city. He wrote, 'The domestic altar is "rigged up"..(with) men's heads coarsely imitated in wood and metal..' (Ben-Amos, 1980:42). A chief's paternal ancestral altar has rattle staffs, bells and swords, as well as a wooden head, which is thought to be primarily decorative, and not spiritually powerful. The normal size of the wooden heads is about two feet whereas this head is half the height, which is very much rarer.
This head is coated with sacrificial material;, probably blood and eggs, and is partly blackened. Termite damage has removed some of the wood at the back; there is a vertical hole down the center of the head, lined with black encrustation, which would have held a ceremonial rattle. Flat-headed iron nails are used to indicate the eye pupils; there is no sign that the head was embellished with strips of sheet bronze as is the case with many of the larger wooden ones. Coral bead ornament is shown by carved rings at the base of the headgear and round the neck, though in lesser quantity than on an Oba's head. The upper projection represents a feather, possibly of the red parrot, which was worn to ensure success in war ( if on a helmet) and could here be a sign of achievement.
(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. Provenance between 1897 and 1959 incomplete.Bought by Ohley at auction in 1957, Sotheby’s ‘Important African Sculpture’ sale, December 1957. Formerly owned by Sydney Burney. Purchased by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury from John Hewett in 1959 Donated by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury to the University of East Anglia, 1973 (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts)