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Equestrian Oba and
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Gold and jade crown,
Benin plaque: Equestrian Oba and
by GREG STUART
Royal history rendered in brass
an Oba (or king)
and his attendants
from the Benin
located in presentday
know that the
central !gure is an
Oba because of his
hold shields above
his head, either to
protect him from
attack or possibly
from the hot,
tropical sun. This
was a privilege
only a”orded to an
The !gures around him range in size, not because of their actual height or
distance from the Oba, but rather due to their level of importance within the
court. This convention of sizing human !gures based on status is known as
“hierarchic scale” and is found in artwork from cultures around the world and
across time. The Oba would have travelled with a large cohort of attendants,
warriors, servants, diplomats, chieftains, and priests.
The plaque originally hung alongside many others on posts throughout the palace
of the Oba. The order of their placement on these posts would have told the
history of the royal lineage of Benin’s Obas, who traced their dynasty all the way
back to Oranmiyan, whose son was the !rst Oba of Benin. However, the sequence
of plaques is lost to us since they were long held in storage when found by
westerners in the 19th century. You may notice that the Oba rides sidesaddle on
horseback, which would seem to indicate a connection to Oba Esigie (who ruled c.
1504-1550), the !rst Oba to travel by horse. However, without knowing the original
order of the plaques, we will never know for certain whether this was Esigie, or a
later Oba who emulated his brash new mode of travel.
Artists working in brass were organized under Esigie. Today, artists working in
brass in Benin are part of a brass workers guild, and it was likely that previous
generations would have also worked collectively. These artists created plaques
and other sculptures using what is known as the “lost wax casting technique,” in
which, !rst, a more malleable wax version of the !nal brass work is made. It is
then covered in clay and !red to harden the clay, removing the wax, which melts
away in the process (hence the term, “lost wax”). Hot, molten liquid brass is then
poured into the clay mold. As the brass cools, it hardens, and the clay is removed,
revealing the !nished plaque.
Crossing cultures: a record of trade
Almost every detail in this work speaks to the Benin Kingdom’s mutually bene!cial
trade with Portugal, which !rst made contact with Benin in the late 15th century.
The Portuguese received items like peppers, cloth, and stone beads from Benin,
while Benin received—among other items—the coral that makes up the beads
worn by the Oba, and even the brass that makes up this plaque in the form of
manillas, or armbands, worn by the Portuguese, which would have been melted
down as the raw material for this plaque.
the plaque were
traders. Even the
horse that the
Oba rides was
West Africa from
across the sea.
There is nothing
quite like these
plaques in all of
Africa or Europe from this period, and some scholars speculate that they were
created as a way of reconciling traditional African brass sculptural forms with the
illustrated books and prints that may have been in the possession of European
Trade began to decline with Portugal as the Portuguese empire waned in the 18th
century. By the 19th century, Britain was seeking to make inroads with Benin as a
new trading partner. However, this partnership was much less mutually bene!cial
and was marked with frequent tension. After increased aggression from both
nations, the British launched the Punitive Expedition of 1897, seizing the Oba’s
palace, burning down the city around it, killing many, and looting the royal court’s
vast stores of art and treasure.
perpetrated by the British was later condemned as a criminal and violent act of
British imperialism and colonialism. As such, there are many who believe that
objects such as this plaque should be returned to the people of Benin, who
remain deeply connected to their history and cultural traditions. However, there
are others who feel that these remarkable objects are part of the world’s heritage,
and thus should remain in museum collections around the world as testament to
this artistically rich culture.
A consortium of European museums called the “Benin Dialogue Group,” formed in
2007, has been meeting with representatives from Nigeria to discuss issues
around repatriation. Their hope is to establish a system of rotating loans of
artworks to Benin City, though the security and guaranteed return of the objects is
a point of ongoing discussion, set to continue at a conference in 2018. The
consortium includes representatves from the British Museum and Berlin’s
Humboldtforum, two of the institutions that hold the largest collections of objects
from Benin. Other members of the group include museums in Cambridge, Vienna,
Stockholm, Leiden, Leipzig and Dresden, Oxford, and Hamburg, and London.
Museums in the United States and France, which also hold signi!cant numbers of
Benin artworks, have yet to become formally involved, though some, such as the
Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, have been approached directly with
restitution claims from Nigeria.
The ongoing dialogue between museums and nations from which important
objects, like those from Benin, were forcibly removed, highlights the complexities
of the current, post-colonial world. Should formerly colonized areas be repaid for
the damage in$icted on them by colonial powers? Who is responsible for doing so,
and how? Who has the ethical right to the ownership, display, and preservation of
these important pieces of cultural heritage? The formation of consortia like the
Benin Dialogue Group is a signi!cant !rst step towards resolving some of these
thorny and pressing questions.
Backstory by Dr. Naraelle Hohensee
Alice Apley, “African Lost-Wax Casting” on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
The Art of Africa: A Resource for Educators (publication by The Metropolitan Museum
of Art, available online)
“Origins and Empire: The Benin, Owo, and Ijebu Kingdoms” on the Metropolitan
Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Benin chronology on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of
Benin from the Dallas Museum of Art
Kate Ezra, Royal Arts of Benin: The Perls Collection (New York: The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1992).
Barbara Plankensteiner, (ed.). Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from
Nigeria (Ghent, Belgium: Snoeck Publishers, 2007).
“Looted Benin bronzes to be lent back to Nigeria,” The Art Newspaper, October
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
More Smarthistory images…
Plaque: Equestrian Oba and Attendants, Edo peoples (Benin
Kingdom), 1550–1680, brass, 19 7/16 x 16 1/2 x 4 1/2″ /
49.5 x 41.9 x 11.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Plaque (detail): Equestrian Oba and Attendants, Edo peoples (Benin Kingdom),
1550–1680, brass, 19 7/16 x 16 1/2 x 4 1/2″ / 49.5 x 41.9 x 11.4 cm (The
Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Manilla, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, 17th century (?). Brass, 24 x 26 x 8 cm
(Museum für Völkerkunde Wein, coll. A. Maschmann)
Rosette shape and !gure (detail), plaque: Equestrian Oba and
Attendants, Edo peoples (Benin Kingdom), 1550–1680, brass,
19 7/16 x 16 1/2 x 4 1/2″ / 49.5 x 41.9 x 11.4 cm (The
Metropolitan Museum of Art)
British soldiers sit surrounded by Benin works of art during the
British Punitive Expedition of 1897 (documentary photograph by Sir
Harry Holdsworth Rawson)
Cite this page as: Greg Stuart, “Benin plaque: Equestrian Oba and
Attendants,” in Smarthistory, September 14, 2018, accessed April 29,
Browse Smarthistory images for teaching &
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