Brief Identification Edit
This sculpture of a royal ruler on horseback was taken from the Royal Palace in Benin City, Nigeria by the British Military during their African campaigns in 1897. The sculpture now sits in the Robert Owen Lehman collection in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The figure was forged by the Igun Eronmwon, Benin for royal brass-casters guild, in the 16th century for the Oba, king, of Benin.
The statuette has been interpreted as three different depictions of West African military culture. First, the sculpture shows a high-ranking warrior, armed with a spear and arrows, riding into battle. His elaborate crown was "a regional symbol of high rank" and meant this particular warrior was extraordinary. Secondly, the sculpture is interpreted as being a king of Benin. Lastly, and most convincingly, scholars have interpreted the figure as the king of Idah. This understanding suggests that the sculpture was a piece on a "commemorative altar" recognizing a Benin military triumph against Idah.
Technical Evaluation Edit
This copper alloy sculpture and many just alike were produced by the royal brass-casters guild for the Oba of Benin. The brass-casters guild used the "lost-wax technique" when making the sculptures for the Oba's altar [Ben-Amos, 2003]. The lost-wax technique has been a staple of West African metal casting since nearly 1000 C.E. While the process requires sophisticated knowledge of both metallurgy and pottery, it was not an advanced technique of art sculpting in the 16th century. Interestingly, Guild members would practice sexual abstinence and pray before they fabricated the Oba's order to obtain "ideal ritual state" [Irele and Jeyifo, 2010,150]. The guild members would also complete Oba's projects in secrecy; sometimes the Oba poured the metal himself [Irele, Abiola, and Jeyifo, 2010,150].
Nigeria, the site of the Benin culture, had an abundant amount of both copper and tin, which were the two metals in copper alloy. These metals were easy to mold and cast which made sculptures and other relics like Mounted Ruler bountiful in the palaces of Benin's Obas. The use of copper alloy and brass was not entirely because of the convenience of gathering the ores but also because metal was believed to have powers. Metals were believed to have "inherent powers derived from the god of metals", these powers gave the statues themselves powers to deflect evil spirits [Ben-Amos, 2003].
The Mounted Ruler was acquired by the British in the late 19th century when they raided ancient Benin palaces. It was later acquired by Robert Owen Lehman as he privately collects Benin artwork. The statue continues to sit in the collection which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Local Historical Context Edit
The history of the Benin Kingdom and its people is mostly oral before the point of Portuguese contact in the 15th century. When the Portuguese arrived in Nigeria, they stumbled upon a society with a powerful ruler and a military that was expanding the borders of the Kingdom with its prowess [Ben-Amos, 2003]. The 15th and 16th centuries were a critical period to the Kingdom of Benin as the five great warrior kings-Ewuare, Ozulua, Esigie, Orhogbua and Ehengbuda-grew the Kingdom from Niger river to Dahomey river and established customs associated with Benin culture [Ben-Amos, 2003]. Oba Ewuare is credited with fixing the political structure, celebrating the brassworks of the area and creating the "War Machine" that was the Benin army [Ben-Amos, 2003].
The royal brass-casters guild of the Kingdom of Benin fabricated this Mounted Ruler sculpture in the 16th century. The Igun Eronmwon were commisioned by every new Oba to create heads and figures for their ancestral altars [Irele, Abiola, and Jeyifo, 2010, 150]. The guild members made bronze pieces to sell on the streets of Benin City [Irele, Abiola, and Jeyifo, 2010, 150]. However, when the royal brass-casters were commissioned by the Oba they were compensated with food, women, and servants [Dark, 1973, 53].
The style of Benin art was one that appealed to many Europeans [Dark, 1973, 16]. The art of Benin, specifically bronze casting, included images of sacred animals and memorable battles that reveal much of the local history. Because the art was celebrated by the Obas and the Portuguese the brass-casters and ivory-carvers were socially superior to other manufacturers [Dark, 1973, 52].
World-Historical Significance Edit
The artifact, Mounted Ruler (so-called Horseman), was one of many copper alloy and bronze sculptures produced for the Obas of the Benin Kingdom. Artifacts, like this one, have been a symbolic representation of Benin military and royal life. The history of Benin society does not stray far from the history of its art. Artifacts, including the Mounted Ruler, portray battles with rival kingdoms, show the elegance of the Oba's throne and illuminate the hard work and rituals of brass-casters [Egharevba, 1960].
This artifact is a symbol of the military prowess of the Benin Kingdom. Whether the artifact represents a ruler from Benin or from rival kingdom Idah, the sculpture was placed on the commemorative altar of an Oba to remember a military victory. The Benin Kingdom's military power, access to raw materials and strict political structure made the Kingdom a leading power in all of Africa [Ben-Amos, 2003]. The Kingdom of Benin was able to make a lasting kingdom until the end of the 19th century when the British conquered and burned the capital.
Benin artwork is some of the most popular artwork from West Africa and has found its way in art museums across the western world. The economic, political and military success of the Benin Kingdom allowed the people's artwork to flourish and gain popularity outside of the region [Egharevba, 1960].
Ben-Amos, Paula Girshick. "Benin, Kingdom of." Oxford Art Online, 2003.
Dark, Philip J. C. An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
Egharevba, Jacob U. A Short History of Benin. 3d ed. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1960.
Irele, Abiola, and Biodun Jeyifo. The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Edo World, “Idah: Traditional Capital of Igala Kingdom,” http://www.edoworld.net/Idah_Traditional_Capital_Of_Igala_Kingdom.html
Igun Eronmwon: Guardian of Ageless Tradition, https://soltai.wordpress.com/2007/09/25/igun-eronmwon-guardian-of-ageless-tradition/
Museum of Fine Arts Boston, “Mounted Ruler (so-called Horseman),” https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/mounted-ruler-so-called-horseman-558345
Museum of Fine Arts Boston, “Robert Owen Lehman Collection,” https://www.mfa.org/give/gifts-art/Lehman-Collection
The Art Institute of Chicago, “The British Conquest of the Benin and the Oba’s Return,”http://archive.artic.edu/benin/conquest/
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “African Lost-Wax Casting,” https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wax/hd_wax.htm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Head of an Oba,” https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/312290
247inafrica, “Benin 1stand 2ndIntertribal War of 15thto 16thcentury,” http://247inafrica.com/2018/05/24/benin-1st-and-2nd-intertribal-war-of-15th-to-16th-century/