FIG. 19 (below):
Plan of the audience hall:
proposed early and late
Schematic by Kathryn Boucher.
FIG. 20 (right):
Plaque: battle scene.
Benin, Nigeria. 16th century.
Copper alloy. H: 47 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Robert
Owen Lehman Collection, inv. L-G
Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine
10. Gore, op cit., 56; Paula Ben-Amos and Arnold Rubin, The
Art of Power, the Power of Art: Studies in Benin Iconography
(Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, 1983): 14.
11. Peter Goebel, Kunst Aus Benin: Afrikanische Meisterwerke
aus der Sammlung Hans Meyer (Leipzig: 1994): 26.
12. Plaques within subgroups often have nearly identical
measurements for both width and height. This detail suggests
to me that the artist applying the fl ange pattern also formed
the basic wax model.
13. Charles H. Read and O. M. Dalton, Antiquities from the
City of Benin and Other Parts of West Africa in the British
Museum (London: British Museum, 1899): 6.
15. The reluctance to accept the 1897 account may be due
to the courtiers’ more puzzling statements: They reported
that the plaques were made by a white man named
Ahammangiwa, who had many wives but no children and
made images of himself and his friends to hang in the oba’s
that honored his father’s legacy and the ceremonies
he instituted. The processional plaques,
made in series during this period, depicted the
recurrent expressions of the court’s loyalty that
could be expected by the mid-1550s. Orhogbua
also commissioned the fi rst battle panels,
plaques that brought the battlefi eld to the audience
court (fi g. 20). This strategy, as well as the
sudden increase in the number of plaques depicting
the oba, demonstrated Orhogbua’s success
in expanding the kingdom while also visually
reminding the highest-ranking courtiers of the
oba’s dominance over the court.
Looking at the plaques as a single installation
changes the conversation about their patronage,
function, and dating. The evidence of the
plaques themselves, Benin oral history, and remaining
European sources make it
possible to imagine how the plaques
were made and installed, what narratives
they were intended to convey,
and who might have commissioned
them. My conclusions are speculative
but may provide a new way of thinking
about the corpus. I look forward
to other theories about the original
motives for the plaque commission,
the story told by the installation, and
the aesthetic and visual strategies artists
used to create this monumental
testimony to the Kingdom of Benin.
1. Benin “bronzes” are all copper alloys. Some are technically
made of bronze (copper alloyed with tin), but the majority
are technically made of brass (copper alloyed with zinc).
Throughout this article, we will refer to the artworks as
“bronze” in deference to their art historical category,
regardless of whether the object in question is made of bronze
2. Through Robert Soppelsa’s work and my own research, I am
aware of 854 plaques said to be held in collections worldwide.
3. Translation of Olfert Dapper’s Naukeurige Beschrijvingen der
Afrikaensche gewesten, 1676 edition, published in Adam
Jones, Olfert Dapper’s Description of Benin (1668) (Madison:
University of Wisconsin Madison, 1998), 11.
4. Adam Jones, “Decompiling Dapper: A Preliminary Search for
Evidence” History in Africa 17 (1990): 182.
5. Field Museum 210365 is the only exception to this rule. I
believe it was made later to create a pair across the courtyard
when the pairing strategy became more important to the
organization of the program.
6. Philip J. C. Dark, “Benin Bronze Heads: Styles and
Chronology,” in African Images: Essays in African Iconology,
Daniel F. McCall and Edna G. Bay (eds.), Africana Publishing
7. Charles Gore, “Casting Identities in Contemporary Benin
City,” in African Arts 30, no. 3 (1997): 56, 60.
8. Kate Ezra, Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1992): 47.
9. Irwin Tunis was the fi rst to suggest a narrow fi fty-year
production period for the plaques in his unpublished
dissertation “Origins, Chronology, and Metallurgy of the
Benin Wall Bas Reliefs” (London: School of Oriental and
African Studies, 1979), based on the similarity of the plaques’
alloys (Tunis 52), although he also suggested that plaques
were likely made in small numbers through the nineteenth
century. Josef Riederer argues that the relatively homogenous
composition of the metal forming the plaques, compared
to other Benin object classes, supports the proposal that
the corpus was created over a short period in his recent
article, “The Composition of Brass Objects from Benin,”
in Original—Copy—Fake? Examining the Authenticity of
Ancient Works of Art, Ernst Pernicka and Silke von Berswordt-
Wallrabe (eds.), Mainz: von Zabern, 2008): 145.