MAf 34554

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Producer unknown to us

Commemorative head of an Oba (Uhunmwun elao)

Africa, Nigeria, former Kingdom of Benin

End of 18th century


Hans Meyer (colonial geographer, publisher) purchased the bronze from the British ethnographic dealer William Downing Webster from 1898 onwards

Loaned by Meyer between 1900–1919, from 1929 permanent loan by Elisabeth Meyer, purchased by the Ernst von Siemens Kunstfonds from Meyer's heirs in 2001.

MAf 34554

One of the first task of any new Oba (King) of Benin is to create an altar dedicated to his deceased father. The altar (a semi-circular mud platform onto which altar objects are placed) is used to honour the previous Oba's legacy and serves as a point of communication with him. The newly enthroned Oba would commission the casting of a commemorative head (uhunmwun elao) which was usually placed on the altar together with other altarpieces such as the ukhurhe, the rattle staff, and the aseberia, the altar tableau. It is believed among many Edo that the head is ultimately responsible for a person’s success in life. Therefore, uhunmwun elao were used to also signify the success of the previous kings. Each altar usually contained a number of uhunmwun elao, supporting, always in pairs, carved ivory tusks.

Throughout the patriarchically organized kingdom, men were seen as the head of the family and their wellbeing was tied to the success of their families. The relationship of the king to the kingdom could be seen replicated in that of the man to his family. Every nuclear family belonged to a larger family headed by the okaegbe. Every quarter or village had an odionwere (a village eldest), every dukedom has an enogie (a duke), who was usually an appointed brother of the king, a position that became hereditary. The chiefs were appointed. Some of the titles like that of the seven kingmakers amongst others were also hereditary.

This bronze commemorative head (uhunmwun elao) is wearing erhu-ede (a beaded hat) and carries the ititi-ako hair ornaments. The strand of bead around the base of its beaded hat is called ugbekun. There is odigba worn around the neck, a high neck collar made from beads on metal strings.

Enotie Paul Ogbebor