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Ancient Art from Africa - Benin
Benin Head
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Thermoluminescence - Expertise


Head of an Important Ibo Person

Benin, Nigeria. Ibo-Style
16th century
23 cm

Head of an Important Ibo Person:

The decorative scars on the forehead, the coral necklaces, the plaited hairstyle with concentric rings - usually referred to as the "Ibo hairstyle" - the heart-shaped, slightly-opened mouth and the hole on the top of the head, potentially meant for ivory, are all recurring features of this type of 16 th -century Beninese head. The red colouring on the forehead clearly refers to the typical iron inlays often used in Benin to emphasise decorative scars. Even pupils were frequently inlaid with iron, though in this case, only the inlay in the left eye remains. In many African societies, iron is believed to have special powers and, in the case of Benin bronzes, is used especially often for the portrayal of pupils and decorative scars.

With the exception of the cat's-whiskers tattooing, this head is so similar to the one without cat's-whiskers scars that a connection and common interpretation seem logical and appropriate. And indeed, the cat-whiskers tattoos on this head represent a very rare case. Nonetheless, so long as the origins and meaning of the tattooing on this head are not sufficiently investigated, a connection between the two heads cannot be clearly established. Philip Dark sees a correlation between this object and the standing figure of a messenger who sports a similar cat's-whiskers tattoo. Unfortunately, the meaning of that figure has also not yet been firmly established, and the subject itself has been alternately interpreted as a messenger, priest, king and member of a secret society.

The connection to the messenger-figure does, however, seem plausible; above all, it indicates that the head was made in Benin, though this indication is denied, for example, by Paula Ben-Amos.

Ekpo EYO, Frank WILLETT: Kunstschätze aus Alt-Nigeria, Mainz 1983, S. 136.
Paula Girshick BEN-AMOS: The art of Benin, London 1995, S. 26.
Philip J. C. DARK: An introduction to Benin art and technology, Oxford 1973, S. 94.
Barbara PLANKENSTEINER (Hg.): Benin. Könige und Rituale. Höfische Kunst aus Nigeria, Wien 2007, S. 373.

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Sotheby's New York. 1986. Kopf Benin-Kultur. Keine Altersangabe. Keine Angabe zur Provenienz. € 683.904,-

Auktionshaus Koller. 2005. Kopf Benin-Kultur. Benin 17.-18. Jh. € 423.060,-

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Similar objects:  
Jos Museum, Nigeria
Philip J. C. DARK: An introduction to Benin art and technology, Oxford 1973, Tafel 22.
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British Museum, London
William B. FAGG: Bildwerke aus Nigeria, München 1963, S. 41.
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Nationalmuseum Lagos
Schätze aus Alt-Nigeria. Ministerium für Kultur, Berlin (Ost) 1985, S. 138.
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Ekpo EYO, Frank WILLETT: Kunstschätze aus Alt-Nigeria, Mainz 1983, S. 136.
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Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, Grassimuseum
Kunst aus Benin. Afrikanische Meisterwerke aus der Sammlung Hans Meyer, Grassimuseum, Leipzig 2002, S. 73.
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General Pitt Rivers's Museum at Farnham, Dorset
Augustus Henry PITT-RIVERS: Antique Works of Art from Benin, London 1900 (Reprint 1971), S. 31/ 35.

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