Front and center in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s African galleries, a copper alloy commemorative head from the West African kingdom of Benin meets the gaze of entering visitors in its own vitrine. The original context of the artwork was destroyed and not recorded in 1897. Its path from what is now Nigeria to Baltimore is unclear. An idealized representation of an oba or king in full coral regalia, the commemorative head was a component of a sacred altar that served as a communication point between the living and the spirit world. Upon this altar it supported a massive elephant’s tusk covered with carved motifs and charged with dangerous spiritual force. The Benin Commemorative Head at the Baltimore Museum of Art connects visitors to classical West African art and provides insight into the formation of museum collections.
The tradition of casting copper alloy sculptures in Nigeria is at least 1000 years old. According to the Edo, this tradition was brought to Benin from the Yoruba city of Ife. Extremely naturalistic copper alloy heads were being cast in Ife in the fourteenth century. The casting of commemorative heads in Benin is said to have begun with Oba Ewuare in the fifteenth century. According to the BMA, the commemorative head donated to them in 1951 by Alan and Janet Wurtzburger was made in the 19th century during the reign of Adolo or Ovonoramwen. These commemorative heads were components of ritual altars constructed to honor the oba’s deceased father. These altars are the focus of the yearly Ugie Erha Oba festival, one of four principal festivals tied to the agricultural year.
The florescence of Benin copper alloy casting in the 15th and 16th centuries is linked to an influx of cuprous metal currency bracelets known as manillas that European merchants used along the coast to purchase ivory, pepper, and enslaved people. In the Edo cosmology, copper alloy is a sacred material associated with the color red. Copper’s reflective surface deflects spiritual attack and it does not rust or decay. Red represents combat, fire, blood, the earth, and the god Ogun. The head of the oba it represents is also considered a source of spiritual power. Each hard supports an elaborately carved tusk. Ivory is also a sacred material associated with the color white. White represents harmony, coolness, peace, the sea, and the god Olokun. According to tradition, spirit possession passes through the top of the head. The tusk serves as a vertical axis or projection linking the head to the spirit world. The tusk is also covered with mnemonic devices related to the dynastic history of the Benin kings, the living oba’s deified ancestors. The ivory carvers often choose motifs from dreams and do not draw out a design on the tusk before carving. The interpretation of these symbols is exclusive to initiated specialists and their meaning is not fixed. All of the furnishings are placed on an earthen altar whitened with kaolin within the palace complex.
One of these altars was photographed by the British merchant Cyril Punch in 1891. This is the only known photograph of an altar taken before the destruction of the royal palace during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897. According to the American scholar Barbara Blackmun, we cannot tell if these are the heads commissioned by the sitting monarch Oba Ovonramwen in honor of his father Adolo or an older altar. She identifies the tusks as being carved during Ovonramwen’s reign. Although the photograph does not show the complete altar, four identical commemorative heads can be seen. The BMA head may be part of a similar set. The Baltimore head stands out from the corpus for its high forehead. There are nearly identical heads that share this characteristic in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin (III C 80201) and in at the British Museum (Af1961,09.1) in London. The London head was donated to the British Museum by the Lords of the Admiralty in 1961. The Berlin had was probably acquired at the Paris auction of the Benin artworks not taken as trophies organized by the Admiralty to defray the costs of the Punitive Expedition 1897. The Germans acquired a large collection of Benin artwork at this auction with an eye towards their own colonial ambitions in West Africa. This collection will be integrated into the new Humboldt Forum that will open at the end of 2019. A fourth head sharing this characteristic was published in the catalogue of an exhibition at the Duveen-Graham gallery New York in 1957, listed in an American private collection. A partial head identified as a failed casting at the Fowler Museum at UCLA has definite stylistic similarities to the above mentioned four.
At the top of the head we can see the empty socket that once held the carved tusk. The head is hollow as a result of the lost wax or cire perdu casting method. The void is created during the casting process by a clay core perhaps supported by an iron rod or pinned into place. Surrounding this socket is the oba’s beaded crown. The chief material of the crown is bright red precious or Balearic coral, a sign of wealth and also a form of spiritual protection. We can see two wing-like projections of coral beads at the top of the crown. These projections are said to have been introduced by the Oba Osemwende, who ruled from 1816-1848. In response to a diminished political role, Osemwende is said to have leveraged the spiritual power associated with his office by presenting himself as a living personification of the Edo god of medicine Osun. The American scholar Jacki Gallagher identifies these projections as stylized feathers. It is common among the nobility of Benin to wear a feather of a vulturine fish eagle as a sign of rank. We can also see two lower projections of beads on wires extending in front of the oba’s face. Gallagher interprets these as stylized snakes emerging from the oba’s nostrils as a sign of his spiritual power. However, the Nigerian scholar and Edo princess Sweet Efumwen Ebeigbe identifies both of these types of projections as the barbells of the mudfish. The crown is studded with various clusters of beads exclusive to royal use. At the center of the forehead can be seen the bead known as atolekpe hae, “you can never touch a leopard’s forehead.” On either side of this bead can be seen stylized supraorbital keloid scars, the ethnic marks of an Edo male. The head at the BMA lacks the iron inlays on the lower forehead and pupils that are seen on earlier commemorative heads. Braids of hair and strands of coral beads terminating in agates hang down from the crown past the face and overlapping the high coral bead collar.
The flange is covered in royal symbols alluding to the oba’s prerogative over the life and death of his subjects and his mystical powers. All of these symbols are underlaid by a guilloche pattern associated with royalty. At the front of the head there is stone ax or celt. Actual stone axes are part of the furnishings of a royal altar, and according to the American scholar Kathy Curnow are also considered thuderbolts hurled from the sky by Ogiuwu, the god of death . Ogiuwu is never directly depicted in Benin art. On the left side of this ax is a stylized elephant’s trunk grasping three medicinal leaves. The elephant represents strength and decisive action. The leaves represent the oba’s connection to Osun, the Edo god of medicine. The number three also has occult implications. On the right of the stone axe is the representation of the sacrificial head of a man, alluding to the oba’s right to take life and offerings of blood to the royal altar. Both of these symbols are then repeated in reverse order followed by what may be another stone axe or the representation of bells used to call the spirits that also furnish royal altars. Below the terminations of the oba’s beads and braids are two leopards. As the leopard is the king of the bush, the oba is the leopard of the house. On the back of the head, there is another stone ax flanked by the elephant trunk motif. These trunks are then followed by a mudfish and a frog, the order reversed on each side of the head. These amphibious animals are symbolic of the liminal qualities of the oba and his role as interlocutor of the spirit world. The frog specifically represents Osun’s magical powers. The mudfish is associated with the god Olokun and the electrical charges and spines of some species are a metaphor for the danger of the oba’s mystical power. All of the symbols on the flange may have multiple esoteric meanings.
Heads with this type of crown are generally categorized by scholars as belonging to the Late Period following the work of the American scholar Philip J. C. Dark. The Berlin head nearly identical to the head at the BMA has been subjected to two scientific attempts to determine its date. It is made of brass with a zinc-percentage of 28-30%, the highest levels recorded in the studies. This relatively high level of zinc is related to importation of metal from Europe. According to this data, scholars categorized the head as being produced in the 19th century. A second test found the head to be composed of 67.6-73.7% copper, 0.06-0.40% tin, 23.5-29.8% zinc, and 1.93-3.00% lead. This study also categorized the head as Late Period.
The head was donated to the BMA by the prominent Pikesville socialites Alan and Janet Wurtzburger in 1954. No provenance information between this donation and the removal of the head from its original context in 1897 is available. The Wurtzburgers were ambitious and sophisticated collectors who began to acquire African art in the early 50’s when it was in high demand among American collectors. An autodidact, Alan Wurtzburger seemed to bring a shrewd eye for assessing value to collecting from his experience in commercial real estate. In a 1955 Baltimore Sun article he was quoted saying “…percentagewise, good things in this field are just as scarce as Degas and van Goghs.” The Wurtzburgers also collected Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art, as well as large modern outdoor sculpture. They donated all of these collections to the BMA.
According to another Baltimore Sun article, the Wurtzburger’s “actual acquiring began in London where a museum authority offered assistance in dredging up desired pieces. Since that time he has been in constant touch with the dependable and authoritative dealers in England, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and New York, who have been able to produce rare items.” In 2002 the British journalist and art historian Martin Bailey revealed that around this time the British Museum began to deaccession and sell Benin artworks that were considered duplicates. First they went through a London dealer and then expanded to work with the New York dealer J. J. Klejman. Klejman later sold a Benin plaque to the Wurtzburgers in 1958. Although we can only speculate on how the Wurtzburgers acquired the head, we can be fairly certain that the head was carried off as booty by British forces after the destruction of the oba’s palace in 1897.
Today, the head provides visitors to the BMA with a visceral connection to an important tradition of West African sculpture. It also preserves an image of uncolonized black royalty and provides insight into how museum collections are constructed and for what purpose. It is also important to note the lack of definite information about the provenance and original context of the head. Although the question of repatriation to Nigeria remains open, the commemorative head makes an invaluable contribution to Baltimore’s cultural patrimony.