Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gallery Text

This sculpture carries histories magnificent and brutal, as well as more recent controversy.

The head is an idealized image of an oba, or king, of the Kingdom of Benin (today’s Nigeria). Such sculptural images typically represented the preceding ruler and were displayed at a shrine in his honor, serving as powerful symbols of kingship and lineage. This object also exemplifies the kingdom’s virtuosic metal-casting technique.

In 1897, the British invaded and conquered the capital during the Benin Punitive Expedition, seizing and removing over a thousand artworks from the royal palace. These objects are today known as Benin Bronzes. In the 20th century, the Benin Bronzes were sold or given to private collections and museums around the world. Forty-seven works with provenance dating to the 1897 expedition are now at Harvard: two in the Harvard Art Museums and forty-five in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The head seen here was gifted to the Fogg Museum in 1937 by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who purchased it in New York in 1936.

We acknowledge the violence and trauma of that expedition and understand how the presence of this cultural material in western museums is experienced as continued injustice by descendant communities. Plans for a new museum dedicated to the legacy of Benin City and to restoration of the Benin Bronzes are underway. Harvard is part of the Digital Benin project and is engaged in conversations with other institutions on issues relevant to these works.

What’s in a Head?

Figural representation often emphasizes the head and face. Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth hold particular potential for interaction with the viewer, and the face is frequently perceived as a mirror of the mind. In ancient Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece, most depictions of humans and deities included the full body. This allowed the subjects to strike a distinctive pose, while their clothing indicated social standing. Portraits in head or bust form became common in Roman art and have played a major role in western art ever since. The art of other cultures around the world also reflects special significance attributed to the head. The Edo peoples of the Benin kingdom in present-day Nigeria, for example, regarded the head as the seat of knowledge and decision-making power and crucial to a person’s (or in the case of a king, the state’s) well-being. In this space outside the Roman gallery, several sculpted heads — self-contained images, a vessel, and statue parts — invite comparison across continents and millennia.

The sculptures place varying emphasis on acces-sories, such as the royal coral-bead cap and collar of the Benin Bronze and the floppy hat of the Roman marble head that denotes a foreigner. Hairstyle and physique can express social roles and character traits, as in the case of the philosopher’s beard of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, seen here in an Italian Renaissance version, and the princely topknot of the Gandharan bodhisattva (an enlightened, compassionate being).

The individualized features of the ancient Peruvian stirrup-spout bottle — probably portraying a historical or mythical figure — contrast with the idealized face of the bodhisattva and the classicizing Roman depiction of what may be a generic easterner. The heads meet the viewer’s gaze with unemotional, controlled expressions that correspond to the codes and conventions of their time.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
1937.38
People
Unidentified Artist
Title
Head of an Oba
Other Titles
Former Title: Head of a King
Former Title: Portrait Head of a Princess / Head Pedestal
Classification
Sculpture
Work Type
head, sculpture
Date
1525-1575
Places
Creation Place: Africa, Nigeria, Benin City
Culture
Edo
Persistent Link
https://hvrd.art/o/230607
Location
Level 3, Room 3710, North Arcade
View this object's location on our interactive map
Physical Descriptions
Medium
Copper alloy
Technique
Lost-wax process
Dimensions
22.7 x 21 x 23 cm (8 15/16 x 8 1/4 x 9 1/16 in.)
with base: 31.3 x 24.4 x 23 cm (12 5/16 x 9 5/8 x 9 1/16 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • inscription: back of collar, painted, white : 997
  • label: bottom, white rectangle with serrated edges, printed text: 2
  • stamp: inside of bottom, black ink: [round, illegible text]
Provenance
The royal palace, Benin City; probably taken by British forces during the Punitive Expedition, 1897. [Louis Carré, Paris], sold; [through Knoedler & Co., New York]; to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller (née Abby Aldrich), New York, January 3, 1936, gift; to Fogg Art Museum, 1937

The bronze, ivory and wooden artworks broadly known as the “Benin Bronzes” were taken from Benin City as part of the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 and dispersed to private collections and museums around the world. The Harvard Art Museums acknowledge the violence and trauma of the Expedition and understand that the presence of this cultural material in Western museums is experienced as continued injustice by descendent communities.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller)
Accession Year
1937
Object Number
1937.38
Division
European and American Art
Contact
am_europeanamerican@harvard.edu
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Publication History

Charles Ratton, "Les Bronzes du Bénin", Cahiers d'Art (1932), no. 3, pp. 209-216, repr. p. 216

[Unidentified article], brochure (December 1932)

Louis Réau, L'Art Primitif; L'Art Médiéval, A. Colin (Paris, France, 1934), p. 21, repr.

James Johnson Sweeney, African Negro Art, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York, NY, 1935), no. 264

Bronzes and Ivories from the Old Kingdom of Benin, exh. cat., Knoedler & Co. Inc. (New York, NY, 1935), no. 1, repr.

Emanuel M. Benson, "Benin - a Dead People and a Living Art", The American Magazine of Art (Washington, D.C., January 1936), pp. 36-38 and repr. on cover

Louis Carré, "Benin, The City of Bronzes", Parnassus (New York, NY, January 1936), p. 12; repr. in b&w, p. 14

Frederick Bruce Robinson, "The Art of the Kingdom of Benin", Harvard Alumni Bulletin (Cambridge, MA, April 23, 1936), vol. XXXIX no. 26, pp. 822-825

"African Bronze Princess Given to Fogg Museum is Exhibited", Boston Evening Transcript (April 22 1937), p. 5, p. 5, repr.

Frederick Bruce Robinson, "Exhibition of Benin Bronzes", Boston Evening Transcript (April 17 1937), section 6, p. 7, section 6, p. 7

Loan Exhibition of the Art of the Kingdom of Benin, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1937), p. 8, no. 51

Lawrence S. Cunningham and John J. Reich, Culture & Values: A Survey of the Humanities, Thomson Wadsworth (Belmont, CA, 2006), p. 545, repr. in b/w as fig. 20.2

Stephan Wolohojian and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, ed. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, 2008), p. 82, repr.

Exhibition History

Exposition de bronzes et ivoires du royaume de Bénin, Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, Paris, 06/15/1932 - 07/15/1932

African Negro Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, 03/01/1935 - 03/31/1935

Bronzes and Ivories from the Old Kingdom of Benin, M. Knoedler & Co., Newport, 11/25/1935 - 12/14/1935

Sculpture from the Kingdom of Benin, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/13/1937 - 04/29/1937

Problems in Portraiture, Pennsylvania Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 10/16/1937 - 11/30/1937; The Phillips Collection, Washington, 12/01/1937 - 12/31/1937

The Heavenly Twins: Edward W. Forbes, Paul J. Sachs and the Building of a Collection, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/23/1995 - 12/17/1995

Re-View: S422-423 Western Art of the Middle Ages & Renaissance, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 08/16/2008 - 06/18/2011

Landmarks of World Art and Architecture, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/04/2012 - 01/19/2013

32Q: 3710 North Arcade, Harvard Art Museums, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

Collection Highlights

Google Art Project

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of European and American Art at am_europeanamerican@harvard.edu