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.