Ewakpe Mourning His Wife
Gift of John Hannah, 64.65.68
city-state of Benin in Nigeria has been a vital art center
since the 10th century. Historically, the king was the
most important patron of the arts and every royal court
employed several artist guilds. The most renowned examples
of Benin art are the cast sculptures of brass and bronze,
which first came to the attention of Europeans in 1897
when the British sacked and looted Benin City. At this
time, Europeans could not believe that African artists
had access to the technical knowledge of metal casting.
However, archaeological evidence shows that artists have
been casting brass in Nigeria since the 9th or 10th century.
In the past, artists could only use brass to commemorate kings and their
deeds because brass was considered to be royal material. In 1914 the
Benin king lifted the exclusive rights on brass cast objects and since
then artists have also produced these objects for the Nigerian public,
tourists and the international art market. Royal subjects continue to
be the most popular and this recent example depicts an event from the
18th century, which also serves as a metaphor for queenly responsibility
and devotion. The figure represents King Ewakpe who had lost control
over his kingdom and was advised to sacrifice a human to regain his stature
among his people. Queen Iden, his wife, whose small figure can be seen
at feet of Ewkape, selflessly volunteered.