Kresge Art Museum
African Art: Western Eyes

Bini peoples, Nigeria

King Ewakpe Mourning His Wife
King Ewakpe Mourning His Wife
Gift of John Hannah, 64.65.68

The 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.