The Kingdom of Benin, which flourished from the 13th-19th centuries, was renowned for its artistic accomplishments. Primarily made of cast bronze and carved ivory, Benin art was produced mainly for the court of the Oba of Benin, a divine ruler for whom the craftsmen produced a range of ceremonially significant objects.
This rare ritual figure is a superb example of Benin bronze casting. The technique requires a great deal of skill, involving extensive knowledge of both pottery and metalworking, and a careful attention to changing temperatures to prevent unwanted cracking or other damage to either the clay mold or to the metal sculpture during the casting process.
West African sculptors elaborated on the basic technique in a variety of ways. Many works were produced through multiple castings and by uniting different sections of a large vessel or figure. In addition, many of the works are actually a thin sculpture of hollow metal. In this case, the wax sculpture is formed over a clay core. The two clay parts are attached with spikes. Made from iron, the melting point of the spikes is hotter than either the wax or bronze, holding the materials in place through the phases of heating and cooling. If reachable, the clay core is broken up and removed from the interior of the completed work.
The piece dates from the 19th century. The large head features a four-tiered headdress, and full, emphatic facial features with scarification marks. The figure is adorned with elaborate necklaces, bracelets, and cowrie shell jewelry, and holds a gourd-like object in its left hand. It is dressed in a remarkable knee-length skirt decorated with bas-relief moons, stars, knives, bells, and cowrie shells. The sculpture features a rich, greenish-brown patina. It has been authenticated through thermoluminescence dating, and documentation is available.