Benin bronze leopard head
- Tribe: Benin
- Origin: Nigeria
- Approx Age: late 19th - early 20th Century
- Materials: Bronze
- Dimensions cm: 26 long x 19 wide
- Ref. Number: 0294
This beautiful Benin bronze leopard head is old, late 19th – early 20th Century. It has a little deterioration on the back of the head but does not detract from the true beauty, amazing style and brilliant craftsmanship to have made this using the old “lost wax” method of bronzing.
The extraordinary bronzes of the Benin kingdom in what is now Nigeria exhibit a virtuosity and sophistication of style that has astonished the Western world since they were visited in the 15th Century. Their work was brought to Europe following a punitive expedition by the British in 1897, causing a great sensation. The people of Benin, called Bini, are descended from the Ife, also known for their remarkable bronzes. Almost all Benin art was created to honor the king , or Oba, who has reigned, with his ancestors, from the 15th century. Styles have changed over the years. Although similar to many older works, these are all 20th C. pieces. Each is still sculpted by hand, then cast in bronze by the lost wax process.
Bronze leopard heads, a royal icon, were often worn as hip or waist ornaments by chiefs of all ranks, the king’s were of ivory.
The art of Benin is the product of an urban royal court, and is meant to symbolize and to extol the power, mystique, grandeur, continuity, and endurance of the ruling dynasty. The Kingdom of Benin was ruled by the Oba, a divine leader at the head of the political system. As the office of the Oba became increasingly ceremonial, the art produced evolved into an instrument of the state. This charming bronze sculpture takes the form of a leopard’s head, replete with whiskers and pointed fangs. Big cats have traditionally symbolized political power and authoritative rule from the jungles of Mesoamerica to the deserts of the Middle East. Much as jaguars and lions dominate their respective terrains, likewise the king, who associates himself with these great beasts, rules his kingdom without challenge. The leopard naturally symbolized the strength and ferocity of the Oba and served as the royal animal, thus any object depicting a leopard was reserved for the Oba or the closest members of his court. The bronze head served as an aquamanile, a type of water vessel introduced into Africa by European traders. Originally, a lid would have been attached to the hinge along the rim of the hole in the centre of the top of the head. When filled with water and tipped downwards, water would have flowed through the holes in the nostrils unto the hands of the Oba for ceremonial cleansing. When not used in rituals, the work would have rested with other pieces of royal paraphernalia in the courtyard of the Oba’s palace. The refined beauty of the casting and the symbolism of the leopard imbue the piece with a power and grace befitting the mighty animal it honours. – (PF.6286)
Ivory and bronze sculptures from the West African Kingdom of Benin, in present-day Nigeria, are among the continent’s most important and valuable works of art. Included in the corpus are elaborate bas-relief plaques, stately commemorative king’s heads and towering elephant tusks embellished with detailed figurative scenes illustrating life at court and the heroic deeds of kings and warriors. These artworks glorified the king, as the political and spiritual head of his people, and honored his ancestors.
In 1897 British forces occupied and burned the city of Benin and destroyed the royal palace. Following these tragic events, hundreds of bronze and ivory sculptures, along with royal regalia and other palace furnishings, were shipped to London, where they aroused considerable attention from the European public.
From the fifteenth century on, commemorative heads of kings were the central element of royal ancestral altars that also featured other freestanding bronze sculptures. In the seventeenth century richly carved ivory tusks were added to these ensembles and in the eighteenth century tableaux of bronze figures were introduced. Unique bronze bas-relief plaques illustrating complex court hierarchy, royal rituals, and historical events of the kingdom, were probably produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; according to a seventeenth-century European visitor, they once adorned pillars within the royal palace. When British soldiers occupied the palace they found them in a storage room where it has been speculated they were preserved as a kind of archive. Among the plaque’s imagery are depictions of annual ceremonies comprising rituals to guarantee the survival and prosperity of the kingdom and its inhabitants. The ceremonies feature courtiers and dignitaries from the court’s complex hierarchy paying homage to their king attired in magnificent ceremonial robes and bearing bronze, ivory or coral insignia. These traditions are still very much alive in Benin today. While they have maintained their spiritual importance, they have evolved into popular and colourful festivals that are broadcast on Nigerian television for the enjoyment of a national audience.