Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria at the Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
Exhibition > September 21, 2008
Regenstein Hall

Spectacular and sophisticated, the royal sculptures and regalia from the West African Kingdom of Benin are among the continent’s most acclaimed works of art. This landmark exhibition, representing six centuries of Benin’s rich artistic heritage, brings together more than 220 of these masterworks from collections around the world and makes its sole North American stop at the Art Institute of Chicago. Planned with the most prominent scholars of Benin art, history, and culture, as well as the cooperation of reigning Oba Erediauwa and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, Benin—Kings and Rituals brings international attention and new perspectives to Benin art and history.

Benin Kingdom, Nigeria
Altar Head of an Oba (Uhunmwun Elao), 18th/early 19th century
H. 32.4 cm (12 3/4 in.)
The Art Institute of Chicago, Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment, 2003.16

The royal arts of the Benin Kingdom of south-central Nigeria affirm the centrality of the oba, or divine king, portraying his divine nature. While recording the kingdom’s significant historical events and the oba’s involvement with them, they also initiate the oba’s interactions with the supernatural and honor his deified ancestors, forging a continuity that is vital to the kingdom’s well-being.

The materials used in Benin’s royal arts—primarily brass, ivory, and coral—are endowed with sacred power. The innate value of these materials within Benin and the time and skill that is invested in working them reflect the earthly and otherworldly influence of the oba and the great wealth of his kingdom. Benin’s royal arts belong to a tradition that favors convention even as it promotes creativity and innovation, especially as a reflection of royal prerogative. Through time, rulers have used the arts to interpret the history of the kingdom and to orient themselves with the past in an effort to support their own initiatives and define their images for posterity.

Benin Kingdom, Nigeria
Oba’s Altar Tusk, 1850/1888
150.5 x 195.6 x 12.7 cm (59 1/4 x 77 x 5 in.)
The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Hokin, 1976.523

Benin Kingdom, Nigeria
Plaque of a War Chief, 16th/17th century
33.9 x 28.8 x 4.7 cm (13 3/8 x 11 3/8 x 1 7/8 in.)
Samuel P. Avery Fund, 1933.782

Through these extraordinary works of art, the exhibition traces Benin’s history—from its origins in the 13th century to the arrival of Portuguese envoys in the 15th century to the growing wealth of the kingdom from coastal trade in the 16th century. It also looks at themes of kingship, hierarchy, and ritual within Benin’s royal court. The exhibition closes by considering the reconfiguration of Benin’s monarchy after the 1897 invasion by British forces and traces its arts following this course-altering event.


Benin: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom, a beautifully illustrated, 40-page catalogue highlights 22 masterworks from Benin’s artistic corpus, including finely cast brass plaques and ivory tusks, pendants, and arm cuffs. An insightful essay by curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock outlines the kingdom’s history and sheds light on these works of art by describing their creation and function in the context of the royal court.

The catalogue is in the Museum Shop and can be purchased online

Text & images © The Art Institute of Chicago
All rights reserved


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~ by Stampfli & Turci on August 10, 2008.

2 Responses to “Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria at the Art Institute of Chicago”

  1. […] bookmarks tagged royal arrival Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria… saved by 5 others     Iwanttoriot bookmarked on 08/14/08 | […]

  2. i am pround to be an edorian,beinin city edo state…we the benin people deserve the best because we are the best.

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