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A FINE AND RARE PAIR OF BENIN IVORY PENDANT PLAQUES, each carved as a standing Oba supported by two attendants, the figures carved wearing ceremonial costume, headgear and coral bead anklets, the Obas with coral bead baldrics with central bead at the chest, the attendants each carved wearing four pendant plaques about the waist carved as crocodile heads, the Obas each wearing three pendants plaques carved as Portuguese heads, the figures joined by panels carved with mudfish pierced at the centre, the panels below the figures each carved in high relief with a finely carved head with mudfish issuing from the nostrils flanked on each side by a frog with grooved back, carved loops about the border probably for the attachment of crotals, terminating at the top on each side with a further mudfish, the figures hollowed at the back, each plaque with loop at the back for suspension, creamy patinas, damages, probably 18th or early 19th century

Details
A FINE AND RARE PAIR OF BENIN IVORY PENDANT PLAQUES, each carved as a standing Oba supported by two attendants, the figures carved wearing ceremonial costume, headgear and coral bead anklets, the Obas with coral bead baldrics with central bead at the chest, the attendants each carved wearing four pendant plaques about the waist carved as crocodile heads, the Obas each wearing three pendants plaques carved as Portuguese heads, the figures joined by panels carved with mudfish pierced at the centre, the panels below the figures each carved in high relief with a finely carved head with mudfish issuing from the nostrils flanked on each side by a frog with grooved back, carved loops about the border probably for the attachment of crotals, terminating at the top on each side with a further mudfish, the figures hollowed at the back, each plaque with loop at the back for suspension, creamy patinas, damages, probably 18th or early 19th century 20cm. high (2)
Provenance
William Kelland, a private in the Royal Marines, collected on the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897

Lot Essay

Pendant plaques in ivory are extremely rare and the only other example we have been able to trace with a triad of figures is now in the Buffalo Museum of Science. It was acquired by the museum in 1944 from Mrs George Tillman, who in turn acquired it from the Parisian dealer, Charles Ratton (Potter, L.H. 'The African Collection of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences', African Arts, Vol.VI, no.2, p.36 and Vogel, S. et al., ART/artefact: African Art in Anthropology Collections, New York, 1988, p.52).

Ivory ornaments were greatly prized and of necessity more fragile than bronze which may account in part for their scarcity. The relatively small amount of wear on the present examples would lead us to suggest a date of between 1720 and 1820, perhaps a production of the revival of courtly art under Akenzua I or Eresoyen. The triadic composition was depicted from the Early Period onwards, for example on the large bronze plaque in the Chicago Natural History Museum (Dark, P. The Art of Benin, Chicago, 1962, pl.1, no.250) and also on many of the large altar tusks such as the Queen Mother tusk in the Paul and Ruth Tishman collection (Blackmun, B., 'Who Commissioned the Queen Mother Tusks?', African Arts, Vol.XXIV, no.2, p.59). In both these instances the figures are depicted wearing the same pendant plaques about the waist. Blackmun has suggested that the set of tusks of which the Tishman tusk forms part, dates from the first two decades of the 19th century. Of the several pendant plaques in bronze with the triadic composition, many of which date from the Early Period, at least two have a similar arrangement to the present examples with three figures above frogs flanking a head with fish or snakes issuing from the nostrils, in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden (Dark, P., An Illustrated Catalogue of Benin Art, Boston, 1982, fig.38B) and in Vienna (Duchâteau, A., Benin Tresor Royal, Paris, 1990, p.88).

These pendant plaques would almost certainly have been worn about the waist by the Oba or a senior court official. The figures represented wear pendant plaques in this manner, those worn by the enobore, or attendants, depicting the heads of crocodiles ('policemen of the water' and messengers of Olokun, god of great waters, the most widely worshipped deity in Benin City) and those worn by the Oba depicting Portuguese heads. That the central figure represents the Oba is clear from the bead, ivie okpagbaru, he wears on his chest.

Duchâteau (op.cit.) suggests the motif of the frog may be a reference to Ofoe, messenger of Ogiuwu, the spirit of death and negative powers, and that the association of the frog (as happy in water as on land) with the Oba may be intended to symbolise the unity of the Oba, an earthly power, with Olokun, god of great waters. Duchâteau, referring to the Vienna bronze plaque pendant, identifies the curved elements issuing from the nostrils as snakes which he associates with Osun, though on the present examples they appear rather to be mudfish. Joseph Nevadomsky (The Iconography of Benin Brass Rings) states that the motif of animals such as snakes and crocodiles (and presumably also mudfish) issuing from facial orifices is related to medicine which is strongly associated with sacred kingship.

According to Blackmun ('Reading a Royal Altar Tusk', in The Art of Power The Power of Art, Studies in Benin Iconography, Los Angeles, 1983) the figures flanking the Oba probably represent Osa and Osuan, the high priests who support the Oba during his coronation and other ceremonies.

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