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Queen Idia of Benin is commemorated in an idealized African sculpture
The brass heads produced in the kingdom of Benin are one of the highlights of early African art. They display a calm grandeur that reflects their purpose as symbols of both royal and spiritual power.
The kingdom of Benin, situated in the southern part of present-day Nigeria, produced some of the earliest surviving masterpieces of African art. The most imposing pieces were designed for altars and shrines devoted to ancestor worship. Among other things, these included decorated ivory tusks, bronze plaques of historical scenes, and, most impressive of all, large brass heads of royal figures.
The technique of brass casting is said to have come from the neighboring Ife people in the late thirteenth century, although the earliest surviving Benin heads appear to date from the early fifteenth century. Initially, most of the heads were thought to have represented the leaders of fallen enemies. Soon, however, artists began to portray the heads of the oba, or ruler, of the kingdom of Benin. These sculptures were designed to symbolize the wisdom, power, and destiny of these authority figures.
The sculptures of Idia have a special place within this tradition. Historically, she was the first woman in Benin to enjoy wide-ranging political privileges, through her position as the iyoba or "queen mother." Idia was the mother of Oba Esigie, whose rule in the early sixteenth century was threatened by civil war, following an uprising by his brother Aruaran in the city of Udo. At the same time, tribesmen from the neighboring Igala region took advantage of the situation by launching an invasion, hoping to seize Benin's northern territories. However, Esigie managed to counter this dual threat and re-establish royal control over the country. He dedicated these victories to Idia, believing that her wise counsel and her magical powers had been responsible for his
14 Queen Idia, Mother of Oba Esigie
Artist unknown, c.1500-1525
success. Her contribution was also commemorated in the saying: "Women do not go to war, apart from Idia."
As a reward, Esigie created the new post of iyoba for Idia within the court. She was given a private palace, along with the right to commission her own ritual objects. Images of the iyoba were incorporated into royal ceremonies designed to dispel evil forces. These images usually took the form of ivory masks worn as pendants, hanging from the hip. After Idia's death, a memorial head was cast in brass and placed, along with carved ivory tusks, on the royal, ancestral altar. This became a tradition, followed by later iyobas.
These heads are not straightforward portraits. Most have serene expressions that have been compared with the idealizing tendencies of Western, classical art. They also feature a number of symbolic elements, underlining the protective role of the iyoba. Depictions of Idia usually show her with two vertical scarification marks between her eyebrows. These scars were filled with medicinal charms, which were thought to be the source of her mystical powers. Royal figures were also shown with iron irises, indicating that their power had divine origins and referring to the notion that royal leaders conveyed their authority through a mystical stare. Idia's distinctive headgear of a peaked crown of coral beads, known as a "chicken's beak," was another royal emblem. Overall, the sculptures of Idia's head serve as reminders of her achievements, while also acting as a bridge between the spirit realm and the ordinary world.
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