Benin ivory mask


Ivory mask, 16th century, 24.5 x 12.5 x 6 cm, Edo peoples, Benin, Nigeria © Trustees of the British Museum

Ivory mask, 16th century, 24.5 x 12.5 x 6 cm, Edo peoples, Benin, Nigeria © Trustees of the British Museum

The palace of Benin is the center of ritual activity focused on the well-being and prosperity of the Edo peoples. Each year the Oba (king) of Benin performs in rituals in which he honors his royal ancestors to enhance the good fortunes of his people. One important ceremony, Igue, centers on the Oba’s mystical powers, which are then demonstrated in a subsequent ritual, Emobo, whose main purpose is for the Oba to drive away any evil forces. The Oba sits in a red pavilion; red was thought to be a “threatening” color that could help force away evil. Later, he dances with an ivory gong, striking it to repel malevolent forces.

This type of mask was worn by the Oba, probably around his neck, during the the Emobo ceremony. The pendant is said to represent Queen Mother Idia, mother of Oba Esigie who ruled in the sixteenth century. The top of the pendant is decorated with heads representing the Portuguese, symbolizing Benin’s alliance with and control over Europeans. The Portuguese continued to appear in Benin art long after they had disappeared from Benin itself.


Suggested readings: 

P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995).

© Trustees of the British Museum

Cite this page as: The British Museum, "Benin ivory mask," in Smarthistory, September 19, 2016, accessed September 25, 2016, http://smarthistory.org/benin-ivory-mask/.