African Art

Nigeria, West Africa, Benin Kingdom
Leopard Hip Ornament, 18th century
8 1/2 x 5 7/8 x 3 1/4 in. (21.6 x 14.9 x 8.3 cm)
Friends of Art Fund, 1955
AMAM 1955.22

View this object's K-12 Classroom Resource Sheet

Brass leopard head ornaments such as this were given by the Benin monarch to his war officers, who wore them slung at the hips. The ornament signified that the ruler had delegated to the wearer the authority to take human life.

From the fifteenth through the nineteenth century, the powerful Benin Kingdom spread throughout southern Nigeria. Although the oba,1 a divine king, ruled the state, his many chiefs helped in its administration. They were organized in a highly hierarchical system, and costume elements reflected their rank. Brass, still a precious metal in Benin today, could in the past only be worn with the oba's permission.2 Brass pendants, worn at the hip, took the form of human, ram, crocodile, baboon, and leopard heads.

The oba was the only person in Benin who had the right to take human life, and the leopard was his symbol. When he delegated his power to kill to his war leaders, he gave them a leopard head pendant.3 The oba also wore leopard head pendants, but his were carved from ivory--a material forbidden the chiefs by sumptuary laws--and were usually worn in multiples around his waist.4

The Oberlin pendant shows a leopard with pouched cheeks, large slanted eyes (the proper left eye set slightly higher than the right), and a nose with pierced nostrils. The partially open mouth reveals a tongue caught between two rows of teeth, which include prominent incisors. Three ropelike raised whiskers flank either side of the mouth, and the leaflike ears are placed close together on the narrow forehead. The leopard has raised spots, differing in diameter and degree of relief; the surrounding surface is stippled. Two semicircular flanges are placed behind the head. The top flange is narrower and is filled with an openwork interlace pattern, while the bottom flange displays a somewhat crooked, openwork crosshatch pattern. Both are edged with an s-spiral border. The bottom flange additionally includes a row of rings that were originally hung with jingling crotals. The mask was attached to the costume by the two cast-on rings on the back, located on the top and bottom.

Several southern Nigerian cultures historically produced brass hip pendants.5 The Oberlin leopard pendant is, however, clearly from Benin. It follows stylistic conventions established in Benin brass by at least the sixteenth century, when standing figures of horn-blowers or military officers were depicted on figurative plaques wearing similar pendants. A Benin leopard pendant which appeared in a recent auction was attributed by William Fagg to the sixteenth century. 6 Slightly smaller than the Oberlin example, its facial modeling is more pronounced; it includes inlaid iron eyes, but lacks the raised spots. Barbara Blackmun dates the Oberlin pendant to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, a convincing conclusion based on its style, quality, and weight.7

Human head pendants from Benin are quite common, but only about fifty leopard head ornaments survive.8 Several have been published in sales9 or collection catalogues,10 but none are identical in treatment or form to the unusually large Oberlin example. Leopard spots are often rendered as flat circles, although some pendants have raised copper insets. Many examples include flanges, although they are seldom so elaborately constructed. Crotals, raised whiskers, and stippling are also common. Almost all known brass leopard pendants are cast, although a few nineteenth-century examples are made from beaten sheet brass.11

The leopard was, and is, a widespread symbol of authority and rulership in southern Nigeria, conferring by association the animal's characteristic beauty and elegance, as well as its deadliness, speed, and surety, upon the wearer.

Since Oba Ewuare's reign in the mid fifteenth century, the leopard has been inextricably identified with the monarchy12 Before he was crowned, Ewuare lived in exile, wandering in the wilderness. One day he awoke to feel blood dripping on his face. He looked up and saw a leopard resting on an overhanging branch, an antelope in its jaws. Interpreting his survival as a sign of luck and an omen of future kingship, he demonstrated his mastery by killing the animal. Ewuare subsequently decreed that all future obas should sacrifice a leopard at least once during their reign.13

Seventeenth-century European visitors saw semitame leopards at the Benin court.14 In precolonial times, several highly respected royal guilds dealt with the leopard,15 the oba's animal counterpart. When a leopard, dead or alive, was brought before the oba, its face was covered, for, as a Benin proverb states, "Two obas can't see each other's faces."

K. Curnow

Brass casters, like all those who made or took care of objects for the oba, belonged to hereditary guilds. When the oba desired an object, he summoned the guild chiefs, gave them their orders and raw materials, and awaited the product. The oba's satisfaction with a work resulted in awards which were shared by guild members according to an internal hierarchy. Although there was certainly room for creativity within the guild, conformity to certain set models was expected, and apprenticeship training encouraged the continuity of traditions.

While the individual maker of the Oberlin pendant is unknown, he would have been a member of the brass caster's guild, or Igun Eronmwon.16 Working only at the oba's command, they created cire perdue heads and figures for his ancestral altars, as well as pendants, bracelets, and other ornaments for his chiefs. Before casting took place, guild members purified themselves and practiced sexual abstinence to achieve an ideal ritual state. They then prayed and made offerings to their ancestors, to their personal guiding spirits (ehi), and to Ogun, deity of iron and war, who is personified by tools and metal itself.17 While casters worked on smaller projects (probably including hip ornaments) in their own town quarter, more ritually significant objects were made in secrecy at the palace. In such instances, the oba himself participated in the pouring of metal.

The leopard pendant was purchased for the museum in 1955 from the African art dealer J. J. Klejman of New York. He had bought this piece earlier in the year and, in a letter written to the museum, said it was "brought to Europe by one of the high officers who commanded the punitive expedition."

The 1897 Punitive Expedition resulted in the British colonial rule. By the late nineteenth century, the British had extended political and mercantile control over parts of southern Nigeria through trade and "protection" treaties. In 1897 the Acting Consul-General James Phillips decided to visit Benin City to pursue a stronger trade agreement with the then-independent kingdom. The oba asked Phillips to delay his trip until a festival ended, since strangers were barred from entering the city during its celebration. Ignoring the
oba's message, Phillips and eight other Britons--accompanied by several hundred African porters--advanced towards Benin. Insulted by their actions, Benin's generals intercepted the party and killed most of them. In swift retaliation, the British Navy undertook a punitive attack. They conquered the kingdom, tried and executed several chiefs, and exonerated but exiled the oba himself. He died in 1914, but the British allowed his son to be crowned; his grandson rules today as the thirty-eighth monarch of the present dynasty. During the British conquest, the city burned, and thousands of palace and chiefly treasures were taken as booty. Some of these objects were sold in Lagos, Nigeria; others were auctioned by the Foreign Office in London to benefit the widows of British Soldiers killed during the Punitive Expedition. Many choice items remained in private hands; the Oberlin ornament was apparently one of these private souvenirs.

Kenwood, London County Council, 1962. An American University Collection: Works of Art from the Allen Memorial Art Museum. 30 May - 30 October. Cat. no. 13.

College Art Journal 14, no. 4 (1955), cover.

Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 21, no. 2 (1964), p. 113-15, no. 70.

Robbins, Warren M., and Nancy Ingram Nooter. African Art in American Collections, Survey 1989. Washington, D.C., 1989, pp. 222-23, no. 574.

Blackmun, Barbara. "The Face of the Leopard: Its Significance in Benin Court Art." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), pp. 24-35.

Technical Data
The Oberlin pendant is in excellent condition. While oxidation has darkened this cire perdue work,18 only a little corrosion is evident on the teeth. In Benin, it would have been kept polished to a high sheen with lime juice and sand. At the back, the upper flange shows a hole just to the right of the ring, and small holes are evident just below the right ear. Some of the interlace shows minor damage which may have occurred during the casting process. The collar of the piece was originally hung with thirty crotals; all but two of these are missing, although eleven additional attachment wires remain.

1. The oba, or king, of Benin holds a hereditary position that follows the rules of primogeniture. Although the British colonized Benin in 1897 and Nigeria became independent in 1960, Benin's monarchy survives. While the oba and his chiefs no longer direct economic affairs or create state policy, they still have strong ceremonial and religious roles, and retain political influence.

2. The pendant's polished brass surface was not only aesthetically pleasing, but also protective, for as Barbara Blackmun ("The Face of the Leopard: Its Significance in Benin Court Art," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 [1991], p. 29) observed, it was believed to deflect "hostile spiritual energies by turning their malevolence back upon the instigators." Brass was also an expression of wealth and status, and Benin eagerly imported this metal once trade with Europe was established.

3. Warriors were adorned with numerous references to the leopard. Depending on their rank, these included leopard tooth necklaces, actual leopard skins, simulated skins made from leather-trimmed cloth, and hip pendants in the form of a leopard's head or the even rarer full leopard, which was worn by the Iyase, the leader of the war chiefs.

4. A sixteenth-century plaque in the British Museum, London (inv. 98.1-15.43), includes a depiction of the oba wearing three leopard pendants; they seem flatter than the Oberlin pendant and were probably made of ivory. See Philip J. C. Dark, An Illustrated Catalogue of Benin Art (Boston, 1982), fig. 59.

5. The ninth- or tenth-century Igbo site of Igbo Ukwu, to Benin's east, yielded examples of cast elephant, ram, human, and leopard head pendants; see Thurstan Shaw, Igbo-Ukwu (Evanston, Ill., 1970), passim. An eleventh- or twelfth-century terracotta figure from the Yoruba site of Ile-Ife, to Benin's west, wears a ram's head pendant at the hip. The work is now in the collection of the Department of Archaeology, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, Nigeria; illustrated in Henry J. Drewal, John Pemberton, with Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (New York, 1989), p. 60.

6. Willam Fagg, One Hundred Notes on Nigerian Art from Christie's Catalogues, 1974-1990 (Milan, 1991), pp. 67-68.

7. Barbara Blackmun ("The Face of the Leopard: Its Significance in Benin Court Art," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 [1991], p. 34 n. 1) summarizes the literature on the dating of Benin art, and states that while the Oberlin face is similar to pendants depicted in seventeenth-century reliefs, the weight of the brass and the style of the flanges appear to be eighteenth century.

8. Philip J. C. Dark, An Illustrated Catalogue of Benin Art (Boston, 1982), p. 2.4.10.

9. See for example, London (Christie's), 5 December 1973, p. 29; sale New York (Parke-Bernet), 22 April 1965, p. 25.

10. A fine example is at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; dimensions, inv. 191.17.36. Reproduced in Kate Ezra, Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection (exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992), p. 167.

11. See Philip J. C. Dark, The Art of Benin (exh. cat., Chicago Natural History Museum, 1962), pl. 21.

12. Many of the oba's praise names refer to him as the leopard (ekpen owa) of the home, as opposed to his forest counterpart, the leopard of the bush (ekpen oha). Because the oba is a divine king, it is sacrilegious to speak of him as partaking in ordinary human activities. When the oba is sleeping, courtiers say, "The leopard is in the shelter"; when he is ill, they say, "The leopard is sick in the wilderness."

13. Ewuare's decision concerning a sacrifice is said to have been the beginning of the formalized ritual of Igue, the sacrifice to one's head. The head is considered the seat of an individual's good fortune, and Igue is performed to ensure a man realizes his maximum potential. The proverb, "The leopard has a good head, that is why he has the beads," reinforces this linkage between the oba(whose coral-beaded attire exemplifies his own wealth, achievement, and Igue benefits) and the leopard.

14. Leashed leopards formed part of the oba's festival procession; see Olfert Dapper's seventeenth-century account, cited in Thomas Hodgkin, Nigerian Perspectives (Oxford, 1975), p. 169. Unchained, they could act as warders. In 1652, a Spanish Capuchin missionary complained, "That night we were kept under guard, and the next day...[they] took us to a grove where we remained in the company of five leopards who watched us"; see A. F. C. Ryder, "The Benin Missions," Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 2, no. 1 (1961), p. 245.

15. Different guilds cared for the oba's pet leopards, or hunting bush leopards, treated their pelts, and processed other body parts for use as medicines. See Barbara Blackmun, "The Face of the Leopard: Its Significance in Benin Court Art," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), p. 31.

16. Even today, all guilds working with metal belong to the Igun sector, which has separate branches to work iron and brass. Membership in these groups is hereditary, and only males are involved in the work. The brass casters live in one neighborhood and today are composed of numerous lineages. Philip J. C. Dark, An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology (Oxford, 1973), p. 51.

17. Philip J. C. Dark, An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology (Oxford, 1973), p. 52.

18. Nearly all Benin brass were produced by this method; some fifteenth-century works were only a millimeter thick.