Hello from the History Department –
Often people want to know the stories behind certain unusual antiques in our properties. More often than not, those provenances prove to be elusive. But we do know the story about a recently installed brass piece at the entrance to the Ironworks Grill at the Grand Lodge.
Ozolua dan yan ogogoro./O gha ghe Uton ghe Ohinmwin./Ghe ologan ne o rre orinmwin okun (Trans.: Ozolua hopped on a horse./He looks at Otun and at River Niger./He looks at the tall palm tree that is in the heat of the sea)
–A Benin description of Oba Ozolua (ca. 1481) as “The Conqueror” riding a horse.
This exceptional equestrian statue is meant to represent Oba Triumphant, the king or a chief of the Benin army, marching into battle or in a victory parade. There are also some that link this figure to a foreign messenger, sent by the Ooni (the head of the neighboring city of Ife), bringing recognition of the Oba’s accession.
This piece originated in the pre-colonial Kingdom of Benin, in what is present-day Nigeria. A prime example of the lost wax process for which nearby Ife was known, the piece is made entirely of brass. The molten metal is poured into a wax mold, therefore losing the wax in the process. Bronze, like ivory and coral, was costly and time-consuming to work with, so it was reserved for royalty. Brass statues like these would have been found in palaces or buried with their Oba.
This statue depicts a rider atop a saddled horse. The horse stands on an open rectangular base with a decorative guilloche pattern around it. The rider wears a protective tunic, or cuirass, a garment that would have been made out of leather and felt. This statue’s garment features a circular pattern meant to represent cowrie shells.
At the base of the tunic there is a distinctive leopard face; this is significant because one of the praise names of the Oba was “The Leopard of the Town.” He alone was allowed to slay leopards as part of his ritual duties. The collar around the Oba’s neck would have been made from leopard teeth or bones.
He is holding what most likely is a spear, since broken from age. [Update: As of 2020, his spear has been repaired!] On the rider’s head, we see something resembling a crown or headdress that would have been adorned with feathers in the center. On his face, there are markings that look like cat whiskers; this is ritual scarification that have been associated symbolically with a messenger figure in the Benin court, possibly for the coronation of the Oba.
With thanks to Banu, an African art antiquities dealer.
Written by assistant historian Caitlin Popp