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Date: 18th century
Geographic Location: Nigeria, Benin City
Dimensions: 8 x 4 3/4 x 2 1/2 in. (20.32 x 12.07 x 6.35 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.
Object Number: 1994.201.McD
This pendant’s imagery emphasizes the oba’s (O-bah), or king’s, role in the religious and social order of the Edo (E-dough) peoples of Benin (buh-NEEN). In the center of the pendant, a historical oba is held upright by his high priests Osa (O-sah) and Osuan (O-swan), whose presence reminds an Edo viewer of the delicate balance between the oba’s authority and his peoples’ willingness to submit to it. The oba stands on the head of the sea god Olokun (O-lo-koon) who has two mudfish (catfish) extending from his nostrils. These mudfish, along with other religious symbols in the pendant, are meant to emphasize the oba’s spiritual mandate.
Taken from the Edo peoples of the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria) during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897, this Waist Pendant was originally held by the oba (Edo king) or sewn onto garments worn by the oba during important ceremonies. Because ivory was an expensive material whose use was controlled by the oba and his chiefs, the pendant communicated the oba’s great wealth and power.
This pendant reflects the wealth and power of the oba (O-bah) in several different ways. For the Edo (E-dough) peoples, ivory is a material whose trade and use was exclusively controlled by obas and chiefs. The source of ivory for this pendant also dictates elements of the pendant’s composition and form. The oba is situated at the front of the pendant’s composition not only to emphasize his importance and keep the imagery consistent with other depictions of the oba but also to allow the pendant’s design to follow the curve of the elephant’s tusk from which it was carved.
The imagery of this pendant illustrates the oba’s spiritual power and describes his role in Edo society. In the center of the pendant, the oba is held aloft by his sons or two high officials, which recalls his coronation and emphasizes the cooperation between the Edo peoples and the king.
The City of Benin. Engraving, 1668.
The oba is shown in the foreground on horseback surrounded by dancers, dwarves, and animals. His palace is in the background.
The oba’s outfit would have been familiar to Edo subjects as a red coral and agate ceremonial garment. At the center of his chest, the oba wears the bead of kingship, an imported European jasper or African agate or coral bead which symbolizes his power. His legs, which were said to be so powerful that they could make damp soil lose fertility, are adorned with coral ornaments. Around his waist, the oba wears three pendants carved in the shape of heads of Portuguese sailors indicative of the alliance and trading partnership between the Portuguese and the Edo peoples. Contemporary photographs confirm that these pendants are worn in the same way this Waist Pendant was worn by the oba on ceremonial occasions.
Because much of the wealth of the Edo people originally came from commerce with sea traders, there are a number of symbols in this pendant referring to the sea-god Olokun (O-lo-koon). Olokun’s head appears below the oba and mudfish from his nostrils. To the Edo peoples, the mudfish can be either a delicacy or a dangerous predator. For this reason, mudfish are frequently used to symbolize both the great bounty of the sea and its inherent danger.
Frogs appear on either side of Olokun’s head. Because both frogs and mudfish are liminal creatures (able to exist on land and in the water), they are especially important to the oba who is meant to use his powers to create harmony between the land and the sea.
On this pendant, the large protective bead of kingship appears on the chest of the oba. Among the Edo peoples, this bead, made of costly imported European red coral or African jasper or agate, was used to signify the rank of the oba, or king, and was a precious cultural treasure.
The bead also plays a part in one of the most important Edo legends. In this legend, Esigie (ay-SEE-gee-ay), an Edo prince, with support from his Portuguese allies, Edo chiefs, and his mother, Idia (i-DEE-ah), challenged his brother Arhuanran for the Edo throne after the death of their father. When Arhuanran was defeated, he cursed the bead of kingship, driving Esigie insane when it was worn. However Idia used her spiritual powers to break the curse and save her son who went on to be one of the most revered Edo rulers.
Ever since then, the people of Benin (buh-NEEN) have celebrated the Emobo ceremony which is meant to drive negative spirits from the capital city. Ivory waist pendants, like the one shown here, are worn by the oba during the Emobo ceremony.
Founded around 900 AD by the Edo peoples of present-day Nigeria, the Benin kingdom was a powerful nation based in Benin City. Its success was a result of trade with the Portuguese and others. Ruled by a divinely mandated oba, or king, the Edo peoples created works of art largely from copper alloy and ivory. The kingdom flourished from its founding until the seventeenth century. The British Punitive Expedition of 1897 destroyed Benin City. Today, the Edo number about one million.
The full regalia of Oba Akenzua II (1933-1978) includes several carved ivory plaques worn at his waist. Benin, Nigeria, 1964.
In 1896, a small group of British officers and nearly two-hundred African porters were sent to negotiate with Oba (king) Overami of Benin to open his kingdom to international trade. Though the expedition sent a message to the Oba describing peaceful intentions, Oba Overami treated their advance as a national emergency. On January 4th, days after executing twelve condemned criminals in front of the expedition as a show of force, he sent a group of soldiers, led by his son, to ambush the British officers as they approached. All but two of the officers were killed.
When the survivors returned to the colonies, accounts of the experience were published in the press. These reports caused wide public outrage which eventually pressured the British government into sending a punitive expedition force to Benin consisting of twelve-hundred British soldiers armed with machine guns. For six months, British soldiers attacked villages and towns in the Benin countryside looking for the Oba. By some accounts, when Oba Overami finally surrendered to the British, he was supported by two chosen men in the way the oba figure appears on this waist pendant. After his surrender, the Oba and his chiefs were subjected to a show trial presided over by the leader of the British expedition. At the trial’s conclusion, six Edo chiefs were condemned to death while the oba was deposed and sent into exile after a battery of humiliating ceremonies.
This waist pendant was brought back to England, along with five others, by Private William Kelland of the Royal Marines as a souvenir of the 1897 Punitive Expedition. Many other precious cultural artifacts were taken during the campaign as war booty.
The Edo throne was restored in 1914, but without its former power. Today, Oba Erediauwa reigns as a member of one of the oldest extant dynasties in the world.
|Learn about the Edo peoples.|
|Listen to curator Roslyn Walker discuss the British Punitive Expedition of 1897.|
|Curator Roslyn Walker discusses this waist pendant.|
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.