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Photo: Paul Macapia

Belt mask of Iyoba (Mother of the Oba) Idia

ca. 1517 - 1550


Benin Kingdom

"Iyoba Idia's visage is the most widely known face of an African royal woman after the Egyptian Queen, Nefertiti." (Nkiru Nzegwu, 2005)

Queen Idia's face conveys the considerable determination and allure that has inspired centuries of respect for her role as an astute leader of the Benin kingdom. This icon was one of four created in her honor by her son, Oba Esigie, who led the kingdom to the height of its prosperity in the sixteenth century. All four were worn each year in a ceremony by a succession of Obas up until 1897, when a British military force confiscated them from the Oba's bedroom in the palace and brought them back to Europe.

Ivory, 4 3/4 x 9 3/16 in. (12 x 23.3cm), Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.493,

Provenance: Collection of Dr. Allman, 1897; Collection of Katherine C. White, Cleveland and Seattle, 1960-1981 (her death); gift of Mrs. White and purchase (funds from the Boeing Company) by Seattle Art Museum, 1981

Now on view at Seattle Art Museum

Photo: Paul Macapia


Benin Kingdom

Whoever sculpted this plaque lived in the midst of Benin's golden era as an urban center with a strong administrative and artistic character. The artist would have worked in a powerful brass-casting guild that was run as a royal monopoly and mostly confined to the palace compound. Other guilds were productive as well-ivory and wood carvers, leather workers, locksmiths, weavers and bead workers-and all were firmly directed to create appropriate insignia of authority for complex court ceremonies. For brass casters, the sixteenth century was a period of opportunity, as a steady supply of brass was provided. They were able to add new dimensions to lost-wax casting, creating memorial heads and plaques rich with details to record the grandeur and intricacy of palace life. Such details demonstrate the possibilities of lost wax, which involves modeling forms in soft beeswax rather than carving into hard metal.

Bini bronze caster modeling wax over clay core, Benin city, Nigeria, 1971  
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, EEPA EECL 6938
Photo: Eliot Elisofon

Leopard Faces: The License to Take Life

Two other royal sculptures from the Benin kingdom are part of the Seattle Art Museum's collection. Another brass plaque depicts two chiefs, one of whom wears a leopard-face pendant on his hip. This image is an ominous badge, given only by the Oba to a military commander who is entrusted with the right to take life. The pendant of a leopard's face, carved out of ivory and studded with metal spots, provides a closer look at the intricate detail that Benin regalia required. Glinting feline eyes are captured in metal, and the leopard's ears are carved as if they were leaves. Tame leopards were once known to accompany the Oba during his annual procession through the city. They are described in mythic terms as being potentially cruel and menacing but able to show reserve and moderation as a leader.

Plaque: Chief with Warrior, ca. 1600-1650, Nigerian, Benin Kingdom, 58.134  

Hip Mask, ca. 16th century, Nigerian, Court of Benin, 81.17.494  

Queen Idia - Benin's Most Famous Face

With the allure of the Mona Lisa or Nefertiti's portrait, the hip-mask of Queen Idia is a wondrous icon of African art. It shows the face of the most admired woman in Benin history, famous for her spiritual powers and prowess in dealing with leadership issues of the sixteenth century, such as assessing the motives of the Portuguese, whose ships had arrived near Benin starting in the 1480s. She was the mother of Oba Esigie, a ruler who relied on her extraordinary presence for his accession to power. In homage to her, he amplified the office of Iyoba, making the mother of the Oba the supreme mother of the nation. A ceremony was established to honor her, and the Oba wore masks around his waist to signify her supreme moral authority. The current Oba continues to observe this ceremony, honoring the Iyoba by wearing a hip mask with Idia's face.

Idia's face in this example is incomplete; part of the corona at the top may have supported miniature heads. Two other examples, in the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, show complete coronas with heads of Portuguese and mudfish. The lower part of her face is framed with a lattice collar of coral beads.

Belt Mask of Iyoba (Mother of Oba) Idia, ca. 1517-1550, Nigerian, Court of Benin, 81.17.493   Photo: Paul Macapia