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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Plaque: Oba and attendants

Plaque: Oba and attendants

ca. 1550 - 1650

Eight men are gathered tightly together, as if part of a time capsule from a palace where the royal regalia was visually and acoustically complex. They take us back five hundred years to a lively event that occurred in a kingdom at the height of its productivity and trade. Details of the costumes and instruments speak for each of the men, but the men's facial expressions and individual identities remain remote. At the center, symbolically larger than life, is the Obathe kingaround whom all activity revolves. This plaque leads us to consider the other Benin art in the museum's collection, all of which displays the intricate details that this kingdom is famous for. The Benin kingdom is also renowned for the longevity of its royal lineage, still thriving after a thousand years, with court officials continuing to enact processes of art and ritual that originated centuries ago. With the assistance of a researcher who has spent many years in Benin, we'll be able to see, hear about and watch the dedication that maintains court procedures.
18 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 4 in. (47 x 39.4 x 10.2 cm)
Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company
Provenance: Taken from the royal palace of Benin City during the Benin Expedition of 1897 by Captain H.A. Child, Captain of the Niger Coast Protectorate Yacht Ivy; sold to Harry Geoffrey Beasley (1881-1939), 1935; sold to John Wise (1902-1981), New York (date unknown); sold to Katherine White (1929-1980), Seattle, Washington, 1961; bequeathed to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 1981
Not currently on view

In the Oba's palace, there is never silence.

Edo saying

Harp Player

An akpotin, or harp player, appears in the top right corner of the plaque. The akpata, the player's instrument, is used for telling stories and producing music during ceremonies in Benin.  It has six or seven strings, each of which is named. 
Detail of harp player, 81.17.496
Photo: Paul Macapia

The Portuguese at Court

To the right of the Oba is a bearded man wearing a high-crowned hat, boots, pleated jerkin, patterned hose, musket and hammer. This man is a Portuguese trader or soldier, one of many who might have aided the Oba in a war campaign or handled trade in a nearby port. The king of Portugal sent missionaries and military advisors to establish supportive relations, particularly during the reign of Oba Esigie (1517-66), who, European records suggest, was baptized as a youth in 1516 and relied on Portuguese allies to help secure his right to the throne. Guns were used for the first time in his war against the powerful Atah of Idah. Esigie adapted certain aspects of a ceremony known as Ague to focus on self denial and sacrifice, partly to reflect his respect for Catholic Lent.  Over time, however, his alliance with the Portuguese soured, and when the Portuguese king sent missionaries in 1538 to baptize new converts, the Oba refused to allow it.
Detail of Portuguese figure, 81.17.496
Photo: Paul Macapia

Men With Shields

A group of three court officials flank the Oba, offering a reminder that the Oba is reliant on the support of his subjects. Personal and domestic servants of the Oba have many official duties, including shielding him whenever he makes public appearances. 
Detail showing court officials, 81.17.496
Photo: Paul Macapia

The Oba

Detail of Oba, 81.17.496
Clockwise from right: the Oba (holding eben), a guard, and the Oba's eldest daughter

Brass Books

Leaves are carefully incised into the background of this and other plaques. Their presence raises a question about the original inspiration for the plaques. Some sources connect the leaf pattern with a river plant whose healing properties are used in the kingdom. Others point out that the word for leaf also refers to book and paper, and that books may have influenced the format and use of plaques as repositories for historical records. Further evidence for this relationship is the fact that the first brass plaques were created during the reign of Oba Esigie, an innovator who could read and speak Portuguese by the early sixteenth  century.

Plaques were fastened to pillars that supported the massive flat ceilings of the palace buildings, and the brass was kept brightly polished. About nine hundred plaques are known to exist in public and private collections, with the largest assembly displayed at the British Museum.  By the time of the British Punitive Expedition in 1897, however, the plaques were not installed on the pillars but were consulted on questions of court procedure.
Detail of leaf pattern background, 81.17.496
Photo: Paul Macapia

Sword Bearer

Kneeling beside the Oba, an attendant carries a ceremonial sword of state, or eben, which is used to demonstrate loyalty to the Oba. To kneel is a sign of true allegiance. It is  considered degrading except when required for ritual purposes. One of the punctuation points in court ceremonies is the tossing and twirling of eben, an event that still occurs.  The presentation offers striking embellishment to the spectacles of art, costume and dance that occur at the palace. A demonstration can be seen on the Media page of this website.   
Detail of sword bearer, 81.17.496
Photo: Paul Macapia

Attendant With Box

Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail of attendant with ekpokin, 81.17.496
Benin chiefs presenting the Oba with gifts inside an ekpokin, 1994


Saheed Adejumobi, Associate Professor of History, Seattle University, discusses the plaque from Benin
Video recorded in Benin by Kathy Curnow. Edited by Carol Hermer.
Watch part of a palace ceremony in Benin


Exhibition HistoryCleveland, Ohio, Cleveland Museum of Art, African Tribal Images: The Katherine White Reswick Collection, July 10 - Sept. 1, 1968 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Oct. 10 - Dec. 1, 1968). Text by William Fagg. Cat. no. 145 (as Plaque with Figures).

Los Angeles, California, Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, University of California, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act, Jan. 20 - Mar. 17, 1974 (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, May 5 - Sept. 22, 1974). Text by Robert Farris Thompson. No cat. no., pp. 114-5, reproduced pl. 150 (as plaque).

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, African Panoplies: Art for Rulers, Traders, Hunters, and Priests, Apr. 21 - Aug. 14, 1988.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Documents International: Reflections in the Mirror: A World of Identity, Apr. 23, 1998 - June 20, 1999.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Benin Art: Collecting Concerns, Sept. 15, 2021 - ongoing.

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

Learn more about Equity at SAM