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All You Need To Know About The Benin Ivory Mask

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The Benin ivory mask is a portrait of the Queen Mother Idia of the Benin Empire in the 16th Century. It was made like an African traditional mask.


This miniature sculpture was worn as a pendant by the queen’s son, Oba (which means King) Esigie. There are two almost identical pendant masks today; one of them is in the British Museum in London, and the other is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The bought masks are portraits of the queen and symbolise the legacy of the Benin dynasty that continues to the present day.


Other similar pendant masks are in the Seattle Art Museum, the Linden Museum, and as part of a private collection. They were all taken in 1897, during the Benin Expedition. The mask of Queen Mother Idia became a cultural emblem of modern Nigeria in 1977.


All You Need To Know About The Benin Ivory Mask


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When the Portuguese explorers first made contact with the Benin Empire, Oba Esigie became very powerful. The trading and diplomacy with the Europeans brought Esigie and the Bini people prosperity.


The Bini people traded with many things such as ivory, cloth, pepper and textiles. She received the title of “Iyoba” which means “queen mother”, during his reign. She was also the first in the tradition of women advisors.


At least two of the masks found during the expedition feature Portuguese imagery. It was believed that they were created in the early 16th century by the same artist. The details of the masks match the carving qualities of the early period of Benin art. Almost all the ivory works made by the empire were for the king who used them in rituals.


These masks often feature in ceremonies like the “Ugie Iyoba” and the “Emobo” purification ceremony. During the “Emobo” ceremony, these kinds of pendants are used to chase evil spirits.


In this type of Benin art, the depiction of a woman is rare. However, the Queen Idia was exceptional because, according to the Edo tradition, she is the only woman who went to war.


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