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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Benin (Owo) Ivory Sculpture of a Standing Female
Benin (Owo) Ivory Sculpture of a Standing Female - PF.4648 (LSO)
Origin: South-Central Nigeria
Circa: 17 th Century AD to 19 th Century AD
Dimensions: 7.125" (18.1cm) high x 1.5" (3.8cm) wide
Catalogue: V24
Collection: African
Medium: Ivory

Location: UAE
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This well carved and beautifully-patinated ivory sculpture of a standing woman was made by the Owo, a subdivision of the Benin people of Nigeria, based in the historic capital of Yorubaland. It is a superb piece. The woman is proportioned to have very short legs, an elongated trunk and long, slender arms that reach her mid-thigh. Her right hand holds a crescentic object which may be intended to be a horn/tusk. She is standing on an integrated pedestal base with hatched design, which is echoed in the incisions on her legs and above her breasts. The legs are segmented at the thigh and waist, her stomach is protuberant and her breasts are asymmetrical. Her head is oversized and oval, with closed eyes, an inverted T-bar nose and a serene expression that is partly attained by the absence of a mouth (rubbed away). Her eyes are slightly stained, implying the previous presence of metal inlay. The top of the head is crowned with the remains of an ornate hat, surmounted with a long crest that runs from front to back. While well detailed, the piece has seen considerable use wear and rubbing, which has also bestowed a magnificent golden patination.

The kingdom of Owo is technically distinct from the Benin Empire, and claims descent from the Ife. It is situated about 120 KM North of Benin, and controlled the ancient state of Yorubaland, receiving tribute from a wide swath of rich land and all the trade that passed through it. They were seemingly conquered or at least heavily influenced by the Bini, as their courtly structure and artistic traditions are very alike. They nonetheless have certain customs that are not seen in Benin – such as the Ibeji twins tradition – and have a measure of stylistic independence. They are known to have carved pieces such as this in a three-hundred-year period from the 16th century.

There is not a western African state or tribal group that does not revere ivory. In terms of value and social import it usually equals or exceeds gold, and in the Benin area it is so valued that the Oba (hereditary king/leader) is automatically entitled to one tusk from any elephant killed, with the option to purchase the other. Whatever the function of this piece – probably a maternity figure, although this cannot be conclusively demonstrated – one can be sure that it was a prestige and elite object, and would be a superb addition to any serious collection of the genre.

- (PF.4648 (LSO))


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