Plaque, Ama, with Court Retainer, 1550–1680
Edo peoples, Benin Kingdom
Copper alloy Former medium: Brass
Overall: 19 1/4 × 12 in. (48.9 × 30.5 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Habits of Mind

  • OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown

Studying African Animals

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Describe physical and behavioral characteristics of animals.

•  Research and describe animals’ habitat and place in the food chain.

•  Create a clay sculpture of an animal.






Overcome Fear

Connecting to the Work of Art

This plaque shows a high-ranking member of the court of the oba, the Benin king.  He holds a ceremonial sword in his right hand.  Around his arms are broad bracelets and an armband.  He also wears a collar made of leopard fangs and a leopard-skin skirt.  The leopard is a symbol of leadership, embodying qualities such a courage, strength, ferocity, and cunning.  Everything this figure holds and wears attests to his importance and to that of the oba.


This man stands out in high relief against a flat background decorated with an intricate pattern of dots and flowers.  Similar incised patterns cover the man’s clothes, giving the plaque a richly ornamented surface.  The intricate design and refined execution of this plaque demonstrate the sophistication of Benin artists.


According to legend, bronze casting using the lost-wax method was first practiced in Benin (located in present-day Nigeria) around the fourteenth century.  Using a clay core, the artist made a wax model, complete in all its details.  Next, the model was covered with several layers of fine potter’s clay.  When the encased model was buried in the earth and baked, the wax melted and ran out through ducts, leaving a space into which the molten bronze was then poured.  After the metal cooled and hardened, the clay was broken away, revealing the sculpture.


Bronze plaques such as this were nailed to the wooden pillars supporting the king’s multi-roomed palace, which was built of red earth.  The plaques depicted a wide range of figures from Benin court life as well as animals important to the kingdom.


Metal obtained in trade was melted down and used to make objects to adorn the king’s palace and to glorify his reign.  All the bronze objects in the Benin kingdom were produced and distributed on order of the oba.


The artist of this piece was part of a long tradition of Benin bronze-casters.  According to legend, an oba asked a bronze-caster named Ighie-Ighu to move to Benin from Ife to teach bronze-casting to Benin craftsmen.  As a result, all Benin bronze-casters prayed to Ighie-Ighu, at an altar devoted him, before casting bronzes.


•  Analyze the works of art and identify the animals portrayed.

•  Review the symbolism of the animals and their meaning for the culture.  What physical or behavioral characteristics are important to the symbolism?  Why?

•  Discuss the materials and techniques used to create each work.


•  Research the African buffalo, pangolin, and leopard, including the physical and behavioral characteristics, habitat, and place in the food chain.  Is the animal endangered?  Why?  Compare the animals’ real characteristics with the artists’ depictions.

•  Have students write reports on the animals.

•  Create clay sculptures of the animals.

(see Art Lesson: Studying Animals- Making Clay Animals)

•  Compare and contrast the technique used to make the clay sculptures with the techniques used to create to focus works of art.

Resources Available to Order

The Art-To-Go lending library features materials that may easily be integrated across the K–12 curriculum. Resources include DVDs, music CDs, children’s books, study guides, poster sets, and collection-based interpretive materials produced by the KFEC. Educators, community leaders, and docents from throughout Texas are welcome to borrow Art-To-Go resources. To place your order, search the online catalogue and add the selected items to your basket. After you have reviewed your basket, submit the order electronically.

The Learning Through Art program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is underwritten by:

Mercantil Commercebank

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.