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
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
Learning about Africa
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.
- Research Benin society, including culture, geography, politics, and climate.
- Compile research into an illustrated report.
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.
Discuss sculpture as having three dimensions: height, width and volume. What can you say about this sculpture’s volume and depth? What about this relief's dimensions differentiate it from other sculptures?
The plaque is made of bronze, which has been cast using the lost-wax method. How can we see it is bronze?
Discuss line, texture and pattern. Is the work symmetrical?
What details can you see on the plaque and figure? What does this tell us about the skill of the artist?
How do you think this work was meant to be viewed?
Where do you think a plaque like this was displayed?
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. How can we see that this man is important? Observe the figure’s accessories, what can we infer about his status?
How does the artist use compositional elements to convey to the figure’s strength to us?
The man wears a collar made of leopard fangs and a leopard-skin skirt. Benin culture attached high importance to the symbolic function of animals. What are the physical or behavioral characteristics of the leopard? What associations do you have with the leopard?
The leopard is a symbol of leadership, embodying qualities such a courage, strength, ferocity. Why might these qualities be important for a culture?
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. What are some examples of rituals or ceremonies from your own culture?
After discussing this plaque, students can use it as a starting point for researching and understanding Benin & Edo society. Guide students to research the society, including its belief systems, political organization, geography, and climate. Ensure that students are familiar with research techniques available to them, such as reliable web sources and library resources.
After researching, students can compile their findings into a report, and may include illustrations like maps and photographs.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.