barber institute of fine arts
university of birmingham

Unknown West African Artist

An altarpiece for the altar of a queen mother

18th/19th century


21.3 x 26.7 cm diameter at base


In the royal court of Benin, Nigeria, the iyoba (queen mother) enjoyed great political importance.

Indeed, she benefited from many of the privileges granted to high-ranking men in Benin culture. She is depicted here as the most prominent figure on a brass hand altar. These altars were usually made to celebrate an individual’s accomplishments which the queen mother would have been accorded by virtue of her relationship to her son, the king. In this, and similar sculptures, she can be identified by her size, crown, jewellery and high collar. Here she is flanked by two female attendants who were traditionally raised in the royal palace by the iyoba herself. These women were respected for their education and refinement, and were usually offered in diplomatic marriages to reinforce political alliances with important chiefs of other tribes.

Purchased 1948 (No.48.1)

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