barber institute of fine arts
university of birmingham

Unknown West African Artist

An altarpiece for the altar of a queen mother

Benin, Nigeria, about 18th/19th century


21.3 x 26.7 cm diameter at base


This altarpiece originated in Benin, in West Africa, and was dedicated to the Queen Mother of the Edo people. She is depicted in the centre, flanked by three attendants to either side. She wears an elaborate headdress covered with coral beads called ‘the chicken’s beak’. According to Edo ritual, the King (Oba) had dominion over the leopard, and the Queen Mother (Lyoba) over the cockerel.

The altar was used in the worship of the cult of the hand. Benin religion attached mystical significance to both the head and hand in understanding human personality. Whereas the head symbolised those gifts the individual had been given at birth, the hand indicated the use to which they had been put in later life. Originally anyone using the altar to strengthen the hand would have placed his or her hand on the top and accompanied this gesture with a small offering of seeds or nuts.

This hand altar was taken from Benin by the Hon G.W. Neville during the notorious punitive expedition of 1897, when British troops captured Benin City and looted many thousands of objects. This work eventually found its way onto the London art market, where it was purchased from the dealers Spink & Son, in 1948.


Purchased 1948 (No.48.1)


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