Unrecorded Edo Artist from the Royal Artisan Guilds of Benin (18th/19th century)

Ikegobo to the Iyoba (Hand Altar to the Queen Mother)

Benin, Edo state, (modern day) southern Nigeria, about 18th/19th century


21.3 x 26.7 cm diameter at base

This Ikegobo (altarpiece) originated in Benin, now southern Nigeria, in West Africa, a city that was known for castings in brass and bronze using complex techniques such as the ‘lost wax’ technique. Such Ikegobos were made to commemorate the ability of individuals to achieve success through their own actions. Only royalty and/or privileged chiefs would have owned such pieces.

Ikegobos were normally made to commemorate high-ranking men, so this Ikegobo is unusual in that it celebrates a female, the Iyoba (Queen Mother of the Edo people). Iyobas were the only women to occupy such high-ranking positions and to be celebrated in this way. Here, the Iyoba is depicted in the centre of the group of figures wrapping around outside of the bronze piece. She flanked by three attendants to either side and wears an elaborate headdress covered with coral beads called ‘the chicken’s beak’; such coral beads would have been imported and considered a royal privilege. The Ikegobo would have been offered prayers to bring wealth and prosperity to the Iyoba. Benin society regarded pregnancy and children  as being the greatest wealth that could be bestowed upon a woman.

It is thought that originally there would have been an ivory tusk placed at the opening in the centre of the piece, the point perhaps symbolising the head of a chief – in this case the Iyoba. Ivory denoted royal status, with Obas (Kings) often controlling the ivory market. Such pieces containing ivory tusks were therefore regarded with the utmost ceremonial reverence.

The Ikegobo is also known as a ‘Hand Altar’. Benin religion attached significance to both the head and hand in understanding human personality and prosperity. Whereas the head symbolised the locus of reasoning and those gifts the individual had been given at birth, the hand indicated the use to which they had been put in later life – i.e. the personal effort and responsibility required to prosper in the world. Originally, anyone using the altar to strengthen the hand would have placed his or her hand on the top and perhaps accompanied this gesture with a small offering of seeds or nuts.

Unlike other parts of the African continent, Benin retained its independence from European colonising states up to the late 19th century. However, Sir Ralph Moor, the First High Commissioner of the British Southern Nigerian Protectorate, saw great economic opportunity in the Benin forests, and British traders were angry that Oba Ovoranmwen, King of Benin, required customs duties from them. Officer Lt James Philips set out to Benin to enforce an end to this, but he was ambushed and his officers killed. This provided the British Empire with an excuse for the annexation of yet another part of Africa, and gave rise to the notorious ‘punitive expedition’ of February 1897, when 1,200 British troops captured and burnt Benin City. This included the royal palace, which was one of the prestigious cultural complexes of Africa. Oba Ovoranmwen was imprisoned and exiled and Edo people killed. British soldiers also looted many thousands of objects, including a wealth of sculptures and carvings, Benin bronzes and royal treasures.

British soldiers carried out this punitive expedition under Admiral Sir Harry Rawson and their terrible actions brought to an end the West African Kingdom of Benin. Most of the looted objects were retained by the expedition with some 2,500 religious artefacts and artworks being sent to England. About 40% of the art was accessioned by the British Museum in London, some works were given to individual members of the British Military as spoils of war, and others were sold at auction by the British Admiralty to pay for the expedition as early as May 1897. The remainder was sold in London to provide compensation for the families who had lost members in Benin. The removal, travel and sale of these works marked the European ‘discovery’ of African art.

This altarpiece was among the artefacts and artworks that were seized by the British troops (in this case by Hon G. W. Neville) in 1897. It was later part of the vast collection of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), the Californian media magnate who inspired Orson Welles’s 1941 film Citizen Kane. Hearst is understood to have acquired it at the sale in London, on 1 May 1930, of the collection formed by the Hon. G. W. Neville. It eventually found its way onto the London art market, where it was purchased from the dealers Spink & Son, in 1948, for the Henry Barber Trust.

Nigerian governments have sought the return of these looted Benin objects since the country gained independence in 1960. The return of cultural objects to their country of origin is known as restitution. This is a very complex issue that has divided opinion. Not all non-Western cultural objects in Western museums were obtained by force or under duress; legitimate trade, exchange and gifts have also taken place and continue to do so, but the Benin bronzes embody a particularly stark example of illegitimate seizure within the context of colonialism. The Benin Dialogue Group, which includes Nigerian representatives and European museum officials, was formed in 2007 to discuss the issue. In 2018, the Group announced that major museums across Europe (including the British Museum) have agreed to loan artefacts back to Nigeria to be displayed in a new museum called the Edo Museum of West African Art – an architect has been appointed and plans are in development.

The Barber Institute and its Trustees take this issue very seriously, and are cognisant of the wider debates and are keeping abreast of the climate of opinion and best practice. For further information, please see the section on the website called ‘Unlearning Colonial Legacies‘ and the Ikegobo page under ‘Research‘.

Purchased 1948 (No.48.1)