Head of an oba (king) sculpted in bronze

Contributed by RAMM Exeter

Head of an oba (king) sculpted in bronze

This bronze head is as controversial as it is magnificent.
It was a trophy of empire, taken from a royal shrine by Ralph Locke during the raid of Benin in 1897. Locke then gave it to RAMM after moving to Exeter to be the city's Prison Governor.
The Edo people of Benin, now part of modern Nigeria, ruled much of West Africa when the Portuguese arrived there in the 15th century. The bronze head would have been owned by an Oba, or King of Benin. They were traditionally made in the royal foundry to commemorate a King's predecessor. Heads such as these were created between the late 14th and 19th centuries and symbolised the ruler's authority and power. The hole on top would once have supported a carved ivory tusk.
The royal arts of bronze casting and ivory carving were under the Oba's direct control. The heads were cast using the 'lost wax' technique. A wax model was created, which was buried in sand or clay. Then it was heated; causing the wax to melt into the surrounding material and leave a hollow shape. Molten bronze (a durable alloy of copper with other metals) was poured into the mould and when it had solidified the mould was broken away, which meant that every casting was unique

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  • 2 comments
  • 1. At 13:24 on 22 July 2010, RAMM Exeter wrote:

    A lot of these ancient kingdoms, they specialised and developed their own techniques. It's easy for Westerners to assume there was nothing there before Europeans arrived. Look at South America. People live there who haven't had any contact with Europe and they've developed their own culture.

    (Anil Lee, moved to Exeter from Istanbul in 1988, in a Moving Here session organised by RAMM Exeter)

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  • 2. At 13:25 on 22 July 2010, RAMM Exeter wrote:

    I would say it's rather menacing, regal headwear, the eyes popping out like that, and the chin is all wrapped up in layers of beading.

    (Margaret Hammond, painter, in a Moving Here session organised by RAMM Exeter)

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