Ashes for Beauty: The Journey of a Hundred and Twenty-Three Years

Nkem Okoro’s “Elders” depicts five Benin bronze heads from the ancient Benin Empire (also known as the Benin Kingdom or the Edo Kingdom) which occupied present-day Edo State in southern Nigeria from around the twelfth century until the nineteenth century. The bronze heads (which are not actually fashioned from bronze, but were erroneously labelled as such by the British who first took them to the western world) are a part of works of art produced by special guilds of Benin artists attached to the royal courts, collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. These works include carved elephant tusks, ivory statues, brass plaques, and wooden sculptures. They were primarily commissioned for the ancestral shrines of past Kings (Oba) in the courts of the reigning Obas who were not only revered as traditional rulers but were also believed to be divine and operated in political, judicial, economic, and spiritual capacities. A great number of these works were of the Obas and Queen Mothers (Iyoba), as well as the Oba’s chiefs, warriors and courtiers.

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