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MFA, Boston receives Robert Owen collection of bronzes and ivories created in the Kingdom of Benin
Pectoral showing two officials, Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria, 16th–17th century. Copper alloy. Robert Owen Lehman Collection. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has received the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of 34 rare West African works of art. Thirty-two objects are from the Kingdom of Benin in present-day southern Nigeria and two are from present-day Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Lehman Collection is the single greatest private holding of objects from the Benin Kingdom (not to be confused with the West African Republic of Bénin, the former Dahomey) dating from the late 15th century to the 19th century. The gift, which includes 28 bronzes and six ivories, will go on display at the MFA in late 2013 in a gallery dedicated to the arts of Benin. In addition to highlighting these works in a gallery, the Museum will present a number of public programs that further the appreciation of the Kingdom of Benin’s renowned arts, cultural heritage, and complex history.

“These treasures of Benin represent a highly significant addition to the MFA’s growing collection of African art. This gift will transform the collection with works that bear witness to the extraordinary creativity of African artists,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “We appreciate Robert Owen Lehman’s generosity, which will allow us to share these works with visitors from around the world and further scholarship about one of the richest periods of African art.”

The collection of bronzes includes a rare 16th-century horseman, a 16th-century rendering of a Portuguese rifleman, and three late 15th- to late 16th-century commemorative heads. Fifteen 16th- to 17th-century bronze plaques in high relief depicting Benin kings, royals, and dignitaries allude to the history and social structure of the kingdom. The works in ivory are equally significant and feature two late 15th - to early 16th-century saltcellars by Sapi artists in Sierra Leone and Guinea, as well as a staff with horseman finial, a pendant, a cup, and a leopard hip ornament from Benin.

Famous for its sophisticated artistry, the Benin Kingdom, whose inhabitants are Edo peoples, goes back to the late 13th century. The reign of the first dynasty, the Ogiso kings, remains shrouded in mystery. The founder of the current dynasty, Oba (King) Oranmiyan, is thought to have arrived from the neighboring ancient Ife Kingdom in the 14th century. From the early 14th century to the present, there have been 38 kings, including the current ruler Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa, C.F.R., Oba of Benin, who ascended to the throne in 1979. To this day, the Oba resides in the royal palace at Benin City, the kingdom’s capital. Divine rulers combining vast political and spiritual powers, the Benin monarchs commissioned numerous works from artists who created them exclusively for the court. Some commemorated important events and highlighted royal achievement, while others held religious or ceremonial significance. The kingdom expanded and flourished from the late 14th through the late 19th century, when it came under British influence upon the conclusion of a treaty with Britain in 1892. Five years later, after Benin forces attacked and killed most members of a British delegation en route to Benin City, the British launched the Punitive Expedition of 1897, sending military forces to the capital and defeating its ruler, Oba Ovonramwen. It is estimated that the British removed more than 4,000 objects from the Benin palace during this military action. Numerous pieces were later sold in Great Britain to defray the costs of the campaign, and were acquired by private collectors and museums in Europe and the United States. Many works of art in the Lehman Collection are known to have left Benin in 1897, and the remainder likely left at the same time. A number of these appear in publications from 1900 onwards, but have not been seen by the public for several decades.

Today, notable works of art from Benin can be found at the National Museum Lagos, Nigeria, as well as many European and American museums. Collections are housed at the British Museum, the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Among the most famous works from the kingdom are its bronzes (copper alloy pieces created in the lost wax-casting technique), which range from sculptural heads of kings and freestanding figures, to pendants and high-relief plaques that once adorned the walls of courtyards in the palace. Artists also crafted beautiful utilitarian objects in bronze and ivory. Of the 28 bronzes in the collection, of particular note is Commemorative head of a defeated neighboring leader (late 15th–early 16th century), thought to depict a foreign ruler subjugated by the Benin army during the kingdom’s expansion in the 16th century. It was once displayed on an ancestral altar created in honor of a deceased Oba, recalling his achievements and connecting his successors with the royal ancestor. The head is a common motif in the Benin sculptural repertoire because it leads a person through life and a “good head” assures well-being and prosperity. After the passing of a ruler, his successor conducted elaborate funerary ceremonies and commissioned many works to commemorate his predecessor. Among them were idealized royal portrayals, such as a Commemorative head of an Oba (King) (late 16th century). It is a rendering of an unidentified monarch with a high collar strung from precious coral beads, and a cap-like crown decorated with clusters of beads and beaded and braided strings hanging from its sides. The heads, which have a round opening at the top, supported elaborately carved ivory tusks and graced royal altars.

In addition to these bronze heads, the gift to the Museum includes pendants, freestanding sculptures, and relief plaques that incorporate many motifs common in Benin art. Pectoral showing two officials (16th–17th century) illustrates two dignitaries holding L-shaped metal hammers in their left hands and long staffs with knobs as insignia of their office in their right hands. They may represent either 16th-century messengers linking Benin with the ancient kingdom of Ife, or Ewua officials, members of a guild who cared for the king’s personal needs and safeguarded the spiritual nature of the dynasties’ origin from Ife. Another work, Relief plaque showing a dignitary with a drum and two attendants striking gongs (16th –17th century), depicts an official with musical instruments that were played during numerous court festivals and rituals. Rectangular brass plaques also provided a visual history of the kingdom, an example of which is a superb Relief plaque showing a battle scene (16th –17th century). It illustrates a Benin war chief dragging a foreign enemy, recognizable by the facial scarification, off his horse. A horn blower and other Benin soldiers, smaller in scale to emphasize the importance of the chief, accompany him on his victorious exploits. There have been different interpretations as to which historical battle the work might depict, but most scholars agree that it captures a scene of the war with Idah, when the Attah (King) of Idah unsuccessfully tried to invade Benin in 1515–16.

Works from the Benin Kingdom, which is located close to the Atlantic coast, demonstrate the way in which the flow of people, ideas, goods, and techniques in the Atlantic enriched the artistic repertoire and inspired unique visual traditions. Around 1472, the first Europeans—Portuguese sailing along the West African coast—arrived in the kingdom, bringing with them muskets and cannons, and goods such as brass in the form of bracelets (called manillas) to be traded for spices, textiles, and slaves. These manillas were later melted down and recast by Benin artists into sculptures and plaques historically referred to as “bronzes.” The kings of Benin enlisted the support of Portuguese soldiers to pursue their ambitious plans of expanding the kingdom by conquest. The motif of the Portuguese appears in many 16th- and 17th-century works. A dynamic sculpture, Portuguese rifleman (16th century), features a soldier with a flintlock gun; it belongs to a distinct corpus of several similar works, among them one in the National Museum Lagos. The artists rendered Portuguese weaponry and uniforms, typical for the 16th and 17th century, in great detail, demonstrating their interest in new technologies and objects brought across the seas.

In addition to remarkable bronzes, the Lehman Collection features six ivories, including two exquisite saltcellars dating from the late 15th to early 16th century created by Sapi artists (the ancestors of today’s Bulom and Temne peoples in Sierra Leone) for the Renaissance courts of Europe. These artists were aware of the tastes of their foreign patrons and melded African motifs such as snakes and birds with intricate linear and floral designs favored in Europe. These ivories exported from West Africa to Portugal in the 16th century are some of the earliest works to reach European courts and wealthy merchants. Referred to as Afro-Portuguese ivories, they are among the most cherished objects from the African continent. Also of note is Pendant showing an Iyoba (Queen Mother) with a gong (late 17th–early 18th century), which portrays an unidentified Queen Mother, the highest ranking woman in the Benin political hierarchy—a motif that frequently appears in Benin iconography. In this pendant, she taps a gong and is recognizable by her high-peaked hairstyle covered with a coral net, the high collar of coral beads, crisscrossed coral bandoliers, and her richly patterned skirt.

“The artistry of these magnificent works in bronze and ivory is deeply moving. I will never forget the first time I saw the collection—I was in awe!” said Christraud Geary, Teel Senior Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the MFA. “They are a testament to the world of the Benin kings and the brilliance of artists who worked for the court. I look forward to reaching out to, and learning from, the Benin court and the Edo communities in this country as we plan the display of these superb works in the near future.”

Works in the collection were acquired by Robert Owen Lehman at auction houses and through dealers in the 1950s through the ‘70s. “Benin craftsman produced some of the finest examples of bronze casting ever made anywhere in the world,” said Lehman. “My aim in giving them to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is to have the collection enjoyed by as many people as possible. I wanted the works to go into a gallery where they could be shown in a context that makes their power, beauty, and technical sophistication evident.”

Prior to the gift, the Museum had one Benin work among its holdings of African art, an 18th–19th-century terracotta head commemorating a Benin chief, given to the MFA in 1991 by William E. and Bertha L. Teel. It is currently on display in the Museum’s African gallery along with two additional Benin pieces on loan to the MFA—an ivory hip ornament in the form of a leopard’s head and a pair of ivory armlets. The Lehman Collection gift augments the Museum’s holdings of some 114 diverse works from Nigeria and elevates the MFA’s entire African collection. It is the first gift to the Museum from Robert Owen Lehman, a noted collector. The MFA’s relationship with the Lehman family began in 1938, when Mr. Lehman’s grandfather, Philip Lehman, gave a gift in memory of his wife, Carrie L. Lehman, comprising 375 examples of historic costumes and textiles, primarily European, dating from the 16th–19th century. Subsequently, the Robert Lehman Foundation, founded by Robert Owen Lehman’s father, supported the purchase in 1982 of 16 benches and chairs from contemporary American craft artists, expanding the “Please Be Seated” initiative at the Museum through which artistic seating is made available to visitors in MFA galleries and public spaces.

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