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African Art

Disk

18th–19th century

Brass with repoussé

1 × 1/16 × 24 in. (2.54 × 0.203 × 61 cm)
Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection
2006.51.81
The imagery on this brass disk relates to royal power in the Benin Kingdom. The outer rim decoration features leopards, heads of Portuguese figures, and three ceremonial swords, which in this combination are an emblem for the Oba, or King: the leopard, as ruler of the forest, is a symbol for the king; the heads refer to the sea trade and to Olokun, god of the sea, fertility, and prosperity and the Oba’s counterpart as ruler of the water underworld; and the swords refer to his power to take life. The disk was collected by Lieutenant Norman Burrows, who was a member of the British army that captured Benin City in 1897. Its original use remains enigmatic, as no comparable example is known.
Geography: 
Guinea Coast, Nigeria
Status: 
On view
Culture: 
Edo, Benin Kingdom
Period: 
16th century
Classification: 
Sculpture
Provenance: 

Probably commissioned by the Oba of Benin, 18th–19th century; by descent to Oba Ovonramwen (Ovonramwen Nogbaisi) (b. about 1857–d. about 1914), Royal Palace, Benin City; removed by Lieutenant Norman Burrows, Mellor Hall, Marple Bridge, Derbyshire, during the Benin Punitive Expedition, February 1897 [see note 1]; sold to Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry-Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900), Farnam, England, May 2, 1898. Josef Oskar Müller (1887–1977), Solothurn, Switzerland; sale, Christie’s, London, June 13, 1978; sold to Charles B. Benenson (1913–2004), Greenwich, Conn., bequeathed to the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., 2004

Note 1: An inscription in paint on the back of the disc reads, “Benin. BT. N. Burrows. Apr. 1898;” Lieutenant Burrows of the North Lancashire regiment was attached to the Niger Coast Protectorate Force from February 1895. The Benin Punitive Expedition was a British military led expedition against the west African Kingdom of Benin in retaliation over a trade dispute in January 1897. Despite fierce resistance, British troops captured, burned and looted Benin city, including much of the country’s art, which was taken to Britain.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

The Gallery recognizes the looted status of objects from the Benin Kingdom in our collection and is part of ongoing conversations regarding these artworks. The ethics of collecting works of art removed from their countries of origin during periods of European colonialism or conflict is a subject of debate among collecting institutions, international governments, and the public. The Gallery is sensitive to the complex history of these objects and seeks to educate the wider Yale University, local, national, and international communities through their continued display.

Bibliography: 

Lieutenant-General Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers, Antique Works of Art from Benin (Oxford, England: privately printed, 1900), 36-37, no. 102, ill.

Felix von Luschan, Die Alterumer von Benin (Berlin, Germany: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 1919), 438-439, fig. 695.

Christie’s London, London, Christie’s: African Art from the Collection of the late Josef Mueller of Solothurn, Switzerland, sale cat. (June 13, 1978), fig. 264.

Wilson P. Foss, Nigerian Splendor: A Checklist of the Exhibition, Dartmouth College Museum and Galleries, Jaffe Friede, Strauss and Barrows Galleries, Hopkins Center, Hanover, N.H., 12 April to 18 May 1980, exh. cat. (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College, 1980), no. 54.

Flora S. Kaplan, Images of Power: Art of the Royal Court of Benin, exh. cat. (New York: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 1981), 67, fig. 58.

Frederick John Lamp, “Charles Benenson and His Legacy of African Art to Yale,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2004): 26, ill.

“Acquisitions, July 1, 2005–June 30, 2006,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2006): 222.

Frederick John Lamp, Amanda Maples, and Laura M. Smalligan, Accumulating Histories: African Art from the Charles B. Benenson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2012), 117, ill.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.