Altar to the Hand Analysisn Benin, 18th-19th century

This sculpture is truly a remarkable work in many senses. As a whole, it is sculpted in the round. The figures on top of the piece are also sculpted in the round. The figures surrounding the circular base, however, are carved in high relief. Regardless, each part of the sculpture possesses meticulous detail. The work displays symmetry and balance, reflecting the emphasis that Benin artists placed on harmony and interdependence in society. The proportions of the figures are conceptual, not realistic. A hierarchical scale portrays the statuses of figures through their respective sizes.

Although the expression of the sculpture is static, it is somewhat narrative, giving it a dynamic sense. Though they are not depicted in motion, the various figures are portrayed in many different poses, in the midst of many different actions. This provides the sculpture with an energetic, multifaceted feeling. The faces of the figures appear to be generic, with conventional African features; large eyes, protruding ears, and full lips can be seen on each figure in the piece. The central figure protruding from the center of the base dominates the focus of the viewer.

His facial features are naturally idealized in a fierce, dominating way. Its wild eyes convey the warrior-like spirit characteristic of African warriors. The three markings above each eye are typical of males in Benin society. Around his neck, he wears a necklace, possibly made of leopard teeth. The leopard represented the hunter mentality that the warriors embodied. High-ranking military officials often wore these necklaces to indicate their status. 1 His bent knees give his body a powerful and athletic sense. He holds an eben sword in a menacing stance, eternally ready to challenge all enemies opposing him.

The eben sword was a leaf-shaped blade made of iron, which was another indicator of high military rank. 1 In his left hand, he holds five severed heads, as if displaying his trophies of battle as he triumphantly returns to Benin City. The small figures flanking the warrior hold horns, presumably to announce their victorious return to the village. The seated figure atop the base also commands attention. Even with no prior knowledge of this sculpture, it may be obvious to viewers that this figure has tremendous importance in Benin society.

His seated pose conveys a sense of coolness, a tranquil divinity characteristic of many depictions of Oba. Though he is not as large as the warrior, he is seated above him, which is another way in which status was portrayed in sculpture. The figure wears a crown of coral, which was a symbolic material to the Edo. It represented the great wealth that the Edo obtained through ocean-going trade with Europeans, especially with the Portuguese. The seated figure is surrounded by what seems to be a group of soldiers or guards, another sign that he is an important individual.

The guards seem to be animalistic, possibly representing the divine relationship between the Oba and the spiritual deities of nature. The guards are crouched, giving the sense that they are full of power and energy. Their faces, like those of the warriors carved in high relief below them, are wild. The face of the seated figure, however, seems to be composed, as if he does not share their warrior spirit. Instead, his face invokes a calm sense of royalty. Historical and Cultural Background: This sculpture holds great importance within Benin culture. It is an Ikegobo, or “altar to the hand. These were created to celebrate the accomplishments of particularly celebrated individuals.

Receiving an Ikegobo was one of the highest honors attainable in Benin society. Though they were usually celebrating an Oba, this particular work depicts the heroism of Ehenua, the military commander of Oba Akenzua I. It was given to Ehenua by Akenzua to recognize the commander’s success in defending the kingdom on Benin from opposing tribes. In the early eighteenth century, many rebellious chiefs challenged Oba Akenzua’s control over Benin and threatened to usurp his leadership.

Ehenua, Akenzua’s ezomo, or military commander, played a central role in defeating these various tribes and in maintaining order in the kingdom. 2 Behind Ehenua, among the smaller soldiers who circle the figure, stand Portuguese soldiers. Not only were the Portuguese trading materials with the Edo, they were also supplying them with weapons and even mercenaries to battle their enemies. After order was restored in Benein, Oba Akenzua was understandably grateful to his great commander. He then commissioned this Ikegobo to honor the deeds of his ezomo. 2 Meaning:

The cultural and historical background of the figure explains many formal aspects of the work. For one, it explains the hierarchical scale. As mentioned earlier, the giant warrior at the base of the sculpture is Ehenua. As this was a tribute to him, it is sensible that he is the center of the piece instead of the Oba. That being said, Akenzua does maintain his status by sitting over the commander. It is as if the Oba was reminding Ehenua that ultimately, he still held power over the commander. The poses of both major figures also fit their roles in society.

Ehenua is depicted standing tall in a strong, aggressive pose holding his eben sword. This emphasizes his place as a fierce warrior. Oba Akenzua, on the other hand, is seated in a pose of leadership and royalty, giving a sense of quiet leadership, radiating confidence and poise. This reinforces his role and the political and spiritual leader of Benin. The Oba is depicted on his throne making offerings to the ancestors to ensure the success of his ezomo’s campaign. 2 With this in mind, the guards discussed earlier could be an embodiment of ancestors in animal form, rather than nature deities.

The forms of the figures are not clear. The inclusion of Akenzua performing sacrifices shows Ehenua that it was not solely he who was responsible for the victory; Akenzua also played a part in defeating his enemies. The Portuguese soldiers standing around Ehenua also have meaning. Their presence portrays the extent to which the government of Benin was supported by the European powers at the time of this Ikegobo’s creation.

The figure was crafted in bronze, which was a material restricted to use by members of the royal family and chiefs. In fact, only the Oba could commission works made from brass. It was most likely crafted using the los-wax casting technique. Though typically associated with the creation of the memorial heads, lost-wax casting was also used to craft brass memorial plaques and Ikegobos such as this one. 1 Brass was first introduced to the Edo (possibly first through Ife) by the Portuguese, thus it was the product of long distance trade, one of the major factors that allowed Benin to develop into a dominant power in western Africa. It symbolized power and required skill to craft, causing it to be considered a somewhat “royal” material.