Museum of Fine Arts Boston Receives Robert Owen Lehman Collection of Bronzes and Ivories

. July 1, 2012 . 0 Comments

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), 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.

Commemorative head of a defeated neighboring leader, late 15th–early 16th century

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.

For more information, visit mfa.org or call 617.267.9300.

Category: Antiquities

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