Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
July 10–September 21, 2008
Regenstein Hall

The royal arts of the Benin Kingdom of south-central Nigeria affirm the centrality of the oba, or divine king, portraying his divine nature. While recording the kingdom’s significant historical events and the oba's involvement with them, they also initiate the oba’s interactions with the supernatural and honor his deified ancestors, forging a continuity that is vital to the kingdom’s well-being.

The materials used in Benin’s royal arts—primarily brass, ivory, and coral—are endowed with sacred power. The innate value of these materials within Benin and the time and skill that is invested in working them reflect the earthly and otherworldly influence of the oba and the great wealth of his kingdom. Benin’s royal arts belong to a tradition that favors convention even as it promotes creativity and innovation, especially as a reflection of royal prerogative. Through time, rulers have used the arts to interpret the history of the kingdom and to orient themselves with the past in an effort to support their own initiatives and define their images for posterity.

Through these extraordinary works of art, the exhibition traces Benin’s history—from its origins in the 13th century to the arrival of Portuguese envoys in the 15th century to the growing wealth of the kingdom from coastal trade in the 16th century. It also looks at themes of kingship, hierarchy, and ritual within Benin’s royal court. The exhibition closes by considering the reconfiguration of Benin’s monarchy after the 1897 invasion by British forces and traces its arts following this course-altering event.


Benin: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom, a beautifully illustrated, 40-page catalogue highlights 22 masterworks from Benin's artistic corpus, including finely cast brass plaques and ivory tusks, pendants, and arm cuffs. An insightful essay by curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock outlines the kingdom's history and sheds light on these works of art by describing their creation and function in the context of the royal court.

The catalogue will be available in mid-July in the Museum Shop and can be purchased online.


Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria is an exhibition of the Museum für Völkerkunde Wien—Kunsthistorisches Museum, in cooperation with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria; the Ethnologisches Museum—Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris.


The exhibition Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria is based on a concept that was developed by Barbara Plankensteiner, Curator, Sub-Saharan Africa Section, Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, and is curated at the Art Institute of Chicago by Kathleen Bickford Berzock.


Sara Lee Foundation is a Proud Corporate Sponsor.


Major funding is provided by the Perucca Family Foundation.

Additional support is made possible by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation.

Altar Group (Aseberia) with Oba Akenzua I and Attendants, 18th century. Nigeria, Benin kingdom; Edo. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, III C 8164.