The Benin Kingdom of old is not related to the Republic of Benin even if some of the peoples in the modern sovereign state are descendants of the Benin people who flourished between the 11th and 16th centuries on the west coast of Africa.
The name of the ancient kingdom and the modern state is, however, of the same etymology – Ubinu meaning anger, and it was what the Yoruba actually called the Edo people. The latter is one of the largest non-Yoruba groups in southern Nigeria, possessing a state – Edo State – whose capital is Benin City. The Edo and Yoruba are not vastly different in linguistics and religions.
Ubinu was corrupted into Benin by the 15th century, at the zenith of the Edo people’s achievements. If there was one thing this great kingdom left us in contemporary times as a sign of how well they did for themselves, it would be the Benin bronzes, looted by the British at the beginning of the 19th century.
Famous among the works were the face masks which are thought to have been inspired by the face of Idia, the 15th-century queen mother of the Edo. Her son, Esigie, is reputed as the first West African monarch to establish international diplomatic relations with Europeans. But how did one woman come to be synonymous with a people’s craft and aesthetic conception?
Generally in the collection of looted Benin works, sculptures of women are rare, which makes the queen mother’s masks hard to miss. There are also very few of Idia’s face masks remaining in European and American museums. There is one at the New York Met Museum, another at Linden in Stuttgart, Germany while yet another sits in the care of the British Museum in London.
It is thought that the masks would have been made in the 16th century at the request of Esigie. The monarch would have worn his mother’s masks as part of ritual purification as well as in remembrance of his mother. This would have been done at public ceremonies. It is also important to understand that until Esigie, this practice for a monarch to uphold their mother’s memory in public and in-state was not known among the Edo.
Esigie may have been paying his respects and encouraging new public morality but he also literally invited his people into reverence for his mother. The importance of the role of the queen mother began to be recognized during Esigie’s reign.
The historian Jacob Egharevba, an Edo himself, reckons that Idia’s irreducible role in fighting for the right of her son to be king after the death of her likely polygamous husband and king, Ozolua, is what Esigie seems to have rewarded. Overcoming palace intrigue in the death of a monarch was not easy then and would not be easy even now.
Another point to note is that the mask of the Iyoba (queen mother) is made of ivory, unlike the other works that are of bronze. That is not to say there are no Idia bronze works because there are. But in choosing to make the most famous artworks of his mother with ivory, Esigie chose whiteness, the connotation of purity.
Whiteness was also associated with Olokun, god of the sea, waters and wealth. A careful inspection of the Idia masks shows bearded faces of Portuguese men. It is understood that the Edo di believe that these foreigners who had come from beyond the Atlantic Ocean were at least, people who had the knowledge and gifts of Olokun.