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African, Benin kingdom, Nigeria, Edo people
Altar of the Hand, 17th century, brass.
Museum purchase, Preston Pope Satterwhite Fund 1970.14

Altar of the Hand displays two unique aspects of the Edo speaking, Benin culture in Southwestern Nigeria in the 1600’s. The figures and form of the Royal Altar tell a story of a distinct culture, while the material and craftsmanship reveal a high level of skill in metalwork.

The shape and figures in the object reveal how the Benin people understood their universe. Their world is represented as a round, drum shaped structure enclosed by a roof that is held up by four Queens, in the north, east, south and west corners. The importance of the Queens in this cosmology emphasizes the influence women held in the political life of the Benin people, where the King’s mother occupied one of their society’s most important political roles.

Upon close inspection of the four Queens you will notice that they are dressed with elaborate beads that reflect the prosperity of a people who had recently started to trade internationally. The development of trade with Europe is also reflected in the materials and techniques use to create the altar. Metal casting materials and techniques imported from Europe allowed the unknown artist who created this piece to experiment with new styles and techniques. You can see the some of these techniques in the rippling water at the top of the piece. This alludes to Okun, the Benin water god and represents the spiritual connection between the four Queens.




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