Benin was a powerful West African state for several hundred years, well before contact with Europeans. They developed a distinctive artistic style in their sculpture, usually in bronze, wood, or ivory. Women in power commanded a great deal of respect and were often co-rulers with their husbands or sons.

Unknown, Young female figure, Benin kingdom court style, Edo peoples, Nigeria, c.1825, National Museum of African Art. Wiki Commons, cliff1066.

Unknown, Young female figure, Benin kingdom court style, Edo peoples, Nigeria, c.1825, National Museum of African Art. Wiki Commons, cliff 1066.

However, this figure of a young woman, although highly detailed in some ways, is meant to represent a general attendant of the Queen Mother. Her coral bead jewelry and her hairstyle are the signifiers of this role.

When a Queen Mother died, an altar was built in her honor. Like the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, an Edo royal family member must be accompanied, even in death. So this sculpture likely was used on the altar to be a companion of the dead. Her features are stylized into an almost perfect symmetry and proportion. This order is important as didactic aesthetics- perfect composure and beauty is meant as an ideal for real life as well as art. Presumably obedience and loyalty were required as well.

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