The impressive weight and size of this brass head would have provided a solid support for the carved ivory tusk that rested upon it. Heads of this type were placed on shrines that honoured earlier kings in the oba’s palace in Benin City, in modern (southern) Nigeria.
This head has exaggerated ornamentation such as a deep coral bead collar that conceals the neck and chin. It also has elaborate beaded side wings that project above the headdress. Coral bead regalia was worn on ceremonial occasions by the oba (king) to mark his rank and status. Coral beads may also be awarded by the oba to members of the royal family or senior chiefs as a sign of honour and respect.
Striking images embodying the oba's power and authority are evident around the projecting base of this head. Leopards appear frequently in Benin court art. Their qualities of fearlessness, power and aggression made them appropriate emblems of royal leadership. They are frequently compared with the oba in his role as warrior and protector of his people. Before the twentieth century the oba kept domesticated leopards in his palace to demonstrate his control. He also reserved the right to sacrifice them during annual ceremonies.
In the Kingdom of Benin the oba was the highest political and religious authority. Commemorative heads of this type were first made in the thirteenth century under Oba Oguola (c.1280–95). The reigning oba was expected to commission a brass head of his predecessor. This was installed on his altar to honour his ancestor and legitimise his own reign. This is typical of later style heads dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Benin court art. It represents an idealised royal image rather than a portrait of an individual.