This ivory mask is popularly associated with Idia, the mother of Oba (King) Esigie. He ruled the Benin Kingdom, in modern Nigeria c.1504-1550. Esigie is credited with establishing the title of Iyoba (Queen Mother) in honour of Idia. It commemorated her support in military campaigns that resulted in the expansion of the Benin Kingdom. She is remembered as ‘the only woman who went to war’.
This mask remains one of the most famous representations of a woman in Benin court art. . The top of her headdress is decorated with a series of miniature European heads identified by their hats and beards. These heads probably refer to Portuguese traders who arrived in the late fifteenth century, and Portuguese soldiers who accompanied Oba Esigie on his military campaigns.
The double loops on either side of the mask suggest its use as a pendant worn on the chest or at the waist. Similar ivory pendants are worn by the oba in Benin City today at important festivals.
Benin was a powerful state in West Africa from at least the thirteenth century. By the sixteenth century the kingdom had reached the pinnacle of its power and influence. The oba controlled trade with the Portuguese who initially brought copper, brass, cowrie shells and textiles to exchange for ivory, slaves, Guinea pepper and beads.
In the late nineteenth century trade West African coastal trade was dominated by the British who refused to accept Benin trading conditions. Matters came to a head in 1897 when the British launched a punitive expedition against Benin in response to an attack on a British diplomatic mission. This resulted in the destruction of the city and the exile of the king. Numerous royal objects, including this ivory mask, were seized by members of the expedition from the palace compound.