This figurative plaque was one of hundreds produced by the brass casters working for court of Benin to decorate the pillars of the royal palace. These had been described in the travelogues of 16th and 17th century visitors to the court used by Olfert Dapper as sources for his 1668 volume Description of Africa. Dapper’s book provided the first published visual depiction of the splendour of the palace and the sophisticated aesthetic of the court’s architecture and décor. Despite this early acknowledgement, the art of the Benin Kingdom - which was reserved to the king and the political hierarchy - remained mostly unknown to Europeans until 1897, when the British attacked and looted the capital of the kingdom and shipped to England thousands of artworks as official spoils of war. Some of the pieces found in the palace were also distributed – based on rank - to the officers who participated in the expedition. The ROM plaque was one of thousands of artworks sold through British auction houses and dealers to museums and private collectors in Europe and North America. The piece was purchased by Charles Currelly in November 1908, from the London based dealer S.G. Fenton who specialized in decorative arts, weapons and curios from all over the world. The price of 11£ (the equivalent of 3,800£ of today ) paid by Currelly is indicative of the recognition granted to these African artworks already at the time. It is also indicative of Curelly’s awareness of what could be considered key pieces to add to his encyclopaedic collection.
According to the dating suggested by Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch , the ROM plaque dates to the mid 16th century and was produced during the reign of Oba Esigie, whose military and economic successes were often expressed in courtly artworks through iconographic references to the god of water Olokun. While the crocodile and the floral designs (ebe-amen - river leaves) refer to the water kingdom of Olokun, the central figure represents a young warrior . His attire and sword - not in a style restricted to the court - suggest that he was a relatively low ranking warrior probably from a vassal state. His hairstyle is somewhat peculiar and the markings on his nose and left arm are different from the typical Benin body markings identified in other plaques. The flying braid at the top of his head is possibly a stylistic touch suggesting movement, despite the apparent firmness of his legs and arms. This young warrior was probably present at court as an ally or as a tribute bearer. His image is just one element of a complex visual narrative celebrating the king’s military power and spiritual authority.