Benin City is the center of an ancient culture that has flourished for centuries in southern Nigeria. From the early seventeenth century there are accounts by Europeans of the extensive architectural use of cast metal (actually brass) relief panels and other objects.
The king, known as the Oba, is the central figure in the Benin kingdom and a frequent subject of Benin royal artwork. The Oba’s ancestors were gods, and it is believed that he controls the forces that affect the well-being of the entire kingdom. The Kimbell sculpture portrays an Oba dressed in full ceremonial regalia. The beads that made up his chest covering, his high neckpiece, and the net-form headdress were actually made of coral. The gong-shaped proclamation staff in his left hand was made either of brass or ivory, while the ceremonial sword in his right hand was of brass. The Oba danced with a sword to honor his ancestors. In this work, his power is emphasized by the representation of six small swords in relief on the blade of the ceremonial sword, and by the alternating images of a sword and stylized heads of Portuguese soldiers on the Oba’s kilt. As the Portuguese arrived in Benin by sea, the inclusion of Portuguese heads in the regalia of the Oba also symbolized the wealth he gained through foreign trade and his affiliation with Olokun, god of the sea.