Plaque: Three men striking idiophones with Birds of Prophecy
Origin: Edo, Court of Benin
Approximate Age: 16th / 17th Century
Size: 20.5 Inches x 18 Inches
The event portrayed in the plaque shown here is a defining moment in the history of the kingdom of Benin—a court ceremony that commemorates the victory of a sixteenth-century king, Esigie, over seemingly insurmountable odds. Both the work itself and the ritual represented constitute tributes to a divine king's ability to triumph over fate and destiny.
The musical instrument held by each of the three protagonists in this choreographed celebration scene is an idiophone, or clapper, consisting of a cylindrical shaft topped by a bird-motif finial. Each man is holding the clapper in one hand and a metal rod in the other, and two of the men (the central figure and the figure at the right) appear to be striking the rod against the bird's beak. The display and use of these handheld clappers in performances by Benin titleholders are the musical and visual highlights of an annual court festival known as Ugie Oro.
Although Benin artists invariably rendered it with exacting details, which include a long neck with wattles and narrow bib below its long, curved beak, it is difficult to determine what species of bird it might be modeled after.
Consequently, it may be that as a metaphor for an abstract concept—prophecy—ahianmwen-oro is a mythical creature that has been interpreted by Benin artists as a composite of different birds.
From the reign of Esigie onward, the bird of prophecy has been regarded as a sign that the kings of Benin are endowed with the power to alter the course of history. Before that time, according to oral history, it was associated with predictions of disaster. On the eve of an epic crisis involving combat against a formidable enemy, the Igala, its appearance before Esigie and his troops was interpreted by his diviners as a portent of a devastating outcome. Rather than follow their advice to heed the "bird that cries disaster" and retreat, Esigie defied the prediction and rallied his troops to proceed into battle. His audacity was rewarded. Under Esigie's command, the Benin army went on to defeat the Igala and further expand the kingdom's sphere of influence. As a means of commemorating this victory, Esigie commissioned the royal brass-casters to create instruments personifying the augury he had triumphed over, kingly counterparts to diviners' staffs.-
Art historians have noted that it was probably during the reign of Esigie, or of Ewuare a century earlier, that the brass-casters were organized as a professional association within the palace. Among the genres of artistic expression that flourished under Esigie's visionary leadership are the "bird of prophecy" idiophones and the rectangular architectural plaques that were displayed on the palace's facade. The example shown here is especially effective in achieving Esigie's goal of reinforcing the power and mystique of divine kingship at Benin while immortalizing his own quest to alter the course of history.
Barbara PLANKENSTEINER (Hg.): Benin. Könige und Rituale. Höfische Kunst aus Nigeria, Wien 2007, S. 446.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.