Title: Queen Mother, Ivory Mask
Country of origin: Benin, Nigeria
Culture: Edo peoples
Date: 16th century AD
Current Location: The British Museum

The Place of Benin is the center of activity and festivities for the Edos people. These ceremonies focus on the well being, health and prosperity of the Edos people. Each year the Oba ( King ) performs in a ceremony where he honors his royal ancestors. This calling of the ancestors is done to bring good luck to the Edo people. One important ceremony Igue, centers on the Oba's mystical powers which are demonstrated in another ritual Emobo. The main purpose of Emobo is for the Oba to drive away any evil spirits. This mask was worn around the Oba's neck during the Emoba ceremony. The queen in the mask represents Queen Mother Idia, Mother of Oba Esigie who ruled in the 16th century. Iyoba is the Benin name for Queen Mother.
ht_1977_187_36.jpgHead of a Queen Mother (Iyoba) 1750, Nigeria.
Descriptive Analysis:

b_draw.gifThe Queen Mother mask can be seen in many different styles, and made out of many different resources. The most popular mask though is made of ivory, iron and copper. ( Like the picture shown at the top of the page.) This mask is 20 inches high. Queen Mother masks distinguished with a high coral crown which represents a coiffure worn by high ranking Edo women.

Formal and contextual analysis:

The Kingdom of Benin is located in current Nigeria. Benin was in a state of chaos at the end of the 15th century, when Oba Ozolua died and left his two dominating sons to reign over his land. His son Esigie controlled Benin City while another son, Arhuaran, controlled the city of Udo about twenty miles away. This Civil war in Benin was dangerous to the people of Benin because it was ruining their status. The Igala peoples, who were neighbors to the Odos sent warriors across the Benue River to take control of Benin's northern estates. Esigie conquered his brother and defeated the Igala, which brought the Benin people back together and saved the countries military and status. His mother Idia deserved much of the credit for Benin's recovery because of her magical powers. To reward Idia, her son made a position on the court called the iyoba or "Queen Mother". This position gives high political priveleges. A brass head was created and put in Idia's altar after her death, this event started the making of Queen mother masks. ( P. Girshick Ben-Amos , The Art of Benin London, The British Museum Press 1995.

According to the top of the mask has a decoration of heads which stands for Portugese people because Benin had an alliance with them. This also symbolizes that Benin people had good relationships with foreigners and were respected. Another reason the Edos respected the Portugese is because the edos thought they were from the world of the dead because they had white skin. This shows also the importance of ancestor spirits in the Edos culture. There are two vertical bars made of iron between Idia's eyes, this is put here to represent her medicine-filled incisons which were the source for Idia's mystical powers. ( On the bottom part of this mask is a row of corals, which is a prize possesion for the royal people in Benin. Esigie, Idia's son created this pendant of corals to honor his mother for helping him win the Civil war. It is very signifigany that this make is carved of ivory ( elephany tusks). This is because in Benin culture and many places in the world ivory is a luxury and sign of wealth and purity. Another important symbolic piece on this carving is a mudfish. A mudfish is very important to Benin culture and ecspecially an Oba. The Oba resembles the mudfish because like the mudfish can move from land to water, the Oba can move from the physical world to the spiritual world.
Uniben.jpgThis is the seal of the Univeristy of Benin, Showing Queen Mother Idia. Photo courtesy of Jean M. Borgatti.

The Ivory carving is an actual true image of Idia's appearance. The back of this mask is hollowed out so the Oba can place medicines there to protect him. Because of the precious resources and detail of the carving The Metropolitan Museum of art thinks this piece was done by an exclusive guild of royal ivory carvers for the king. ( The extreme craftsmanship of this mask shows the high level of civilization the Benin people lived in. This mask is very symblic for the Benin people because it represents a time that was the peak of the Edos people. Benin culture dominated Africa and they were very wealthy because of trading. (

Bortolot, Alexander ives. "Idia: the First Queen Mother of Benin." Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Musem of Art.
  • Blackmun, B. W. (1988). From Trader to Priest in Two Hundred Years: The
Transformation of a Foreign Figure in Benin Ivories. Art Journal, 128-138.

Ben Amos, P. (1980). The Art of Benin. London: John Calmann & Cooper Ltd.

The Benin Centenary, Part 2 Edo Art, Dynastic Myth, and Intellectual Aporia
John Picton

P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)

Ezra, Kate. The Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.