africa Signature Gallery at the Penn Museum

The rich and diverse cultures of ancient and modern Africa are on display in the Museum's African Gallery, which highlights objects of social and religious importance, as well as objects of everyday life. Drawn from one of the largest ethnographic collections in the United States, the African art and artifacts in this gallery range from household objects and musical instruments to symbolic masks and figurines. Observe up-close the Nikisi N'kondi and other nail fetish figures from central Africa. Other highlights of the gallery are bronze plaques, statues, and weaponry from the Benin Palace located in present-day Nigeria. The Benin holdings of the Penn Museum, the first American institution to collect these works, are one of the largest in the country.

Gallery Highlights

Iyoba, Bronze Statue, Edo, Nigeria.
Museum Object Number: AF5102

Reliquary Figure, Bakoto, Gabon.
Museum Object Number: 29-12-236

Nikisi N’kondi, Nail Figure, Angola.
Museum Object Number: 30-46-2

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The world's history owes much to Africa. It is known as the "Cradle of Humankind," the birthplace of human biological and cultural development. Parts of Africa are also known to have been central to early world trade. As early as the first millennium CE, East Africa was an important part of an Indian Ocean trading system that included Arabia, India, Persia, and China. At the same time, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa exchanged scholars and ideas across the Sahara Desert, and West Africa exported gold and other precious commodities to Europe. These contacts took place long before the "Age of Exploration" when 15th century Europeans rediscovered Africa.

The majority of objects in this gallery come from the colonial period of Africa's history, a time when European powers divided the continent into nation states whose boundaries often cut across ancient cultural and regional areas. Because African culture groups are often divided by national boundaries, objects are identified by region as well as by culture and country. The dynamic nature of styles and beliefs in Africa, therefore--where possible--labels point out when objects were used and the influences that may have gone into producing particular objects. Also identified are the workshops or individuals who produced specific pieces, where this information is available.

On one side of the gallery the exhibition focuses on the use of objects to display status and to transfer laws and traditions to upcoming generations, and on the ways in which some African cultures have used objects to influence and communicate with the forces that control people's lives. The other side of the gallery displays objects of everyday life and invites you to compare the lifestyle of a group of hunter-gatherers with the lifestyle of subsistence farmers by looking at the objects each uses. When looking at these pieces, bear in mind that what you are seeing is only one small part of the complexity and diversity that is Africa.

Gallery Themes


Objects everywhere in Africa are created and ornamented in ways which proclaim the taste and social position of the individuals who use them. The objects here are made to be seen and admired by all members of the community. Some indicate membership in a particular group or signify that their owners have become leaders in their communities. Other examples use costly materials and fine craftsmanship to indicate an individual's wealth and status.

Traditions and Laws

Masks have played an important role in the maintenance of traditions and laws in many West and Central African cultures. In some areas masks belong to initiation societies that teach social values and norms to each succeeding generation. In these societies children learn the prerequisites of adult life in secluded initiation camps. Using masks emphasizes that the norms children learn are derived from the ancestors or supernatural sources and are thus far more powerful and important than anything they may encounter in the world of human beings. In other cultures masks serve as agents of social control, periodically visiting communities to insure that moral codes are followed, to remind people of appropriate behavior, or to recreate cosmological principles.

Staffs In many parts of Africa staffs identify those of high social status, such as rulers, elders, or other leaders. Sometimes these staffs are very plain, with possession of the staff itself signifying leadership. In other cultures, staffs are finely crafted decorative pieces, with the quality of the work symbolizing the owners' status level.

Weights and Measures: Akan Gold Weights

The Akan peoples in Ghana and the Ivory Coast have long been noted for their great kingdoms and states, some dating back to the 12th century. These states established long-distance trade relationships with the Near East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and later, with Europe. Akan gold was the main commodity in this international trade as early as the 15th century, and the region became known as the "Gold Coast."

From the 15th century until the 20th century, the use of gold dust in everyday transactions was common. Gold was weighed on balance scales against counterweights of precise values known by all traders, chiefs, and great kings, each of whom owned a set of graduated weights. The majority of counterweights were cast brass, made by the lost wax process and then adjusted to the proper weight by removing excess metal. The earliest weighing systems were Islamic and were based on measures called Mikhtal, used for weighing gold, and Waqia, used for silver and other commodities. European systems were introduced later.

The most unique feature of virtually all Akan arts, especially gold weights, is the graphic or sculptural representation of symbols, objects, or scenes that are directly related to proverbs or other traditional sayings. This fact reflects the essence of Akan aesthetics and lends a unity to Akan arts, regardless of medium or object type. Proverbs associated with gold weights number in the thousands and pertain to nearly all types except geometric forms, though only a few of these sayings can be explained by the Akan themselves.

Communication and Influence

All societies have complex systems of thought that give meaning to existence, explain why events occur and how people can influence events to gain control over their lives. Central to many African cosmologies are the contrasts between the natural and social worlds. Wilderness often represents the unknown, the chaotic, the dangerous, and the powerful. Towns represent civilization, social order, and safety. While nature and society can be in bitter opposition, they can also complement each other. Hunting, fishing, or farming in the wilderness provide food, and medicines often derive their efficacy from being associated with nature. Spirits, deities, or ancestors often provide the keys to controlling the chaotic and dangerous side of nature and channeling nature's power for the good of human beings. These supernatural beings, however, are often unpredictable, taking great delight in causing trouble and upsetting plans, but they are also able to bestow significant benefits when appeased through rituals or other actions.

African cosmologies are not restricted to beliefs in natural or ancestral spirits. Christianity and Islam have an ancient history in Africa; both religions reached the continent within one generation of their being founded. In some places one religion predominates over the other two. In other places all three work together in varying combinations.


Divination is a particular kind of influence and communication in which specifically trained individuals are responsible for interpreting messages or prescribing actions that are dictated by spiritual forces.

Musical Instruments

Musical instruments displayed in the exhibit illustrate that specific instruments have been traded across cultures and regions, becoming part of the complex of rhythms, songs, and dances specific to each area as they moved. Likewise, groups of itinerant musicians have carried whole complexes, including songs, music, and instruments, with them as they traveled.

The role of musician varies throughout the continent. In some areas musicians have the powerful role of genealogist, reciting family histories and genealogical ties to important ancestors that validate claims to political authority. In other places musicians are suspected of witchcraft because of their special talents. In still other places musical talent is something that all individuals are thought to possess. How different African communities think about and produce music are issues that reveal a lot about the specifics of particular cultures.

Benin History and the Penn Museum's Benin Collection

For over six hundred years the city of Benin was the capital of a prosperous, well-organized empire of the same name. At its peak during the 15th and 16th centuries, the empire stretched from Dahomey to the Niger River and reached to the Atlantic coast in places. The Edo tell of Prince Oranmiyan, who was called from the city of Ife to restart the monarchy after his father Ododua's exile from Benin and wanderings to the west. Oranmiyan fathered Eweka I, who in the 12th century became the first Oba of the present dynasty. The present ruler, Erediauwa I, is the 38th Oba of the dynasty.

The palace in Benin was the height of a complex feudal society characterized by widespread competition for power, prestige and wealth. The arrival of the Portuguese around 1485 created a new era of prosperity and rapid expansion. The Portuguese provided economic and militaristic strength for the kingdom, acting as a conduit for overseas trade and fighting in Benin military campaigns.

Conflicts stemming from colonial ambitions helped bring about the conquest of the kingdom in 1897, when an official British delegation was ambushed en route to see the Oba, despite his unwillingness to meet with it. In retaliation, the British sent the Oba into exile and burned the palace. In order to further weaken the Oba, and to deter additional bloodshed --the Oba had made sacrifices to the gods—the British, in keeping with the tradition of war booty, removed over two thousand objects from the palace. These objects—including the Oba's primary symbol of power, his coral-beaded wardrobe—were auctioned to defray the costs of the military expedition.

Today Benin City is the capital of Edo State and part of Nigeria's federal structure.

The art of Benin is the product of an urban royal court, symbolizing and extolling the power, mystique, grandeur, continuity, and endurance of the ruling dynasty and its governing institutions.

From at least the 11th century to date, the Oba, a divine ruler, ruled Benin and headed the political system of titled chiefs. Under royal support, a number of craftsmen's guilds produced brass, ivory, and wood sculptures and brocaded and appliquéd cloth that museums prize and that command high prices on the art market.

The tradition of the Oba as patron of the arts has continued. In 1914, Oba Eweka II lifted the restrictions on the sale of art work, and traditional craftsmen began to create for the public as well as for the court. Benin art has been resilient in the face of political, economic, social, and religious change. Traditional forms continue to be made today, and new forms are emerging to become part of contemporary Benin culture.

Ivory Armlet, Box, and Wands

Ivory symbolized royalty and the continuity of dynastic rule. White is the color of ritual purity, so the Oba often wears ivory on ceremonial occasions. Such was the skill of ivory carvers that they worked the pieces without any preliminary sketches.

Brass Belt Masks

Cast in high relief, chiefs of all rank wear these small pendants to decorate the fastening of the typical Benin men's wrapper, which is secured on the left hip (as seen in the picture of Commemorative Plaque above). Leopard and human faces were common.

Quadrangular Brass Bells

These rested on altars and rang to attract the attention of the ancestors. Warriors in battle also wore them around the neck; the sound of these bells announced their victories upon returning home.

Brass and Ivory Armlets and Bracelets

Royalty and nobility wore armlets and bracelets. Only the Oba wore ivory armlets, especially in ceremonies where he danced with the eben sword or handled a gong, because they kept his elaborate coral bead costume from getting tangled.

Benin Art and Beliefs

The sophistication and symbolism of Benin art illustrate the monarchy's ability to use the arts as instruments of the state. As the influence of the chiefs grew over the centuries, the office of the Oba became increasingly ceremonial. As a result, court ritual and art focused on what set the Oba apart from the chiefs: his ability to claim divine origins.

The divinity of the Benin monarchy is linked to Osanobua, the Creator God, and Olokun, his eldest son, who is associated intimately with the human world and with aspects of wealth, fertility, and beauty. His symbols are the python and the crocodile: animals that can live in water and on land, sent by Olokun to punish wrongdoing. The mudfish also inhabits the dual worlds of the riverbank and the shallow waters, and its powerful electric shock exemplified the potential violence of ancestors, warriors, and Obas. Symbols such as these helped reinforce the political legitimacy of the monarchy.

Benin royal art is primarily made of ivory and bronze. In the past, the Oba controlled the ivory trade, and any hunter who killed an elephant was obliged to give one of its tusks to the palace. In this way the rulers of Benin amassed huge stocks of ivory to be carved by the Igbesanmwan, the hereditary guild of ivory carvers, or sold to Europeans. Ivory's ritual importance stems from its white color, shared with orhue (chalk), considered the perfect symbol of purity, prosperity, and peace.

Before the arrival of the Portuguese, trade with northern neighbors supplied bronze. In the 15th century a great expansion in bronze-casting took place, reflecting the increased commercial importance of Benin. Bronze heads of Obas and Queen Mothers form the pinnacle of this artistic tradition.

While it is common to emphasize the continuity of art and culture in traditional societies, Benin's development was far from static. Contact with the neighboring Yoruba groups, the introduction of Christianity, and the formation of the nation of Nigeria impacted the arts. Although the kingdom of Benin’s independence ended in 1897, the Oba continues to commission art to inspire public loyalty and pride, as well as preserve historical memory during the changes of 21st century Nigeria.

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