THE QUEEN MOTHER, or “Iyoba,” was a powerful figure in the Edo kingdom of Benin, which ruled parts of the West African coast for seven centuries.
Starting in the 16th century, the kings or “obas” of this realm appointed craftsmen to make figurative sculptures and reliefs from cast bronze and carved ivory. Installed in palace shrines, these figures exalted past obas and their mothers, along with the chiefs and warriors who helped them.
The Penn Museum’s iyoba shows the first and most famous queen mother, Idia, whose son Oba Esigie ruled from 1504 to 1550. Idia was legendary. She raised an army of her own and used medicine and magic to defeat her son’s enemies. Probably cast around 1700, this sculpture shows her wearing the conical, curved headdress of royalty, along with four vertical scars above each eyebrow, which mark her as female.
The Kingdom of Benin fell in 1897, when British forces launched a “punitive expedition” against it. Amid the European “scramble” for Africa, this invasion enabled Britain to secure a strategic section of the coast and forge what we now call Nigeria. This expedition also en- abled British forces to seize several thousand objects from the oba’s compound. The Foreign Office in London later auctioned off the goods to raise money, which is how they were scattered into museums and private collections.
In 1920, the Penn Museum bought this statue from William Oldman, a British antiquities dealer who also sold objects from Pacific islands like New Zealand, New Caledonia, and New Guinea. About 4,000 items from the Museum’s Africa and Oceania sections came from this dealer.
As one of the great Benin Bronzes, the statue of the Queen Mother is a world-class work of art. More than 300 years after a royal metalsmith poured her likeness in bronze, and a century since Philadelphia became her new home, the Iyoba Idia has the beauty and strength to stop visitors in their tracks as they pass.
Heather J. Sharkey, Ph.D., is Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic History at the University of Pennsylvania.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE OBJECT?
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