Iyọba – Queen Mother Pendant Mask | By Ọlọbẹ Yoyọn
This 16th century ivory pendant mask is one of a pair of nearly identical works; its counterpart is in the British Museum in London. Although images of women are rare in Benin’s courtly tradition. These two works have come to symbolize the legacy of a dynasty that continues to the present day.
The pendant mask is believed to have been produced in the early sixteenth century for the King or Ọba Esigie, the Ọba of Benin, to honour his mother, Idia. The Ọba may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification.
In Benin, ivory is related to the colour white. A symbol of ritual purity that is associated with Olokun, Òrìṣà of the sea. As the source of extraordinary wealth and fertility, Olokun is the spiritual counterpart of the Ọba.
Ivory is central to the constellation of symbols surrounding Olokun and the Ọba. Not only is it white, but it is itself Benin’s principle commercial commodity and it helped attract the Portuguese traders to the Benin Kingdom.
The pendant mask is a sensitive, idealized portrait, depicting its subject with softly modelled features, bearing inlaid metal and carved scarification marks on the forehead, and wearing bands of coral beads below the chin.
In the openwork tiara and collar are carved stylized mudfish and the bearded faces of Portuguese. Because they live both on land and in the water, mudfish represent the king’s dual nature as human and divine.
(Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)