‘A Physical Essay in Power’: The Striking Story of an Ivory Mask from Benin

Gus Casely-Hayford

Cultural Historian Dr Gus Casely-Hayford tells the remarkable story of a sixteenth century ivory mask from Benin, West Africa.

Contrary to its serene visage, Casely-Hayford explores how this finely carved artefact is a ‘physical essay in power’: a testament to subterfuge, savvy trading networks and bloodshed. Casely-Hayford also reflects on the mask’s changing status in the British Museum over the course of the past century, and how such objects – once regarded as ‘primitive’ – had a profound impact on the Western twentieth century avant-garde. With the rise of post-colonial theory, such works in Western collections are now securing the status that their cultural significance merits.

1 comment on “‘A Physical Essay in Power’: The Striking Story of an Ivory Mask from Benin

  1. I love Gus Casely-Hayford videos because I get so caught up in his wonderful passion as he speaks. I think I could listen to him speak about just about anything and enjoy it but I do love learning about his perspective on this piece in particular. Thank you so much.

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I think this is one of the most special objects in the whole of the British Museum collection. It’s one of those things that when you see it, when you stand in the presence of it, you understand why museums are so important. It is exquisite. It’s carved in ivory, it’s about five hundred years old, carved on the coast of what is, today, Nigeria. It’s of a woman, beautiful, personal. It’s not that anonymous African art, just a figure. This is a particular person and you look into her eyes and you want to know her story.

Nigeria is a vast nation made up lots of different regions. And one of the coastal regions is called Edo. And sitting within it is a city called Benin. And that was the centre of the ancient Edo Kingdom and that was the area where Oba Esigie, whose someone who you see depicted in the Benin Bronzes, came from. This is a mask of the Queen Mother of Benin, her name was Idia. This was a woman who fought incredibly tenaciously to secure her son’s lineage.

There were two rival sons. The father dies, they both have different mothers. Idia wants her son Esigie to become the next king, and it’s her strategic genius that manoeuvres her son into being the next king. This woman is steely and ruthless but at the end of the day, what she’s trying to secure is the future of this kingdom. The mask would have been made as a recognition of the incredible contribution of the Queen Mother. And it wouldn’t have been worn on the face, it would be attached to someone’s hip as a form of adornment.

If you look at it, the hair is woven into little knots, and if you look very carefully at those knots on the end of each one is a little figure and that is a little Portuguese merchant. What the people of Edo state were very clever in doing, was creating a strategic alliance with the Portuguese. They traded cloth and the Portuguese brought them brass and they used that to create a whole new tradition of brass work.

Those Benin bronzes tell the story. They give you a sense of them taking on their rivals, consolidating this kingdom, building this incredible material culture around them. But they were also incredible craftspeople, they would carve in ivory, in coral. Ivory being this gorgeous material that seems to luminesce, almost like it’s alive. It offers a sense of the sort of regality, the power, of the person. Just above the eyes are two lines within which I imagine at some point there was inlaid coral or gold. You just get a sense of this being something which was so exquisitely finished.

In 1885, a number of the most powerful European nations gather to divide up Africa. And for Britain it means consolidating their presence in West Africa. You can imagine, for some of those states, they were probably quite happy as they were. Independent. And Benin was one of those. They didn’t want to be consumed within a British colony. And so, they said no. The British representative was actually killed, and the British used that as an excuse to send in forces. And in 1897, they took Benin city. They took with them the brass plaques that they found in the Benin Palace, deeply important to the people of Benin. And they were taken and they were divided. The largest amount ended up with the British Museum, along with this mask.

Museums are driven by that Enlightenment need to collect and it has a very detrimental effect on African cultures because in that period it was so easy for them to think, well, if there is a hierarchy of humanity, then Africa somehow sits at the bottom. The idea that these objects could be framed as being ‘simple’ or ‘primitive’ was far more about the way in which they were collected than what they actually, truly were designed to convey.

It takes until the early 20th century for a generation of open, more liberal, people to begin to rethink the way in which African art should be seen within European museums. There is a generation of European artists who help us to reconsider these works. Picasso had a large collection of African materials, and in 1907 he wanders into the Palais de Trocodero, falls in love with Africa and it exactly coincides with him beginning to fashion Demoiselles d’Avignon and it is the piece that absolutely catalyses modern art.

This mask is so special. It’s a beautiful, physical essay in power. If you get the chance, go and see it.

With thanks to…

The British Museum



Adina Sommer, Antiqua Maps and Prints

Anti-Slavery International

Autograph ABP

British Museum

Estate of Pablo Picasso

Museum of Modern Art, New York

The National Army Museum

New York Public Library Digital Collections


The Pitt Rivers Museum

The Smithsonian Museum of African Art

The Wellcome Collection





Full list of images shown: 

Ivory Mask

Benin, 16th Century

The British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Map of West Africa, Nigritarum Regio

Merian Matthäus, c.1650

Antiqua Maps and Prints


Bronze Plaques

Benin, 16th– 17th Century

The British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Photograph of the Earl of Plymouth (right) and Sir John Macpherson,

governor-general of Nigeria, visiting the Oba of Benin, Oba Akenzua II,

in Benin City, Nigeria

Chief S.O. Alonge, c.1938

The Centenary Project


De Stadt Benin (The City Benin)

John Ogilby, c.1670

The Library of Congress


Defeat of the Asantees (sic), by the British Forces under the command of

Coll. Sutherland, July 11th 1824.

Coloured lithograph by C. Hullmandel after Denis Dighton, 1825

© National Army Museum

NAM. 1971-02-33-1-1


Interior of Kings compound burnt during fire in the siege of Benin City,

with three British officers of the Punitive Expedition with bronzes laid

out in foreground

Reginald Kerr Granville, 1897

The Pitt Rivers Museum

Photo: Reginald Kerr Granville

PRM Photograph Collections 1998.208.15.11


An Ivory Store

Alice Seeley Harris, 1912

Courtesy of Anti-Slavery International / Autograph ABP


Musée du Congo, Tervuren, Belgium: one of five scenes of the interior

Gustave Serrurier-Bovy and Paul Hankar, n.d.

The Wellcome Collection

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Nu aux bras levés

Pablo Picasso, 1907

© Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018.


Image from ‘Picasso’

Maurice Raynal, Pub. 1921

Library of Congress


Head of a Sleeping Woman (Study for Nude with Drapery)

Pablo Picasso, 1907

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018.


Les Demoiselles D’Avignon

Pablo Picasso, 1907

Museum of Modern Art, New York

© Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018.

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