This ivory and lead leopard's head is an Edo ceremonial costume attachment from the royal court of Benin, now incorporated into the modern republic of Nigeria. This attachment is a hip ornament in elephant ivory, with inlaid lead representing the spots of the leopard. It is framed at the base by an ornamental flange of concentric circles. The slanted eyes, overlapping fangs and foliate-pattern ears are characteristic of Edo leopard carvings. This mask comes from the earliest known phase of Benin craftsmanship. Kingdom of Benin, Edo tribe.
The Edo or Benin people are an Edoid ethnic group primarily found in Edo State, Nigeria. Speaking the Edo language, they are the descendants of the founders of the Benin Empire. The Edo were the principal tribe of the ancient kingdom of Benin, ruled by an Oba, the custodian of the culture of the Edo people and all Edoid people and head of the historic Eweka dynasty of the Benin kingdom.
The royal art of Benin, honours the Oba and his ancestors and is predominantly made up of works in cast brass and carved ivory. Traditional Edo art consists of sculptures, plaques and masks which reflect various spiritual and historical aspects of their rich cultural traditions. Some of the most notable Edo art pieces are known as the Benin Bronzes.
While bronze hip ornaments are worn by senior chiefs, those in ivory are the sole prerogative of the Oba. This oval attachment is in elephant ivory, with inlaid lead representing the leopard=92s spots. A hip ornament, usually worn singly over the left hip to adorn the closure of a sarong.
Benin art became known generally to Europeans in 1897, after the sack and looting of Benin by a British Punitive Expedition, sent in that year to punish the Oba for the murder of a British Vice-Consul. The British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, exiled the then Oba Ovonramwen, taking control of the area to establish the British colony of Nigeria. The expedition was mounted to avenge the defeat by the Binis of a British invasion force that had previously violated Benin territory in 1896. It consisted of both indigenous soldiers and British officers, and is still remembered by the Edos with horror today. The number of Edo killed are unknown but acknowledged as very numerous. Under the pretext of covering for the cost of the expedition, the Benin royal art was stolen and auctioned off by the British. Ovonramwen died in 1914, his throne never having been restored to him. His son, grandson and now his great-grandson, however, all preserved their title and status as traditional rulers in modern-day Nigeria.
It is assumed that this ornament formed part of the vast quantity of brass and ivory carvings that were stolen from the royal place.
The objects were subsequently sold by auction in Britain to pay for the expedition. It has been assumed this mask was among the group of over 200 objects bought by general Augustus Pitt-Rivers(1827 - 1900). However, if this is the case, it would have to have been in his private collection, as the Pitt Rivers had not deaccessioned any of their collection in the 20th century according to correspondence on file.
The story of the Benin Bronzes is at the heart of an ongoing debate about cultural restitution.