In a culture without written records, these plaques hung on the walls of interior courtyards of the royal palace and served to recount important events in the history of the kingdom. This work depicts a king with a human torso but with legs formed by mudfish; he needs the help of his two attendants to stand. According to Benin tradition, ailing kings who were thought to have lost their power were put to death. After one legendary oba’s legs became paralyzed, he claimed his legs had been miraculously transformed into mudfish to avoid execution. According to tradition, the mudfish was a symbol of Benin kings because both were capable of crossing into different environments. The African mudfish can move across both land and water; similarly, kings were believed to move across both earthly and spiritual realms. For the same reason, frogs and crocodiles also symbolize kings. The oba’s ability to accomplish great things is symbolized here by the elephant trunk ending in a human hand.
Artist Benin, African
Title
  • Semi-circular Openwork Plaque
Date between 1500 and 1897
Medium Bronze, openwork
Dimensions Overall: 15 3/4 × 14 7/8 × 2 inches (40 × 37.8 × 5.1 cm)
Including base (mount): 15 3/4 × 14 7/8 × 4 inches (40 × 37.8 × 10.2 cm)
Credit Line Founders Society Purchase, with funds from Mr. and Mrs. James A. Beresford
Accession Number 72.435
Department Africa, Oceania & Indigenous Americas
On View African: Fit for a King, Level 1 (see map)
Cranbrook Academy of Art (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, USA).
1938, (John Wise Ltd., New York, New York, USA).
Thomas Joyce.
R. K. Granville.
(Sotheby Parke Bernet, Inc., New York, New York, USA);
1972-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
African Masterworks In The Detroit Institute of Arts. Washington and London: The Detroit Institute of Arts and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, cat. no. 32.