Exhibitions: The Arts of Africa

Figure of a Hornblower

Accounts from the nineteenth century describe the placement of figurative sculptures on the ancestral altars in the royal court of Benin that were dedicated to deceased kings (obas). Only ten examples of horn players such as this are known. Like a similar figure in the British Museum, the hornblower in Brooklyn's collection wears a conical hat that once had a representation of a feather on the left side (now broken off). He wears a garment that covers only the front of his torso and an elaborately wrapped kilt with a projection on the left side. The garment has geometric patterns in addition to likely floral designs, which are rare in African textiles. The circle with four projecting leaves denotes Olokun, the Edo god of the waters, and the four cardinal directions. The kilt also has representations of leopard heads, human heads, and what appear, at first glance, to be severed arms. Closer examination, however, shows the arms terminating in a triangle and two oblong forms that represent a highly stylized elephant's head with trunk and tusks. The elephant's trunk has finger-like muscular projections at the end that allow it to grasp objects, much like a hand. This motif can be dated to the first half of the 16th century.