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Welcome to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Come take a journey to Africa in gallery L9.

This plaque, created in the 1600s, decorated a king’s palace in Benin (BEH-neen). The Benin Kingdom was founded around 1300 in the southern part of today’s Nigeria, located on the African continent.



Did you know the king of Benin was called an Oba? This image representing the deceased Oba would have been found in a Benin palace. 751

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Commemorative Head of an Oba, 16th century. Benin Kingdom. Brass. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust through the generosity of Donald J. and Adele C. Hall, Mr. and Mrs. Herman Robert Sutherland, and an anonymous donor; The Nelson Gallery Foundation; and the exchange of a Trust property, 87-7.

What material is the plaque made of? While there was some brass in Benin, trade with the Portuguese brought large amounts of the metal to the kingdom. For the Benin people, using brass, a precious metal, to create a wall plaque was like melting gold coins to create a work of art. — Nii Quarcoopome, Curator of African Art

Notice the holes as a clue to how it was nailed to the wall. This plaque shows a momentous event during a king’s reign.

How does your family capture family events? Draw a picture of your family. What clothes do they wear? Include objects that tell who they are.

Check out a free ipod touch to connect to our mobile guide. Or with your own smartphone, visit for the application. Look for this symbol to listen and learn more.

Who are these people?

Plaques honored the king as well as people who worked for him.

Look closely at how the artist arranges the people and gives them different sizes. Who do you think is the most important? Why? The warrior chief ’s position in the center, relative size and the objects he carries show his superiority.

Pose like the people pictured on the plaque with your group.

Do you see the smallest figures on the plaque? These figures are adults—royal musicians! The artist made them smaller to show they are less important than the chief. In his right hand, the chief holds a sword that identifies his rank. He would have received this sword from the Oba when he became chief.

We know he is a warrior chief because he carries a spear in his left hand. The warriors standing next to the chief protect him and show his power.

Find the leopard mask on the chief’s belt. Leopards are among the most commonly pictured animals in African art. They are intelligent, cunning and dangerous predators, qualities that many Africans identify with political leadership. A leopard mask pendant on the chief ’s belt shows he has power to work on behalf of the king. — Nii Quarcoopome, Curator of African Art

Can you think of an animal that represents the United States of America? What about your state?

LEFT: Palace Plaque of a War Chief, Warriors and Attendants, 17th century. Benin Kingdom. Brass. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 58-3. RIGHT: Commemorative Sword (detail), 19th

century. Benin Kingdom. Iron, hide and ivory. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust through the George H. and Elizabeth O. Davis Fund, 94-28.

Draw the other half of the sword that you see.

Find another animal presented in this case. The ram is also a royal symbol because it rarely uses its strength, which is a quality of leadership.

Did you know there are other animals associated with Benin kingship? In Benin, elephants and mudfish are also royal symbols. Roosters represent the queen mother.

Study the Palace Plaque... The chief’s clothing and decoration uncover clues about him. The feather on the chief ’s cap symbolizes his office. Cowry Shell

Strands of red coral beads cover his head, neck, mouth, wrists, ankles and part of his chest.

What is coral? Corals are underwater creatures called polyps that grow in groups called reefs. Divers collect bits of bright red coral to create jewelry. Portuguese traders first brought red coral beads to Benin in the 1400s. Historically, Benin kings have owned all the coral beads in the kingdom. People could only wear the beads with the king’s permission. This plaque shows how the chief may have looked wearing the red coral.

Do you see shells represented on the warrior’s caps? These are cowry shells, which were once used as money.

Explore the gallery... Find real cowry shells in the gallery. Now that you know about symbols of Benin kingship, such as brass, leopards and red coral beads, find other things that express royal power throughout the gallery! LEFT: Head of a Ram Pendant, 15th–17th century. Owo Kingdom. Brass. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust through the George H. and Elizabeth O. Davis Fund, 2005.3. RIGHT: Beaded Throne, 19th century. Bamileke Chiefdom. Bansoa. Wood, glass beads, shells and fiber. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust through the George H. and Elizabeth O. Davis Fund, 92-13.


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45th & Oak, Kansas City, Missouri 816.751.1ART

Your guide, Nii Quarcoopome Curator of African Art

Learn more! Check out these books about African culture

and art recommended by the Kansas City Public Library. THANKS!

Books for Young Readers • I Lost My Tooth in Africa by Penda Diakite, illustrated by Baba Wague Diakite

• Bintou’s Braids by Sylviane Diouf, illustrated by Shane Evans

• Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch

Books for Older Readers • The Old African by Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

• A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

• Akimbo (Series) by Alexander McCall Smith

Non-Fiction Books • S is for South Africa by Beverly Naidoo • Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

• Ebele’s Favourite: A Book of African Games by Ifeoma Onyefulu

Books about African Art • African Art and Culture by Jane Bingham

• Super Simple African Art: Fun and Easy Art from Around the World by Alex Kuskowski

• Can you Spot the Leopard? African Masks by Christine Stelzig

Throughout the year, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art offers art classes, performances and handson activities especially for children and families. To learn more, check out the Museum’s website at or call 816.751.1ART.

African Art Family Gallery Guide  
African Art Family Gallery Guide  

Family guide to the African Art collection at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.