Metal Heads

03 - 3 - 2018
Head of an Oba - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Following on from the huge success of Black Panther and the amazing hairstyles created by Camille Friend, which form such an important element of the aesthetic and message of the film, Salako Journal was inspired to look back at the iconic Benin Bronzes. 

The act of hair styling and cutting necessarily 'sculpts' the hair - bending its direction, texture and form to create shapes and movement - a kinetic sculpture. But hair in sculptures, specifically as depicted in the thirteenth century Benin Bronzes is a different way of depicting hair in a form other than itself, in this case, metal. The Benin Bronzes were created using a sophisticated method of lost-wax casting and a precise composition of copper, zinc and lead. The initial moulds would be incised and sculpted in wax and filled with molten metal. The finished pieces decorated the palace of the king (Oba) of Benin (modern-day Nigeria) and were commissioned periodically to commemorate a current king's predecessor.

What is particularly interesting about the sculptures is the ways in which different hairstyles are depicted. the time and care taken to represent different braiding, coiling and texture is testament to the significance given to hair in signifying tribe and rank in African society. In one figure, the hair is arranged in a geometric style, cut high on the forehead, consisting of hundreds of braided strands which form a kind of headpiece.

Benin head - British Museum

In another, long, thin coils dangle down the length of the figure's neck, finishing in little twisted balls which may have served to weight the hair.

Head of an Oba - Metropolitan Museum of Art

One stunning  piece, depicting a Queen of Ife, features an elaborate cone shaped trellis lengthening from the base of the head, adding majesty to her sculpted face and creating the required regality expected of these sculptures which were made by a select group of highly-skilled craftsmen who lived on-site at the palace. The palace was looted during a colonial insurgence by British forces in the late 19thC, with the majority of the bronzes now held at the British Museum.

Queen Mother's head - British Museum

In their realisation and construction, these sculptures are examples of art of the highest quality. The hair featured as an integral part of them functions not only to express the standing of their subjects at the Royal Court but as a way for the sculptors to demonstrate their prowess as masters of carving and moulding. Their ancient penchant for showing off is our gain. Go  see at: or

Hair & artwork - Jimo Salako

In a contemporary take on hair and form, Jimo has been exploring the way in which natural and man -made structures echo the textures and shapes of hair in both his hair work and artwork.

Hair & artwork - Jimo Salako

Interpreting African hairstyles for European and non-European hair, these pieces demonstrate how the Benin Bronzes continue to make their presence felt through the ages.

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