Aside from being intricately ornate and stunningly crafted, the brass sculptures in “Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria” tell interesting stories about hierarchy, sex and class. The worship of Oba (king) is reflective of the human need to elevate humans to powers of superheroes, kind of similar to how we worship celebrities in the West. We’re confronted with the divine power attributed to kings in the crown, shirt and flywhisk made from Mediterranean coral. In Nigeria these beads are associated with supernatural energy, and thought to be strengthening and protective. Yet in “Plaque of Oba Ozolua with Warriors and Attendants,” the weaknesses and ultimate vulnerability of the Oba is revealed. His iron coat is ironically made of leaves, and he wields a spear, the same one held by his friend Laisoilob, who eventually betrayed him to free exhausted soldiers. We’re shown that a leader is worthy of worship, but if he betrays his subjects he faces the consequence. If only politics were still that simple. Yet the simple and powerful imagery of these pieces provide reflection and wisdom for our postmodern lives. What particularly stands out is the concept of bodies as weaponry, evident in one’s sex and shape. Take the “Female Figure,” supposedly the Oba’s daughter, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She stands naked, fierce and proud, her breasts jutting out like jagged daggers. Equally as menacing are the three naked men in “Plaque of Three Boys,” whose penises appear as dangerous as guns. We’re all warriors, it seems. (Marla Seidell)
Through September 21 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan.