The cultures of the African continent was historically, erroneously and conventionally believed to be the product of a more or less timeless and primitive innocence, possessing value chiefly as tributes to spontaneous emotion or as objects of art that were essentially artless. What is clear is that their scenery and methods have been greatly different than traditional North Americans, but not the general course and destination. The old fixations go justly to pieces; the heavy weight of ancient and accustomed prejudice to the scrapheap of history; the entire baggage that encompassed the paternalistic view of Africans as feckless children or worse, retarded, was largely minted by the early explorers and cast further back in Elizabethan times. Africans have solved or tried to solve their material and moral problems with the same conscious and thoughtful maturity as other continents.
Together with Ife, the center of African artistic creativity was the kingdom of Benin, sometimes called “bloody Benin” after the persistence of its brutal sacrificial customs and the massacre of a British expedition that took place there in 1897. Benin bronzes, world famous for their authority and skill, such as the leopard below, a symbol of the power of Benin’s king, or Oba, who often kept tame leopards in the palace.
Among the Oba’s possessions, when a punitive British expedition came to chastise him, was the ivory mask above, bearing European heads around its crown, and slits in the forehead, eyelids, and eyes to receive inlaid metal. It is considered one of the finest works of art from Benin, or elsewhere.