A Portuguese Man
Edo, Court of Benin (c. 1590)
Relief Plaque, Brass
48 x 30 cm.
Afrika-Fachreferat am Ethnologischen Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
I can’t even look at those exaggerated wings of stick-straight hair, long nose, and oarlike beard, without smiling. A plaque like this would have been decorating the door of someone important like a wealthy merchant or noble. The symbolism of the Portuguese was that of foreign lands and the wealth or be had through trade; more or less exactly what the Black King, Balthazar, symbolized to 15th and 16th century Europe.
This figure needed to be instantly recognizable as Portuguese, so the features considered the most saliently associated with the Portuguese (the hair, large nose, beard, and hat) are prominent. He is also considerably wider than most depictions of Nigerians in similar art; it’s possible that his girth also helped signify wealth and prosperity.