The Benin bronze head is another artistic form of the Benin bronze works that the Benin artists created to serve some religious and cultural purposes. The Benin bronze heads come in either human or animal forms. Such human forms are mostly royal personages, portuguese, slaves (Ivbiotor), etc. Animals that come in bronze head forms are usually leopards, elephants and rams.
The cultural significance of these Benin bronze heads can be seen in the Benin royal practices of the time. In the early period of the Benin kingdom, it was customary for the succeeding Oba of Benin to immortalize his father with a well-sculpted memorial head cast in bronze. The bronze head is placed on the royal shrine or altar, which also contains smaller figures of the Oba himself in full regalia, being accompanied by attendants, or by members of his court. The altar is adorned with the bronze portraiture of such sacred beasts as leopards and elephants (tusks), as well as bronze bells, sacred utensils, sacrificial swords and spears, clubs and sceptres or staffs of office. These paraphernalia or trappings of his altar were also replicated in the altars or shrines of his royal ancestors. The Benin bronze heads of earlier times, had less elaborate stylization and were somewhat smaller in size. However, during the period between the 16th and 19th century, the Benin artists had to transition into a more elaborate stylization which the plenitude of copper and brass material afforded them. The brass material was made abundant by virtue of Benin kingdom exchanging its products for Portuguese brass manillas and copper. For this reason, the Benin artists became liberal with the use and application of brass to make the bronze heads, which were sometimes ridiculously baroque due to the over-decoration that lacked some measure of subtlety in the modeling of the features of the work. Nonetheless, a semblance of some these earlier works are being replicated with some level of refinement by contemporary Benin artists. Bronze heads of this era have certain features that are quite distinct. They usually have high-beaded collars that rise up to the mouth or the area of the chin. Some of these bronze heads rest on a metal flange or rim, while some do not have any decorated flange at their base. Their oval-shaped and somewhat bulging eyes are clearly delineated by well-stylized flanges. Also these bronze heads have slightly protruding cheeks.
These Benin bronze heads, especially the bronze memorial heads, go beyond a mere expression of art. They are actually a reflection of the Edo peoples’ beliefs about and perceptions of the head or uhunmwun as the case may be in Edo language. They see the head as the center or essence of the human person, which represents the sacredness of God, the creator and his spirit entity in man. There is an abiding belief among the Edo, that it is the head that leads mankind, and takes it through the chequered journey of life. Hence, there is the tradition of anointing the head in several Edo religious and cultural rites. This belief is clearly evident in the Igue carnival, which is a family festival of celebrating the human head. It is a festival that was the brainchild of the reigning monarch of the time, Oba Ewuare The Great, who felt the need to make his physical and spiritual experiences here on earth sacred. He therefore instituted Igue as a spiritual thanksgiving to the Person of the Spirit or Godhead that the human head represents. The Queen Mother bronze head ( Idia Head) of the early 16th century attests to this celebration of the human head. It is one of the most famous Benin bronze pieces, which according to tradition, was made by the Benin court artists to honor the mother of Oba Esigie, who was the first Benin ruler to confer the title of Queen mother on his mother, Idia.