Kathy Curnow will conduct first study of noted African art patron Oba Esigie
Oba Esigie ruled the kingdom of Benin, now part of modern Nigeria, for over 50 years, and was one of the most influential political leaders in 16th century Africa. He was also a major art patron, commissioning hundreds of works and promoting numerous artists, helping to make Benin a center of African culture. Today, Benin art is highly sought after by collectors and museums around the world and studied intensely by African art historians. However, there have been no comprehensive studies of Esigie and his central role in the development and dissemination of Benin art.
Kathy Curnow, associate professor of art history at Cleveland State University, will utilize an art history fellowship from the Smithsonian Institute to create the first complete chronicle of Esigie’s life, rule and impact on African art. The project will include review of the archives and collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the National History Museum. Curnow previously conducted 12 years of field research in Benin and has reviewed its national art collection, as well as Benin works in museums around the world.
“Oba Esigie was an incredibly important figure both in African history and in art history,” notes Curnow. “Through this effort I hope to better publicize his contributions and learn more about what drove his artistic leanings and how this influenced the flowering of Benin culture during his lifetime.”
Curnow ultimately hopes to publish a book based on the research which will serve as both an historical analysis of Benin art and its continued influence, as well as a comprehensive biography of Esigie and his importance to African and world history.
“Unfortunately, African leaders and artists have often been overlooked or marginalized in many world histories, giving short shrift to the tremendous accomplishments and far reaching impact they have had,” Curnow says. “By chronicling Esigie’s life and importance to art history I hope to also highlight the broader importance of African culture and society.”