This plaque depicts a young man and relates to the style of three almost identical young men whose only adornments are coral ankle cuffs and collars that identify them as high-ranking members of the royal court and that are worn exclusively during specific ceremonial occasions. While the layered coiffeur with braids appears frequently on Beninese relief plaques, the body ornamentation seen here is quite rare. It most likely represents a body tattoo, but a body painting is also a possibility. As early as 1919, Luschan highlighted the difficulty of distinguishing between painting and tattooing in a very similar plaque located in Berlin. In that case, he argued that the ornamentation was, in fact, body painting applied for a specific festival. That very plaque has been recently discussed anew in the Viennese catalogue, but unfortunately, the author does not even mention the subject of body ornamentation.
Instead, he devotes a long section to an anecdote supposedly related to this plaque, according to which the boy located in the middle is crown prince Odogbo, son of the Oba king Ehengbuda (ca. 1578-1608). Because the boy had several feminine characteristics, it was rumoured that he was actually a girl. To disprove this claim, the Oba instructed his son to demonstrate his masculinity by going naked from his home in Usula all the way to Benin, accompanied by an entourage of peers. The journey was meant to clearly exhibit that Odogbo was, in fact, a man and was a suitable heir to the throne.
Felix von LUSCHAN: Die Altertümer von Benin, Band 2, Berlin 1919, S. 219-220.
Barbara PLANKENSTEINER (Hg.): Benin. Könige und Rituale. Höfische Kunst aus Nigeria, Wien 2007, S. 468.