This astonishing ceramic vessel was probably made
by the Yoruba if Nigeria, but stands alone in terms
of stylistic and decorative complexity. The basic
form is in itself not unusual, with a small base
widening to a globular body. The spout arises from
sharp shoulders, and is highly decorated with
incised and impressed geometric patterns. There is a
single strap handle joining the edges of the spout
and vessel, opposite which there is a tubular spout
emerging at almost 90 degrees to the vertical, with
five small perforations in the pouring end. The
surface of the vessel is decorated with two
crocodiles, two snakes and a frog, which is climbing
onto the handle. All of these are decorated with
hatching and incised geometric designs.
The Yoruba are a Central Nigerian tribal group,
originally descended from a Hausa migration from
the northeast in about 900 AD. A small kingdom –
Ile Ife – was founded by Oduduwa, followed by great
sociopolitical expansion into Southwest Nigeria,
Benin, and Togo. The influence of the city was felt
far beyond these boundaries, however, and many
smaller political entities were held under its sway.
Communities were presided over by the Oba (king)
and various senates (Ogboni), and councils made up
of guild leaders, merchants and the lesser
aristocracy (related to the Oba). The Yoruba have an
exceptionally rich and diverse mythology, history
and religious context, all of which are directly linked
to their artistic output; in Yoruba society, this
grouped heritage is known as the Itan.
The crocodile has been identified within the
bestiaries of almost every tribe. It is associated with
fortune telling (Kuba), creation myths (Senufo) or
metamorphosis (Dogon). In Yoruba culture there are
two main variants: the first is dubbed eghughu, and
are comparatively docile, harmless creatures that
are akin to mudfish in iconographic significance.
The other, sharp-nosed form is agbaka, the
“policeman of the waters”, who does the bidding of
Olokun – himself a water god – and punishes the
errant by overturning their canoes. The Oba became
identified with Olokun; over time the crocodile thus
became associated with kingship. The Oba is often
shown holding a crocodile by the tail in each hand;
this has been interpreted as his association with
Olokun, and also with Ogiwu, god of thunder.
Snakes are usually objects of fear, whereas frogs are
usually considered to be symbols of good luck in
cultures where they appear.
This is thus a socially important and impressive
piece of African art.