This piece represents one of the most iconic traditions in Yoruba society – that of divination. As a deeply spiritual people, the Yoruba believe that ancestors and other spirits (see below) can be reached through intermediaries using devices such as this. The board is rectangular, and is designed to be read with the long axis parallel to the viewer. The apex is marked by a highly schematic human face with a domed head, half-open, heavy-lidded eyes, a snub nose and pursed lips. The remaining design – unusually – is partly asymmetrical. It is all abstract, with the exception of a pair of symbols for corn at the bottom of the rim. The remaining designs are linear, cross-hatched and geometric, which argue for a more decorative than symbolic significance.
The Yoruba peoples of Nigeria have what is probably the longest extant artistic tradition in Africa. The nation state is comprised of numerous subsections that were joined historically by the rise and collapse of the Ife (12th to 15th centuries) and Benin (13th to 19th centuries) polities. Each of the sub-kingdoms – including Oyo, Ijebu and smaller units towards the west – had their heyday, and are loosely united through language and culture, although they still retain a measure of independence in terms of their artistic traditions. It is extremely hard to summarise the nature of Yoruba society given the large area they cover and the inevitable variability of their customs.
The Yoruba – being a large, complex society – is sedentary, agriculturist and hierarchical. They are ruled by hereditary kings known as Obas, and their access to the supernatural world is supervised by a very complex arrangement of priests (i.e. Olowa) and spiritual intermediaries.
Their cosmology is arranged in terms of the tangible realm of the living (aye) and the invisible realm of the spirits and the hereafter (orun). Their relationship is sometimes described as being that of a gourd with tightly-interlocking upper and lower halves, or as a divination board with a raised rim and a depressed centre. The creator of the world is Olodumare (or Odumare, Olorun, Eleda or Eleemi, depending on the area), who is the source of all ase – life force. Orun is populated by all manner of spirits (iwin, ajogun, egbe and oro), gods (orisa) and ancestors (ara orun), all of whom influence the living. They can all be reached, appealed to or appeased through human intermediaries such as the babalawo (diviner). Most Yoruban artistic heritage is designed to thwart evil spirits, and to placate or honour those that bring good fortune to the populace.
As mentioned above, the divination board – or Ifa – is symbolic of the Yoruba cosmos. The duality of the visible and spiritual worlds is represented by the board’s plain centre and decorated rim, which displays mythologically and historically-significant symbols as well as everyday concerns that might be broached during a consultation. The board is usually covered with a thin layer of sawdust. The diviner will use a “tapper” (usually an ivory wand) to draw lines separating out the three paths of life, in order to open the channels of spiritual communication. A set of sixteen palm-nuts (Ikin) or a chain (Opele)is then thrown onto the board; the manner in which they land enables the babalawo to inform the client as to the spiritual forces at work in his or her life, the means by which to avoid ill-fortune (sacrifice, usually) and how to stabilise their spiritual harmonies. This tradition has been prevalent in West Africa for at least 500 years if not considerably longer, and it is a fundamental part of Yoruban life. This is an attractive and significant piece of African art.