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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Yoruba Ibeji Dolls : Yoruba Polychrome Ibeji Doll
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Yoruba Polychrome Ibeji Doll - PF.4489 (LSO)
Origin: Southwestern Nigeria
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 9" (22.9cm) high x 3" (7.6cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood, paint, beads

Location: United States
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This striking female figure represents one of Africa’s most enduring and charming sculptural traditions. It was carved by a diviner of the Yoruba group, at the request of a mother mourning the loss of one of her twins. This is a particularly powerful example. It is more aggressive in appearance than is usual, with a frowning face, deep scars, a dark coiffure (or piece of headwear) and a stolid stance. The crest was hatched before being painted, matching a series of scars around the navel, the marks on the cheeks and the hatched-design loincloth. The abdomen is protuberant, perhaps reflecting pregnancy and thus symbolising fertility, and the figure is further decorated with three strands of trade beads around the neck and waist. The main body is not painted but has use-wear burnish.

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.

The Yoruba are sedentary, agriculturist and hierarchical, and are ruled by hereditary kings known as Obas. Access to the supernatural world is supervised by a very complex arrangement of priests and spiritual intermediaries, who straddle the cosmological border between the tangible realm of the living (aye) and the invisible realm of the spirits and the hereafter (orun). The creator of the world is Olodumare – the source of all ase (life force) – and his spiritual minions include all manner of spirits, gods and ancestors who can be appealed to or appeased through human intermediaries. Most Yoruban artistic heritage is designed to thwart evil spirits, and to placate or honour those that bring good fortune to the populace.

Yoruba populations have the world’s highest prevalence of twinning (45/1000 live births – compared to 8/1000 in the US), and this fact has been woven into their mythology, culture and art. Twins are promulgated by Shango, and are regarded as auspicious. However, the mortality rate of twins is very high. According to Yoruba convention, twins share a single soul. If one should die, the spirits may take away the second twin as well. To avoid this, the babalawo (diviner) carves a figure of the same sex as the deceased child: this figure is known as an ere ibeji. The mother must wash, dress, feed and anoint the wooden figure as if it were alive.

The appearance of the figures depends entirely upon the skill of the carver, as only the sex of the individual is specifically determined. The specific social history of the area, and its contacts with other areas or cultures, does determine the final appearance of the figures. For example, the hair of some individuals is rubbed with indigo dye (or paint, in this case), and the bodies with red camwood powder; specific styles and details such as scarifications betray the origin of most examples. Most ibeji are naked, but socially-elevated families often wish to manifest their wealth through dressing the figure in ornate clothing or jewellery such as trade beads.

The current piece commemorates the dead daughter of a grieving family. This is a beautiful yet poignant piece of African art.

- (PF.4489 (LSO))


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