This expressive sculpture of a kneeling woman
was made by the Yoruba of Southern Nigeria. It was commissioned by the Ogboni society, and is an Onile piece. It
comprises an elongated figure with very short
limbs and a tall torso. The body is columnar,
with relief decoration, small breasts and what are
apparently intended to be scarifications. The
neck is also tall, supporting a rounded head
bearing a conical hat with a spiked apex. The
eyes resemble slanted almonds in shape, with a
domed brow, a short nose and a pursed mouth
connected to the ears by “whiskers” that are
traditionally found on Benin pieces depicting
royalty (leopards are viewed as being royal). The
centre of the forehead is marked with a double
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. 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 (Itan), all of which are directly linked to their artistic output.
Ogboni is a Yoruban institution that exercises social, judicial and sociopolitical power over the populace and even exercises control over regents in local monarchies. They are gerontocratic, generally benign, and focused upon the veneration of the earth (Ile or Odua). Membership of the Ogboni is a major indicator of status in Yoruba society, and this status is reinforced through the commissioning of religious and courtly paraphernalia. Most Ogboni pieces – which include jewellery and sculptures –are made of brass/copper, the non-rusting character of which is viewed as a metaphor for immortal functions and beliefs of the members. Perhaps the best known Ogboni symbol is the initiates or “edan” figures, a pair of naked male and female figures that are worn around the neck on a chain. The current piece is too large for this, and is most probably an Onile figure, which were displayed on altars in the meeting houses of the society. While males and females were shown, it refers to the duality of a female goddess (Ile) of the earth, who had harder and softer aspects to her personality.
The age of this piece is hard to determine, but the patina is consistent with a comparatively late date. This is an impressive piece of African art.