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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Yoruba Ibeji Dolls : Yoruba Wooden Ibeji Doll with Cowrie Shell Cloak
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Yoruba Wooden Ibeji Doll with Cowrie Shell Cloak - PF.4699 (LSO)
Origin: Southwestern Nigeria
Circa: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 10" (25.4cm) high x 13.5" (34.3cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood and Shells

Location: Great Britain
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This outstanding sculpture of a man dressed in a cowrie-shell cloak represents one of Africa’s most enduring and charming sculptural traditions. They were carved by a diviner of the Yoruba group, at the request of a mother mourning the loss of her son, ne of a pair of twins. The figure represents the dead child and serves as a point of contact with the soul of the deceased.

This is an exceptional example. The figure is round-shouldered, with hands contiguous with the hips. The base is round, supporting long feet and short, knee-less legs. The abdomen and posterior are very accentuated – presumably implying wealth – with genitalia highly prominent. The chest muscles are delineated with a single vertical bar. The head is very tall, with an ornate, high coiffure, decorated with incised lines and surmounted with a cruciform eminence. The face is lugubrious, with hatched- outline eyes, metal pupils, a long, broad nose and a very prominent thin-lipped mouth with superior dimple and pointed chin. It has a glossy, light patina from handling. The ankles and wrists are encircled with red trade beads, and a string of larger blue trade beads around the neck. The clothing is exceptional, comprising a waistcoat- like arrangement of thick woven cloth, sewn together into a firm body (perhaps 6 layers thick) which is free standing. The entire surface is decorated with several hundred cowrie shells, all carefully matched and attached with cotton thread. There is a single small roll of textile in the centre front of the garment.

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. When the carving of the Ere Ibeji is completed, the artist is given a feast and payment as determined by the Orishas. Once the figure is brought to the family dwelling, it is placed on a shrine dedicated to Elegba with the hope that the Orisha or soul, which was split in two parts when the twins were born, will now again reside in the figure that represents the dead twin. The sculpted figure is treated and cared for as if it were alive. It is rubbed in sacramental oil, washed, fed, clothed, sung to and prayed to. It is kept standing during the day, and is laid down at night.

The manner in which it is carved is dependent upon the artist, as only the sex is specified by the parents. Geographical area may also be betrayed through carving proportions, or details such as scarifications. Most ibejis are naked, although attire may reflect something of the family’s social status, with trade beads, imported pigments or – exceptionally – cowrie-shell cloaks such as this example. Individuals with raised sandals may suggest royal connections. The responsibility of caring for the ibeji is borne by the mother and female family members of subsequent generations. The sculpture is expected to avert evil from the household, strengthen the manifestations of family love, defy death, illuminate righteousness and bring good fortune to all who treat it with respect and offer it tokens of affection. Bad fortune may result if the ibeji is neglected.

The current piece commemorates the dead children of a grieving family. This is a superb yet poignant work of African art.

- (PF.4699 (LSO))


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