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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Yoruba Maternity Figure, Possibly the Goddess Orisa Ibeji
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Yoruba Maternity Figure, Possibly the Goddess Orisa Ibeji - LSO.566
Origin: Southwestern Nigeria
Circa: 1600 AD to 1700 AD
Dimensions: 14.25" (36.2cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Bronze

Location: UAE
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This figure was created in the shadow of two mighty Nigerian empires. These were the Yoruban polity – which remains the most powerful indigenous entity in Nigeria, if not Africa – and the eminent kingdom of Benin. Benin metalworkers came to the world’s attention in 1897 following the British punitive expedition that sacked and burnt the capital, but the Yoruba polity, which survived much better, was equally skilled if stylistically distinct in some respects.

The relationship between these two groups and the much earlier Ife culture is also uncertain. For instance, the Ife are largely believed to be ancestral to later art styles, so their distinctive striped faces (denoting scarification) are technically archaic. However, radiometric dating of (unstriped) Yoruba pieces demonstrate that they significantly precede some notable Ife works, while Benin uses both styles in their figures and plaques. The technology of bronze and copper smelting, ironworking and sculpting in a range of materials that included ivory was extremely refined and effective; indeed, smelting, forging and cire perdue (lost wax) metalworking methods exceeded any seen in Europe until the 19th century. The complexity of the method – carving the item in wax then casting it in metal in a clay mould – was exacerbated by the detail and structural parameters of the figures.

The current figure is a good example of the technique, and is extremely unusual in terms of construction as well as detailing. Depicting a kneeling woman with outstretched hands, she is nursing a crossed pair of twins who are supporting themselves with their feet on her hands (it should be noted that prevalence of twins in the Yoruba is the highest in the world, hence the development of the Ibeji cult). The mother is well nourished, perhaps pregnant, and is curvaceous both frontally and in rear view. Her breasts are elongated and finely marked with scars, as is her stomach, and she is naked except for a necklace of plain beads. Her head is extraordinary. Shaped in a generally broad oval, her face is relatively flat with curved cheeks, a broad nose and small earrings set in posterolaterally placed ears. The eyes are large, slanted and almond-shaped, with defined rims and a leonine expression heightened by the crested line dividing the eye in two. The top of the head is very unusually styled. The whole of the head is covered with small spikes about ¼ of an inch long, the apex of the head being marked with a large eminence, similarly covered with spikes. While it appears to be a hat, depicting hair in this manner may be a personal mannerism of the sculptor. Her nose is marked with a double parallel scar running down from frontal to tip, lending a sectorial effect. The lips, which are broad, parted and prominent, are the origin for an extraordinary effect – four long, curved whiskers on each side that curve up the cheeks almost to the ear. Both of her children are similarly affected.

While faces of Benin Obas and other dignitaries sometimes demonstrate a trefoil arrangement of lines at the corners of the mouth, “full” whiskers are not a common Benin stylistic characteristic. This detail is sometimes seen on Benin leopards, but rarely on humans (some Oba heads bear these marks - the Barakat Gallery holds some of these pieces). The whiskers, incidentally, should not be confused with the triple scar that sometimes adorns the cheeks of Yoruba figures, especially Ibeji. There are some examples known in Yoruba works, which also display the form of the eyes and the facial proportions of this figure. The role of the figure is not precisely certain, but is likely to be related in some way to fertility and fecundity. Yoruba maternity figures of the 19th century and later were usually made of wood and were not especially similar to this individual. Likewise, the Benin examples are not usually themed in this manner. It is however possible, given that she is cradling twins, that she is Orisa Ibeji, the protector of twins. In Yoruba mythology, she was linked to Shango, the god of thunder, and would punish erring parents as well as protecting the spirits of twins whose sibling had died. If this is the case, this piece is truly unique. The high quality of the casting and the seemingly unique nature of the detailing make this a truly remarkable addition to any serious collection. - (LSO.566)


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