This superb piece is a Yoruba diviner's bowl. The base is supported by a group of standing human figures, including soldiers, a drummer, and a chief on horseback, while the lid is surmounted by three kneeling female figures, their hands clasping their breasts. The piece is very large, and covered with a very dark patina indicative of age and extensive usage.
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.
Access to the supernatural world is supervised by 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.
Divination bowls (agere ifa) were used to store the 16 sacred kola nuts used during divination sessions. The manner in which they fell on a board (opon ifa) scattered with sawdust would provide spirits’ answers to questions posed by the diviner. As with all such paraphernalia, size and complexity reflected the status of the diviner. This would thus have been a very important piece to the Yoruba group to which it belonged. The inclusion of dignitaries and – especially – horses emphasises this point.
This is a powerful and striking piece of African art.