Wooden figure "Ère Ìbejì"


Yoruba people, Nigeria, Africa, mid. 20th century, private collection from Netherlands.

The Yoruba (Ìran Yorùbá) people are an ethnic group that inhabits western Africa, mainly Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana. The vast majority of this population is from Nigeria, where the Yoruba make up 21 percent of the country’s population making them one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. They are, in fact, not a single group, but rather a collection of diverse people bound together by a common language, history, and culture. The Yoruba formed numerous kingdoms of various sizes, each of which was centred on a capital city or town and ruled by a hereditary king (oba). Their towns became densely populated and eventually grew into the present-day cities of  Oyo, Ile-Ife, Ilesha, Ibadan, Ilorin, Ijebu-Ode, Ikere-Ekiti, and others. During the four centuries of slave trade, Yoruba territory was known as the Slave Coast. Uncounted numbers of Yoruba were carried to the Americas. Their descendants preserved Yoruba traditions. Most Yoruba men are farmers, growing yams, plantains, peas, beans, cocoa, maize, peanuts and millet. Others are traders or craftsmen. The Yoruba have traditionally been among the most skilled craftsmen of Africa, worked at trades as blacksmithing, weaving, beads, ivory and woodcarving etc. The Yoruba also have several kinds of voluntary associations, including a male recreational association (Egbe), a mutual-aid association of farmers (Aro), and the Esusu, whose members contribute a fixed amount of money and from which they can receive loans. Political authority is vested in the oba and a council of chiefs; constituent towns each have their own ruler, who is subordinate to the oba. The oba is also a ritual leader and is considered sacred.

Creation myths generally state that, in the beginning, the universe was made up of only two elements: the sky above and a watery chaos below. Oduduwa, a servant and the son of the Yoruba Supreme Being, Olódùmarè, was tasked with creating the Earth. The belief is that he ventured down from heaven with a long chain, carrying a calabash filled with sand, along with a five-toed fowl and a palm kernel. Not a single patch of dry land could be found as the whole Earth was covered in water, and so Oduduwa poured the handful of sand on the water and the fowl on top of it. As the fowl began to scratch and kick the earth, the land spread out over the water, and the kernel grew into a tree with sixteen limbs, representing the original sixteen kingdoms. Every one of the fowl’s steps would produce new solid ground, and a chameleon, sent down to check up on this process, would determine if the land was dry enough and solid enough. From this spot (Ile n'fe), land began extending in all directions as the town of Ile-Ife was created. According to this myth, Ilé-Ifè, is the sacred spot of the Oduduwa's original descent, where he became the first Yoruba king, owner of the land and, fathered future generations of Yoruba kings through sixteen sons. This basic narrative, found with minor variations, is generally thought to express the origin of Yoruba monarchy at Ife, or at least Ife's importance as an early center of political power.

Traditional Yoruba religious beliefs recognize a wide variety of deities (400 +1 ), with Ọlọrun or Olódùmarè venerated as the creator and other lesser gods serving as intermediates to help with the concerns of humans. Yoruba religion (Ìṣẹ̀ṣe) is the basis for a number of religions in the New World, notably Santería, Umbanda, Trinidad Orisha, Haitian Vodou, and Candomblé. Its also shares some parallels with the Vodun practiced by the neighboring Fon and Ewe peoples to the west and to the religion of the Edo people to the east. Àṣẹ is the life-force that runs through all things, living and inanimate, and is described as the power to make things happen. It is an affirmation that is used in greetings and prayers, as well as a concept of spiritual growth. In the Yoruba religion, after death the guardian soul arrives in the heaven and confesses to the Olódùmarè what it's done on Earth. The good souls will then be sent to the Good Heaven (Orun Rere). The souls of the wicked will be sent to the Bad Heaven (Orun Buburu) as punishment.

Yoruba deities (called Òriṣà) include wind goddess (Ọya), divination or fate (Ifá), destiny (Ẹlẹda), twins (Ìbejì), medicines and healing (Ọsanyin) and goddess of fertility, protector of children and mothers (Ọsun) and the God of thunder (Ṣangó). The maskers (Eguńguń) appear at funerals and are believed to embody the spirit of the deceased ancestors. Other important orishas include the god of the gate keeper and the divine police man (Èṣù) and, the god of iron and modern technology (Òguń). Each human beings possess what is known as "Àyànmọ́", which is regarded as destiny or fate and his or her individual deity (Òri), who is responsible for controlling destiny and self. This visible Òri (the head) however, serves as the vessel for an invisible Òri, the Òri-Inu or internal head, the indwelling spirit of a person and the kernel of that individual’s personality. In order to placate the Òri into providing a beneficial future, cowrie shells are often used to bedeck a sculpture of the personal deity. When not seeking guidance from an Òri, Yoruba may also turn to deceased parents and ancestors, who are believed to posses the ability to protect their living relatives. In order to receive protection from deceased family members, many Yoruba worshiped or offered sacrifices such as libations and kola nuts on the graves of their relatives, hoping that a suitable sacrifice would guarantee protection. The arts of the Yoruba are as numerous as their deities, and many objects are placed on shrines to honor the gods and the ancestors. Beautiful sculpture abounds in wood and brass and the occasional terracotta. Varied masking traditions have resulted in a great diversity of mask forms. Additional important arts include pottery, weaving, beadworking and metalsmithing.

Yoruba sculptures called Ère Ìbejì can be discerned. Yoruba peoples have one of the highest incidents of twin births in the world. As a result, twins are regarded as extraordinary beings protected by the Òriṣà God of thunder (Ṣangó) who is evoked at the baby’s naming ceremony when he or she is a few months old. They are believed to be capable of bestowing immense wealth upon their families or misfortune to those who do not honor them. Powerful spirits in life, twins are honored with carved memorial figures when they die. These figures, known as Ère Ìbejì (literally meaning Ère: sacred image; Ìbi: born; ejì: two), remain a point of access to the spirit of the departed individual. The carving of the Ère Ìbejì is commissioned under the guidance of an Ifá diviner, a Babaaláwo, whom the parents consult in selecting the particular carver who will do the work. When the carving of the Ère Ìbejì is completed, the carver is given a feast and payment as determined by the Òriṣàs. If both twins die, parents commissions a pair of Ère Ìbejì. Once the figure (or figures) are brought to the family dwelling, it is placed on a shrine dedicated to Èṣù with the hope that the Òri 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 mother provides ritual care to the figures, bathing, dressing, adorning, and feeding them. The figures are treated and cared for as if they were alive. They are kept standing during the day, and are laid down at night. Such daily handling is responsible for giving their surface its distinctive patina. The figures might also be decorated with camwood powder (osun), blue indigo, beads, metal bracelets and anklets, shells, and precious textiles. In some places it is customary to apply a white chalk (efun), to the face of the figure. The Ère Ìbejì figures represents a deceased infant, but is carved with features and attributes of an adult. The sculptural features of genitalia, pubic hair, wide hips, developed breasts, gender specific facial scarification and elaborate coiffures exude an erotic sexuality, uncommon for infants.

This male Ère Ìbejì figure is carved from a single piece of light wood. The figure stands with hands on hips. It has elongated arms, slightly bent knees and big feet with strong toes, raised on a circular base. Oblong facial features with prominent almond-shaped eyes, large ears, full lips and incised vertical scarification (pélé) on the cheeks. Gorgeous stylized coiffure. Traditional horizontal scarification (àbàjà) on the chest. Good condition. A stunning dark brown polished patina. Traces of ceremonial use and handling over many years. Minor cracks and fractures. Remnants of camwood powder. Dirt, dust, and soil. Size approx. 24,5cm x 6,3cm x 4,9cm. Weight c. 108g.

Citations, references and sources:

The Historiography of Yoruba Myth and Ritual, Andrew Apter, History in Africa, Vol. 14, 1987, Published by Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-25.

The Yoruba, Art & Life in Africa, University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.

The Study of Yoruba Religious Tradition in Historical Perspective, Jacob K. Olupọna, Numen, Vol. 40, No. 3, Sep., 1993, pp. 240-273.

Art of the Yoruba, Moyo Okediji, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, African Art at The Art Institute of Chicago (1997), pp. 164-181+198.

Ibeji Images of the Yoruba, Marilyn Hammersley Houlberg, African Arts, Vol. 7, No. 1, Autumn 1973, Published by UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center, pp. 20-27+91-92.

The Yoruba people, New World Encyclopedia contributors, 15 Oct 2020.

The Yoruba, Countries and their Cultures.

Twin figure (Ibeji), Yoruba peoples, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022.

The Yoruba people, Britannica.

Yoruba Ere Ibeji, randafricanart.com.