Yoruba , Objet art of the ethnic Yoruba - African-art.net
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Ibeji statues are widespread among the Yoruba. They appear most often in the form of a small statue about 20 cm tall that stands on a round base with its hands placed on its hips.

There are also a very large number of Gelede masks. The feminine masks (always worn by a man) evoke woman, calmness, patience and perseverance. The masculine masks express virility and action.

The Yoruba Epa society has both a judicial and political role and can be found mainly in the north east of Yoruba country. The Epa is a hero cult. The dance is slow and steady due to the weight of the masks (generally10 kg, sometimes 30kg) and to give an overall impression of power.

The Yoruba form the largest population in Nigeria, living in the south west and stretching into Dahomey and Togo. They are patrilineal. Both religion and divine royalty have allowed order to be established (on a political level, and in regards to military security and health regulations), and maintained through a certain discipline.

Social and Economic Organisation among the Yoruba

The king reigned, and was seconded by a council of elders ‘Oyo Mesi’. He must subject himself to a series of prohibitions, sexual, alimentary and cultural. He cannot appear in public without his face being covered, and his feet must not touch the ground for fear of rendering it infertile. His muffled voice, incomprehensible to the men of the people, is interpreted by a dignitary or ‘Basorum’.

The council of elders is controlled by the Ogboni society, of which the religious chiefs communicate with the earth goddess. The society also plays a judicial role as blood spilt on the earth demands both compensation and sacrifice.

The holy town of the Yoruba is Ife, founded by Odudawa, and which is the origin of the world from whence were founded many kingdoms. In the past, the Yoruba lived in city states of which Ifa was the first. Each of these city states had developed its own particularity and found itself in competition with its neighbour. The founding of a new city state often occurred when, due to great wealth, one city divided itself in two, or following a conflict over lineage.

These city states were made up of shopkeepers, craftsmen and farmers. The farmers cultivated the surrounding fields. The chief and dignitaries gave protection to tradesmen: sculptors, blacksmiths, and bead embroiderers who worked for the glory of god and the sovereign of the state.

Two thirds of the Yoruba are farmers. Even when they live in the town, they keep a hut near their fields, where they cultivate, cocoa, yams and corn. The city dwellers are shopkeepers, or craftsmen working in the field of metallurgy (blacksmiths, founders, copper engravers), woodcarvers (in the past ivory), clothing manufacture and embroidery. Apprenticeships are carried on from one generation to the next, but more generally, and in the case of artistic trades (sculpture), take place in a workshop and under the direction of the master. In the sculptor’s workshops, the apprentices learn both the techniques of the master and his stylistic preferences.

Yoruba Gods

There are a great number of Yoruba gods. The legends of the pantheon of Yoruba gods have no reason to envy the Greek gods of Olympia.

  • The God Creator Oludumare (Oludumare has three spirits: Olodumare Nzame, Olofin and Baba Nkwa. Olofin being the sun). Oludumare reigns over around 400 Orisha (secondary divinities or spirits of nature), that lived in diverse places such as rocks, trees or rivers. Each has their own cult of worship. These sprits are the cause of misfortunes and must be honoured periodically during important festivals. Olodumare is the supreme and distant sovereign; his assistant is Orunmila (god of wisdom and divination). Oludumare is not directly worshipped through a cult as is often the case in black Africa. Instead the minor gods are evoked, those that act as intermediaries between humans and the celestial and inaccessible Oludumare.

To understand the wrath of the Orisha, divination is used, and the god Orunmila (who helped Oludumare create the earth) is called upon. Suffering, caused by a lack of rites, is eradicated by the intervention of a healer, who is as much diviner as doctor. 

Healers play an important role in the battle against witches. Their god Osanyin is a secret god that heals through the use of reflection and herbal medicine. These priests have a high ranking position in Yoruba hierarchy.

  • Ogun, god of fire and war, is the god of blacksmiths, sculptors and warriors. In his sanctuary, knives, bells and mirrors can be found. He is represented by cast ironwork spears and arrowheads.
  • Eshu is the messenger of the gods, the master of crossroads, markets, gates, the home and orifices of the human body. Eshu is both good and bad at the same time, because he punishes and rewards. He breeds disorder among the gods; he is responsible for man’s mistakes and of provoking arguments between friends with his mischievous pranks. He is always the first to be evoked during rituals as he relays messages to the other gods.
  • Shango is the most well known god, the god of thunder and lightning, and is honoured in Nigeria and Dahomey. He is represented by a well known Yoruba statue, surmounted by a double headed axe and that wears the clothes of the priest of thunder. Shango is both feared in a judicial or magical context, and venerated as his appearances bring forth the rain necessary for cultivation. Shango is also the Orisha of strong sexuality (as opposed to the sterile sexuality of children or the elderly, who are represented instead by Eshu). During the annual Shango festivities, all the foyers are in darkness, then they are relit with a torch of sacred fire from the sanctuary. Shango is associated with the celestial fire that the rains cannot put out, copper, and fertility, and is in opposition to Ogun, the terrestrial fire, the fire of the forge. The Shango altar has an upturned mortar at its summit, and where there is a wooden plate containing Neolithic axes (attributes of the god of thunder), and which have a double edged blade. From this come the ‘Oshe shango’ statues, that carry a double headed axe on their heads and were mostly women, symbolizing fertility.
  • Ifa is the Orisha that presides over divination rites and who belongs to the world of the forest. For acts of divination an Ifa tray is used, round, half circular or rectangular. This tray is always decorated with the Eshu mask (mediator of the gods and mediator between the gods and man). Also figuring on the tray is Shango’s double headed axe, personifying order. Ifa reflects the ideal world, balanced, where human beings are reconciled with both nature and the gods. Green is the colour of Ifa. The diviner uses the tray, a mallet and palm nuts often contained in boxes, sometimes very elaborate and that also have a lid.
  • Osanyin assures both physical and mental good health, he is the magician of the gods. He is the master of the leaves that go into the mixtures used for white and black magic. He is also in contact with Eshu. Yoruba iron staffs are surmounted with a bird linked to the cult and which has several functions. When it is placed near the door of the diviner’s house, it signifies the presence of god and acts as protection against evil spirits. When it is shaken during prayer its efficacy is reinforced, the bird being Osanyin’s messanger.

Twins (Ibeji) in Yoruba Culture

Ibeji statues are widespread among the Yoruba. They appear most often in the form of a small statue about 20 cm tall, standing on a round base with its hands placed on its hips. In the south west of Yoruba country the Ibeji often have no base, they are clothed and have dangling arms.

 After the birth of twins, the parents go to see Ifa’s diviner to better understand the desires of the twins. This might be that the mother should go to dance at the markets to raise alms, or to sell beans or palm oil…

If one of the twins dies in early infancy, an Ibeji sculpture is made for him. In some regions, the parents go to see Ifa’s diviner before having a sculpture of the dead infant made, in others the mother communicates directly with the sculptor, telling him the sex of the child and the lineage from which he came. If both twins die, two statues are made for them. When a twin died, the statue made for the dead twin was given as much care and attention as the living twin.


Sometimes, the sculptor washes the statue in a solution made from beans and covers it in palm oil to increase its efficacy. Often the mother rubs the body of the statue or statues with an ochre pigment from the logwood (or with a mix of palm oil), and the hair with indigo. Recently, indigo was replaced due to its price with a blue washing powder coming from Europe. The mouth of the Ibeji statue might be rubbed with beans. In certain regions white clay is applied on the face in addition to these other two colours. These are the treatments that often give the Ibeji statues such a beautiful patina. Sometime, bracelets, beads and cowrie shells are added to the statue. The cowries are a symbol of wealth. Sometimes the statues are clothed with hats and dresses. From time to time, during the period dedicated to the worship of the Ibeji, the mother washes the Ibeji, covers them in cosmetics…

In some regions, twins are considered as the children of the god of thunder. As in many African countries, twins are both feared, and seen as lucky if the ritual duties have been satisfactorily carried out. In order to avoid problems caused by the twins, the mother must respect these rituals. She must not forget to carry the Ibeji with her if she carries on dancing and beg for alms for them. An important annual celebration is held for these children. The respective mothers dance and sing for small sums of money, of which an equal share must go to each twin. The Ibeji are placed on the family altar dedicated to the twins or in a recipient that can be found in the mother’s bedroom.

Yoruba Secret Societies

These more or less secret societies have their own ceremonies and exercise diverse powers:

  • The Egbe society, masculine, reinforces social ties
  • The Esusu society is made up of wealthy notables

The Gelede society’s aim is to favour the prosperity of the village and to fight against witchcraft.  Dances are dedicated to the fertility of farming and human fecundity.  The Guelede cult is dedicated to mothers. Its main function is the confrontation with the gods, be it favourable or harmful, in order to obtain positive results. Evil forces may be positively affected by a beautiful performance. The Guelede festival takes place in the spring. The festivities begin with the entrance of masks worn by the children.  Next, appears the adult masks. The spectators are most critical of the quality of the dances. The group of dancers is led by a master that chooses the rhythm and the movements. The whole performance must evoke power, beauty, humour and pride. The dances are either feminine or masculine depending on whether they are elegant and moderate or powerful and full of energy. There are also a very large number of Gelede masks. The feminine masks (always worn by a man) evoke woman, calmness, patience and perseverance. The masculine masks show virility and action.

  • The dance serves to signify the respective positions occupied by men and women in the Yoruba community. At the funeral ceremony of a Gelede member, masks are performed and a mask might even be sculpted in honour of the deceased. The Guelede is a polychrome hemispheric helm mask with a harmonious face and often with scarification marks. It is surmounted by a headdress that is both original and meaningful.
  • The Obgoni society, that reunites all the important men in the village, runs the political life of every Yoruba village. Each initiate owns a sculpted drum (agba), and these are banged every 17 days to announce the members meetings. During sacrifices made to the earth goddess Onile, blood is rubbed on their skins. They are also used at member’s funerals and when a criminal is charged with a crime. Each initiate also owns a pair of Edan* (there is a masculine and a feminine figure joined by a chain symbolizing the union of the earth and the skies). They are made from brass using a lost wax technique. The Edan made from brass are linked to the Ogun cult, the god of war and fire, because the Obgoni society has not only political importance, but judiciary as well. It is also linked to the cult of the earth and watches over social and moral order. Finally, the large variety of figures carved using harsh lines suggests the vigilance of the members of the Obgoni society in relation to maintaining high morals from which no one, not even the king, can escape.
  • In some villages, the Oro society is responsible for executing the judgements given by the Obgoni. Oro masks have two straight horns.
  • The Epa society has both a judicial and political role and can be found mainly in the north west of Yoruba country. The Epa is a hero cult. The dance is slow and steady due to the weight of the actual masks (generally10 kg, sometimes 30kg) and to give an overall impression of power. It takes place every two years in March and lasts four days. The masks are sometimes as big as 1.50m high and have a Janus head at the base, with grotesque characteristics. On top of this is a disc with an abundant sculpture made of more naturalistic human figures and animals, one on top of the other (crocodiles or hippopotamuses) Before the festivities, and over a period of seven days, the women wash and repaint the masks. Traditional red, blue, ochre and black pigments are used, as well as colours of European origin. This festival is held in honour of Okotorojo, the great archetypal warrior, but also during the yam harvest period and finally in honour of Ogun the god of war.


 (*) The Edan: During the making of the Edan, the forger calls to the Ifa divination to know if his oeuvre is accepted by the spirits. At dusk ( The Edan cannot be brought out in sunlight), the newly made Edan are presented to the Obgoni society priest who verifies if they have been made according to tradition and if, the case permitting, can be given to the new initiate. The Edan cannot be touched by the uninitiated, or by a pregnant or menstruating woman.

The Edan have 5 functions :

-        The judiciary role of making a suspect confess to a fault he is suspected of having committed.

-        The role of oracle that may encourage his owner to make sacrifices in order to prolong his life.

-        A medical function, in that they can be used to take remedies. Certain Edan are in the shape of a spoon.

-        A protective function.

-        A watchful function, the Edan may watch over the behaviour of another.

Societies and cults are still celebrated today during a great number of masked festivals, during which masks, cloth or fibre costumes, dances and music are inseparable elements.

The Magbo-ekine festival honours the water spirits. Among the masks can be found, the bird (igdo), the antelope (agira), and the crocodile (oni).


Yoruba Sculpture and Sculptors

The sculptural tradition is very important, but masterpieces are rare. Several styles can be identified:

  • Those of the coastal regions, closer to Benin, with almond shape eyes, and the hands at a right angle to the body.


  • To the north, the eyes are bulging, the coiffure lengthened and the shoulders and the arms form an arch that is fixed directly to the cylindrical body.

The profession of sculpture is inherited from father to son. The apprenticeship takes place in the father’s home. The student learns to copy statues, then, if he is talented and finds his inspiration, a personal style develops bit by bit in his work. The Yoruba aesthetic is realist. They prefer to recognize the person in a figurative work. Their main qualities are ephebic, the bodies and faces exude youthfulness, and the forms are smooth, rounded and soft. There is balance in the symmetry. Where there is asymmetry or distortion, it is because the sculptor wanted to represent a stranger or a barbarian, a criminal, an enemy or a jester.

Among the traditional colours, red, black, white and indigo, red is reserved for Shango, the god of thunder. Indigo is reserved for objects that give an impression of balance and coldness. Blue is associated with water and the light.

Yoruba art is also present in the sculpting found on wooden doors and decorated in low relief, and posts sculpted with figures and geometric motifs that decorate the palatial courts, the houses of notables and sacred places.

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