Kim's Tips of the Trade

A Primer for Looking at African Art, Part II:  The Yoruba Ere Ibeji Figures

For those of you who are new to the field of tribal art collecting, you might wonder about these small standing wooden figures with the typically large bulging eyes and the oversized frequently conical-shaped heads, the ere ibeji (“Ibi” = born, eji= two, ere = sacred image) twin figures.  Sometimes you see them as a pair (male/female, male/male, female/female), sometimes you see them as a single figure, but typically they are around 6 to 12 inches tall, with prominent sexual features. Sometimes they wear clothing, even share clothing. Sometimes their headdress will have blue indigo paint still in it; sometimes they will be variously adorned with colorful beads. And the biggest feature you will notice are their worn surfaces:  sloping, soft foreheads, chins, eyes, nose, mouth, features that look as if they were carved out of butter.  Sometimes these soft facial features have melted to the point of extinction.  Why would these figures have such worn visages?  Are the wear patterns something desirable or are they candid displays of items only found in poor condition?   As with most African art, understanding these figures’  function and purpose within society is key.

The Yoruba tribal societies in Nigeria and Benin are known to have one of the highest birth rates of twins in the world, as well as unfortunately a high infant mortality rate. To both represent the deceased as well as house the split spirit of the child that has been lost, if a twin has died, a family will commission a carved likeness which although meant to be the child, will have the distinguishing features of an adult.  This figure plays a significant role for the tribe, the family, and especially for the mother.  This figure is the connection to the spiritual world.  For the rest of her life, the mother of the deceased child will carry this figure around in her garments-- care for it, feed and clothe it,  anoint it with oil, caress it and lay it down to sleep each night.

As one might imagine, over time, this touching of the wood creates wear patterns that are noticed primarily on the face, but also on the head, the shoulders, the chest, the arms, the breasts, the buttocks. These wear patterns that we look at with a questioning gaze, that might appear “ugly” to the uninformed collector, these are lasting testaments of a mother’s love of her child and evidence of a tribal custom created to honor the gift of twins to the Yoruba family.  To the knowledgeable collector, the wear patterns form a great component of appeal.

The Yoruba twin figures provide a great example  of the importance of knowing and understanding  how tribal art objects are traditionally used in order to clarify whether or not something is ceremonial or decorative.   When you know to look for a twin figure’s wear patterns, as well as know WHERE to look on the figure for these patterns, you are one step closer to understanding authentic African art objects.

NOTE: This article is merely an overview of these figures and the story they tell. For more information on Yoruba ere ibeji figures, you might consult the following books:

Chemeche, George  “Ibeji The Cult of Yoruba Twins” 2003.

Stoll, Mereidi and Gert “Twin Figures of the Yoruba”, 1980