Standing male ancestor figure (ekpu)

Oron peoples
late 19th century
more object details

General Description

Standing male ancestor figures dating from the mid- to late 19th century are among the oldest extant sculptures from Nigeria. Called ekpu, the figures contain the spirit of departed ancestors who were petitioned for the well-being of the community. Following the death of a leader and before his ceremonial burial (which could occur well after the actual burial), the family commissioned a sculptor to carve a figure that reflected the deceased's importance and wealth. The figures were kept in the men's meetinghouse (obio), out of the view of women and children. There animal sacrifices were made to the ekpu at the beginning of the planting season and at harvest time. In addition to being a means of communicating with the ancestral spirits, ekpu figures provided a visual record of a lineage's history.

This ekpu is posed frontally on short legs beneath a bulbous onion-shaped abdomen and wears a distinctive cone-shaped hat or coiffure that may indicate his status. He holds a pair of cylindrical staffs. Scarification marks at the center of the brows and along the sides of the face, as well as a narrow beard along the jawline that ends in a plait at the chin, indicate that the ekpu was an elder during his lifetime.

The size of an ekpu figure and the elaborateness of the carving reflect the importance of wealth of the ancestor who is portrayed. A childless junior member of a family, for example, would be not be represented by a figure but by a plain stick. The modest size of this figure suggest it represents a family member rather than a lineage ancestor.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 196-197.