Standing female figure (ere ibeji)

CULTURE:
Yoruba peoples
DATE:
20th century
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General Description

Among the Yoruba, who consider twins (ijebi) special, even sacred, the frequency of giving birth to twins is exceptionally high. However, multiple births were seen as unnatural in the distant past and resulted in the practice of twin infanticide. For reasons not precisely understood, the Yoruba radically changed their attitude toward twins. An oral tradition associates twins with Shango, the thunder god and legendary Alafin (king) of Oyo who, in the days of twin infanticide, could not bear to destroy his own newborn twins. Instead, he banished them and their mother to a remote part of the kingdom where they remained and were regarded as dead. In time, the spirits of the twins were venerated like those of the deities (orisha).

In the event one or both twins die, an Ifa diviner (babalawo) may advise the parents to commission a sculpture called an ere ibeji, or image of the twins, that also serves as a receptacle for its spirit. Ere ibeji are placed on domestic altars or kept in a basket in the mother's room and periodically venerated in formal rituals. The mother of the twins symbolically cares for the twin figure as she does the living child. On market days, a mother tucks the ere ibeji in her wrapper and takes the surviving twin shopping. The vendors will give her extra food and adornments for the living twin and the ere ibeji. These attentions are believed to appease and encourage the spirit of the dead twin to remain in the spirit world instead of returning to earth to claim the surviving twin or cause misfortune that would affect the entire community. Indeed, to disrespect an ere ibeji could invoke the wrath of Shango, the twins' patron saint.

Although ere ibeji depict departed children, they are rendered as fully developed adults in the prime of life. Their faces, abdomens, and upper thighs are incised to represent scarification; the marks on their forehead and cheeks identify their lineage. The figures' upswept hairstyle indicates they were carved in a style associated with the Ibuke area of the Oyo region. Their eyes, pierced to "open" them, once held pieces of metal. Traces of indigo or commercial bluing remain on their hair, and their bodies are adorned with gifts of imported beads.

Some indigenous religious practices are still observed, albeit without the traditional ritual objects, among the populations of present-day Nigeria, which is divided almost evenly between Christians and Muslims. 20th-century converts to Islam or Christianity substitute double-exposure photographs for carved ere ibeji.

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), 194-195.

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