Man's tunic

Yoruba peoples
20th century
more object details

General Description

According to Yoruba oral tradition, beads were invented by Olokun,the god of the sea, who made a beaded crown for the Odudua (also Oduduwa), the founder and first king of the Yoruba peoples in southwestern Nigeria. This would have occurred in the mythical past. In reality, beads have been made and used by the Yoruba peoples for a very long time as evidenced by terra-cotta and bronze sculptures dating from the 12th to the 16th century. The beads depicted on the ancient sculptures were probably made of stone, clay, metal and shell which were found in the local environment or acquired through trade. A result of contact with the Portuguese in the late 15th century was the importation of more types of beads, such as coral and jasper. The availability of colorful glass “seed beads” acquired through trade with Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries inspired a new art form: bead embroidery.

This tunic is composed of ten separate beaded cotton cloth panels that are sewn together and attached to a backing of aso'oke, i.e., cloth composed of narrow strips of hand-woven cotton or silk. Aso'oke, once exclusively produced by men, had become a unisex craft by the 1990s. The aso'oke backing this tunic displays the tight weave characteristic of older textiles. It has a small opening for the head, and probably had a beaded panel at either side that was joined to the front and back panels.

Beaded tunics are worn by priests of various Yoruba deities. This contemporary example from the mid-20th century displays motifs related to Shango, the legendary Yoruba king who was deified as the thunder god. For example, the double-axe projecting from a head represents oshe Shango, dance wands, which devotees carry during worship activities. The double-axe represents the thunder stones Shango hurls from the sky during thunderstorms. The dog is an animal sacred to Shango. The imagery offers a contemporary interpretation of Shango iconography and an aesthetic which uses "new" colors—for example, red orange rather than brick red—to convey the excitement the thunder god generates. Additional motifs have other connotations. Serpents refer to Ogun, the god of iron and war, and the interlacing patterns suggest a divine king’s never-ending lineage.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Add to Take Away: Artistry and Innovation in African Textiles, 2014.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2009.

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