In Focus

Symbol of the inner head (ibori) and House of the head (ile ori)

Most African sculptures of human figures may seem distorted to Western eyes accustomed to the proportions of classical Greek statuary. The head, for instance, is out of proportion to the rest of the body. Ere ibeji, or twin figures, exemplify the Yoruba concept of how body parts relate to one another: the head (ori) being one-third to one-fourth of a standing figure in contrast to the head being one-seventh of a Greek standing figure. Yoruba artists, like artists in many other African cultures, emphasize that which is important in a composition. The Yoruba believe the ori, the site of the major sensory organs and the brain, is the seat of one’s essential nature and destiny. For this reason the head must be treated as a spiritual entity, like a divinity. Thus, an “oversized” head makes perfect sense.

According to Yoruba belief about creation, humans are created by the deities Obatala and Olorun. Obatala models the body in clay and Olorun blows vital force into it. The head, however, is made by Ajala, a potter who does not always make perfect heads. An individual can counteract Ajala’s incompetence by making periodic sacrifices to his or her ibori, a physical symbol of one’s essential nature and spiritual life (sometimes referred to as the “inner head”). The ibori, which is housed in ile ori or “house of the head,” also serves as a container. It is filled with items associated with one's ancestors, gods, and the restrictions or taboos (ewo) one must observe.

The importance of one’s destiny motivates an individual to invest in the largest and most elaborately decorated ibori and ile ori possible. The owner of the Dallas ibori and ile ori was undoubtedly a person of means. Imported European glass seed beads and Maldive Islands cowrie shells were expensive to obtain and were valued as currency before the introduction of coins and paper money. The imagery on and shape of the ile ori also reveal information about its original owner, who was probably a Yoruba king. Bird imagery commonly appears on royal crowns and refers to the procreative powers of women who assure continuity of the lineage. Its shape also replicates the cone-shaped royal crown.

Upon the death of the owner, both the ibori and ile ori are usually dismantled, and the beads and cowries are scattered on the deceased’s grave or spent by the survivors.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 62.