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Yoruba Art

February 1 through April 30, 1999
The Yoruba people are the largest ethnic group in Africa. The population is concentrated in Nigeria and The Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey). In both countries, the Yoruba constitute the majority population. The history of the Yoruba people dates back thousands of years, beginning with the Ife and Benin civilizations. Ife and Benin are well-known for their magnificent bronze castings that predate European influence in the region. In the near future, we will feature an exhibition of Ife and Benin bronze art. Some examples can be found in our on-line catalogue.
The oral historians of the Yoruba say that the history of the Yoruba people goes back even further than the ancient Ife and Benin civilizations. They say that long ago, there was a Yoruba kingdom located on the West coast of Africa. They further state that this was the oldest of all civilizations. According to the historians, one day there was a great physical disaster. The land roared and shook with the anger of the gods and the kingdom broke away from the continent and sank into the sea. At first, European historians and scholars dismissed the accounts of the ancient Yoruba civilization as mere fable. That is, until artifacts began to wash ashore on the west coast. The artifacts were easily identified as Yoruba. Carbon-14 dating clearly established that they were older than any previously known civilizations. Some believe that this lost community was the ancient civilization of Atlantis.
The Yoruba produce an incredible array of artifacts for use in their religious ceremonies. The artisans work in wood, textiles and metal. Featured in this exhibition are examples of items utilizing all the media employed by Yoruba craftsmen. Absent from the exhibition are the famous Benin cloth appliques. Several examples of this art form are found on our Dahomey page.
A study of Yoruba art, as well as the art of any other people, reveals the way the society conducted itself and provides a clue of the belief system as well as the knowledge base of the people. One of the most interesting belief systems of the Yoruba has to do with the Ire Ibeji figures. The Yoruba believe that the soul is given at the moment of conception. If a fertilized egg divides and forms twins or triplets, the soul is divided among the babies. Thus, each twin or triplet shares a common soul. If one of the children dies, the other child/children is/are also in danger of dying, because the partial soul of the deceased baby will try to seduce the remaining partial-soul to join it for the journey to the next life. If the seduction is successful, the other child/children will die as well. Ire Ibeji figures, some of which are featured in this show, are carved to serve as dwelling places for the partial souls of deceased twins, thus protecting the surviving children.
It is beyond the scope of this exhibition to do more than scratch the surface of the Yoruba belief system. We will provide as much information as we can about the artifacts in this show, realizing that, as usual, there is information that is reserved for initiates only. We hope you enjoy our latest exhibition. As always, we welcome your comments. Any praise belongs to those who taught me, and to my dedicated web tech. The mistakes and blame are mine alone.