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The Yoruba Ibedji Twin Cult
The Yoruba of central Nigeria have an extremely a high number of twin births (4.5%) compared to other populations, especially those of western Europe and the United States. There is no known reason for this extraordinary phenomenon. There are a few theories, including the hypothesis that the yam has something to do with it, but I don´t believe that this has much evidence to support it. In many African tribal societies, twins were seen as a signs of impending bad fortune and were killed after birth. The Yoruba people, on the other hand, believe that twins are the bearer of magic power and might, and need a special kind of attention from the family and the society of the village.
After birth of twins, the Ifa oracle is consulted about the health and the faith of the children. At the oracle the parents try to determine to which divinity the children should blessed. Upon the death of one of these blessed, magically powerful children (a common occurrence because child mortality is very high in Africa), as a sacrifice for the child, blood must be shed on a tree so that the child's soul can enter it, the tree must be cut, and a figure carved from it's wood. This figure has to be wrought by a carver chosen by the Ifa oracle. The carver creates a female or male (significant sexual characteristics) "Ere Ibedji", and with exception of the regional regalia of the tribe, he has plenty of freedom to create his own interpretation of the twin. There are only a few rules for proportions, the size of the head to the body, etc. In a special ritual the soul of the dead child will be transmitted to this figure. The parents of the dead child treat the figure like a living child and decorate the figure with necklaces or rings. They attend to the figure as if it was their child, they feed and wash it. The headdress will be constantly rubbed with Indigo and the body will be rubbed with red wood powder. And as a sign of dignity (in wealthy families), some Ibedji get pearl cloaks. These ceremonies should honour the decedent, to underline it's significance and to protect the family from disasters.
Here are images of some of the regional types of ibedjis:
Ibedji - Figure - Region of Ilorin. Wood, H: 25 cm, early 20. Century. Provenance: Coll. Prof. Dr. Feldmeier, Private collection. Bavaria
Ibedji - Twin couple Region of Iseyin, in the style of the carver school of Falade. Wood, H: 25 cm, early 20th Century. Provenance: Collection Belgium
Ibedji - Figure Region of Egba, from the triangle area Egba/Egbado/Awori. Wood, H: 23.5 cm. 19th/early 20th Century. Provenance: Private collection
Ibedji - Twin couple, Region of Igbomina. Wood, H: 22 and 24 cm, early 20th Century. Provenance: Private collection, Bavaria
Ibedji - Figure, Region of Egba/Ketu, may be a work of the carver Fagbite. Wood, H: 25 cm, 19th/early 20th Century. Provenance: Private collection
Ibedji - Twin couple. Region of Illa. Wood, H: 32 and 31 cm, early 20th Century. Provenance: Collection Rainer Linnhoff, Pullach
Some Useful Advice for Beginners
If you want to buy an Ibedji, be sure that the figure or the couple has the "signs" of use; that is, that the figure has a logical patina, meaning a different patina on the head than on the body (that's not always the case, but if you are a beginner it's best to look for this). Often you can see that the face has been rubbed so much that parts of the face are vanishing. Then check to see if there are remains of indigo blue in the headdress (sometimes it has been removed by washing). Be aware that you will see many different kinds of Ibedji, truly one of the reasons why collecting Ibedjis is such a joy. You always will find an Ibedji unlike any you have ever seen, from a different Yoruba region; there's a whole universe of diversities of Ibedji. You can buy a authentic Ibedjis for between $400 and $15,000 (US dollars). But always try to get from the dealer, a provenance for the pieces or a guarantee that permits you to show the piece to an expert, especially if you spend more than $1,000 on it. And you should be aware that many were produced for export since the early 1960's, since the Ibedji couples were nice souvenirs for tourists. If you want to improve your knowledge, and learn to recognize fakes, read the literature about Ibedji so you can see how the figure should look and what is characteristic of the region.
© David Zemanek
With the permission of Tribal Art Forum
- Eisenhofer, Stefan, Kulte, Küstler, Könige in Afrika, Linz, 1997
- Homberger, Lorenz, Yoruba - Kunst und Ästhetik in Nigeria
- Schädler, K.F., Lexikon Afrikanischer Kunst und Kultur, Berlin
- Stoll, Gert u. Mareidi, Ibedji, Munich, 1980
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