PRINT March 1963

The Plastic Art of the Yoruba

THE YORUBA PEOPLES live in Nigeria, Dahomey, and Togoland, adjacent countries in the Gulf of Guinea area where the coastline of Africa turns sharply southward; they number about five million people. Yoruba sculpture, modeling and casting have early beginnings in the Nok culture with its superbly modeled terra cotta heads. Nok culture seems to be transitional from New Stone Age to Iron Age times and dates in late pre-Christian years. In the more recent past, around 1500 A.D., bronze casting reached its highest technological and naturalistic expression in the Ifa and Tada cultures. Here, lost wax casting of larger figures with extremely thin walls was perfected. Both of these bronze casting traditions were highly realistic and therefore quite distinct from most aboriginal African art which is highly conceptualized rather than representational. A few Yoruba masks and statuettes seem realistic, but most are the result of the demands of Yoruba tradition rather than a close rendering of surface features. The former close accord between Yoruba community art expectations and the finished pieces was the only condition under which this art could be called “primitive.” In technique and expressiveness, aboriginal pieces showed great vitality and control of media, yet there was little over-refinement. Although Yoruba art is basically a cultural expression of Africa south of the Sahara, it has been exposed to both Christian and Mohammedan influences in the immediate past.

Yoruba sculptors worked mostly in wood which was so plentiful in their area. Also worked were the more durable stone, bronze, iron, ivory and terra cotta. The moist climate and insect attacks disintegrated the wood of the art pieces rapidly, thus affording another check for maximum age of the carvings; few of these last more than 100 years in West Africa unless given special care.

The Yoruba sculptor was more than an artist. He was a tool-maker as well as an artisan in this land where iron implements have long been in use. It is likely that an apprenticeship system was in operation. Because the statuary was connected with multiple religious practices, a close association among priests, magicians and sculptors was present. Rulers had divine sanction, thereby interrelating the supernatural with artistic and political activities. To be sure, artistic self-expression was also present, but in aboriginal times art for its own sake was not of great importance. It was only in post-European times that Yoruba sculpture was separated from its close ties with key aboriginal socio-cultural values. The separation divested the art of much of its expressiveness, although considerable technical virtuosity has been retained.

Magic, the channeling of supernatural power by manipulative techniques and verbalizations, is practiced extensively by the Yoruba. The medical usages of the Yamaja cult seek to control small pox in children by sprinkling sacred water on patients. The water is contained in pottery effigies of Yamaja, Lord of Small Pox. Medicine containers often hold magical cures as well as substances of physiological effectiveness. Ifa practices were oriented toward foretelling the course of events. Security, fertility and potency were also the objectives of magical action.

Much Yoruba sculpture was associated with deities controlling natural forces; other statuary represented ancestral figures. Appeals were made to the spiritual powers for assistance by sacrifice and by assuming attitudes of respect toward the deities. The Yoruba thought animistically about their statuary, often endowing it with vital force.


Ifa practice seeks to attain certain answers in matters important to the Yoruba. A round, ornately carved wooden plaque with a raised margin is used as a base for a thin layer of cassava root upon which to cast kola nuts. The patterns made by the nut kernels are indicative of the outcome of events. A small ivory tusk is used to grind the cassava root and a small ivory carved head is placed at the margin of the plaque to summon supernatural power for the forecasting process. Ornate, carved wooden kola nut containers are part of the paraphernalia of the ritual. Also, carved animal figures are Ifa adjuncts in the receiving of supernatural messages by oracle. (Carved wooden kola nut container, 10'' h.)


Yorubas are greatly concerned with fertility in women. Many of their supernaturals are thought to be effective in assuring this condition. Orisha Ogiyen is a fertility goddess with many variants. (17" h., polychromed wood.)


Ibeji (twins) are considered to bring good luck and perhaps wealth the Yoruba families into which they are born. If one of a pair of twins dies young, a statuette about 10 to 12 inches high is carved in its memory. Twins are much loved and it is hoped that those who die will be reborn. The living twin carries the image of the deceased one, and the statuette is dressed in the same manner as the survivor. The statuette is washed and painted and receives food offerings, for the deceased twin is said to be watching the activities of the living from the spirit world. Ibeji statuettes are the most plentiful wood carvings in Yorubaland. The carvings may be kept in the houses for many generations and as many as 20 may accumulate. From these pieces, sub-styles in the carving of facial markings, hair styles and depiction of features can be appreciated in comparing the Ibeji figures from many Yoruba sub-areas. (Male is of Ibadan area, female of Abeokuta area. Male, 10'' h., female, 10 1/4" h.)

THE GELEDE SOCIETY is a Yoruba men’s society concerned with fertility. Masks are somewhat realistic in their carving and are made in pairs. The depictions are of males, although the spirits of the masks are said to be female. Dr. Lawrence Longo observed a Gelede ceremony in which the dancers were women. At the annual festival there is colorful pageantry wherein the dancers make birdlike movements. At the funerals of members, plays arc presented and the spirit of the deceased is thought to dwell in the mask. (14 1/8'' h.)

Ogun, a god of War. Associated with Yoruba conquests over previous peoples in the area. Also to Ogun is attributed the introduction of iron implements. All who use iron worship him. Nowadays, truck and taxi-drivers join his cult. During the Ogun festival a dog is beheaded with a special sacrificial knife. This illustrates another aspect of Ogun in his association with edged implements. (Bronze insignia carried by a slave at the forefront of military expedition. 22 3/8'' L.)

Yajama, Lord of Small Pox is represented by terra cotta figures. Yajama receives sacrifices in return for protecting children from the disease. Sacred water is dipped from the effigy jar of the vessel and sprinkled on the patients. (11 1/4'' h.)

Ogboni Secret Society practice may have had its origin in early earth worship. Changes in the cult resulted in its becoming a secret organization of all principal chiefs, an institution with much political and judicial influence. European conquest and Christianization have lessened the power of the cult, but it continues as an important Yoruba religious expression. (Recently a Reformed Ogboni group based on Christian lore became differentiated from the aboriginal Ogboni Society.) Small bronze figures called edan are characteristic of Ogboni worship. These bronzes evoke a more intense emotional reaction than does Yoruba wood carving style and may reflect the different origins of these art expressions. (Bronze male figure kneeling with hands in attitude of reverence. 12 1/4'' h.)

Robert M. Ariss is Curator of Anthropology at the Los Angeles County Museum.