5561

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Circular Yoruba Divination Board (Opon Ifa)

Yoruba People, Nigeria
19th century

width: 35.5cm; length: 34cm and thickness: 2cm

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Provenance

UK art market

This divination board (Opon Ifa) is circular in shape and carved with a prominent face on its top. The face represents Eshu, the messenger deity who acts as a medium between the human and spirit realms. Its eyes are almond-shaped and half-closed. The irises are pierced. The nostrils are unusually worn by regular tapping. Overall, the face has a rather startled expression.

The centre of the board is depressed to accommodate the various sacred materials used in the divination process. Mudfish are carved on both sides of the board. The mudfish (egedu) is both a mythical and real creature to the Yoruba people, due to its capability of moving between two realms – between land and water. It was adopted as a a symbol of wealth and power of rulers.

Heavy tapping marks are visible throughout the depressed surface. It shows obvious signs of use. Overall, the board is in good condition. It has a dark glossy patina.

During ifa the divination rituals, a highly trained priest called Babalawo would mark single or double marks in wood powder on his divination board until one of the 256 available odus is created. Odus is a set of traditional verses that represents thousands of years of observation, predictions; and both mundane and spiritual prescriptions. Babalawo is translated as ‘the father of ancient wisdom’. He is the medium between human and the Yoruba mythical deities such as Orunmila the spirit of wisdom who governs human’s destiny and prophecy and Eshu the messenger who delivers knowledge and guidance in times of trouble. Babalawo would sprinkle pulverised wood or yam flour onto the depressed central area of the board and taps rhythmically on it with a tapper (Iroke Ifa) to invoke the presence of Orunmila. A bowl (Agere Ifa) is used to contain the sixteen sacred palm nuts (Ikins), which must have at least 3 “eyes”. He groups the palm nuts in one hand, and shifts them to another hand at once. The remaining palm nuts in the original hand, desirably one or two, are counted and marked.

In 2005, UNESCO added the Yoruba divination system to its list of ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.

The Yoruba form one of the largest tribes in West Africa. There are 30 million Yoruba people in West Africa. They are predominant in Nigeria. 21% of the Nigerian population are Yoruba. Most still speak Yoruba language. Today, 60% of the Yoruba are Christian and 30% are Muslim. However, many, especially in rural areas, still practise old Yoruba traditions such as Ifa.

References

Abiodun, R., H. J. Drewal & J. Pemberton III, Yoruba: Art and Aesthetics, The Center for African Art and the Rietberg Museum Zurich, 1991.
Bacquart, J. B., The Tribal Arts of Africa, Thames & Hudson, 1998.
Drewal, H. J. & M. T. Drewal, Gelede: Art and Female Power among the Yoruba, Indiana University Press, 1983.
Finch, C., Finch & Co Autumn 2006: Catalogue No. 9, Finch & Co., 2006.
Fagg, W. and J. Pemberton, J., Yoruba: Sculpture of West Africa, Collins, 1982.
Rowland, A., H.J. Drewal, and J. Pemberton, Yoruba: Art and Aesthetics, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, 1991.

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