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This carved, wooden Yoruba divination bowl is notable for the early styling of its motifs, and for its glossy, deep patina. Its age is clear – certainly 19th century and possibly earlier. The motifs used also suggest it might have been a royal piece, or certainly used by members of the nobility.
The dish is carved from a single piece of wood. It comprises a rounded base on which two kneeling male figures and two pierced entwined columns are carved at equidistant spots around the base. These four elements support a dish or bowl, the wide rim of which is carved in low-relief with repeated triangles with alternating cross-hatching.
The male figures have delicate facial features: full lips; almond eyes; marked pupils; prominent, fine ears; and small tufts of tightly curled hair on the very tops of their heads. Their shoulders are noticeably broad; their bodies relatively short and squat; their legs unnaturally short; they have long, over-sized feet; and the arms are long with flat, rectangular, over-sized hands.
The form of the male figures relates to that of an ivory female figure from the Yoruba kingdom of Owa that supports a bowl which dates to before 1700, in the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden, The Netherlands (see Konniger, 2013, p. 108). The Leiden figure also has exaggerated arms with flat, over-sized, rectangular hands, is in a kneeling position with shortened legs, and has a squat body. It is the arms and hands particularly that have resonance with the figures on the bowl here.
The pierced, twist columns in the bowl here have their analogies to other early ivory pieces also attributed to the Owa Kingdom. See for example the twist that runs around the base for an ivory bowl dated to before 1800 that is illustrated in Bassani & Fagg (1988, p. 196).
The bowl has two old collection labels to the base. Both are in French. One mentions the possibility of the bowl having Portuguese influence. The term ‘agouda’ is used. How this relates to the bowl is unclear, but in Nigeria, the term ‘aguda’ referred to Africans who were liberated from slavery and indentured labour in Brazil and returned to Nigeria. The returnees settled in an area of Lagos that became known as Popo Aguda, which was also known as the Brazilian Quarter.
The bowl is in excellent condition. There is a very old rim chip which itself has splendid patina and usefully assists to demonstrate the significant age of the bowl. The bowl is a superb, deep patina. It is free of cracks or repairs.
Such bowls were essential for rituals in which fate or prophecy (ifa) was divined. Ifa divination was used to transcribe the wisdom of Orunmila, the spirit of wisdom, divinity and prophecy in Yoruba mythology. A highly-trained priest, the babalawo, taps rhythmically on a tray (the opon ifa) with a tapper (the iroke ifa) to invoke the presence of Orunmila. A divination bowl such as this example is used to contain the sixteen sacred palm nuts (ikins), which must have at least three ‘eyes’.
During the divination process, the diviner divides the nuts between his hands. The nuts left in the original hand, desirably one or two, are counted and marked. As the divination proceeds, the diviner continues to mark single or double marks in wood powder spread on his divination tray until one of the 256 recognised odus is created. (An odus is a set of accepted traditional binary patterns or codes that have evolved over thousands of years of observation and prediction. They provide guidance on both the everyday and the spiritual.)
Today, the Yoruba people form one of the largest tribes in west Africa. They number around 30 million and are predominant in Nigeria where they comprise 21 per cent of the population. Most Yoruba speak the Yoruba language. Today, 60 per cent are Christians and another 30 per cent are Muslims. But many, especially in rural areas, still practise old Yoruba traditions such as those based around ifa.
Left: A Yoruba ivory dish, photographed in the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden, The Netherlands, in July 2013. The dish dates to before 1700.
Bassani, E. & W. Fagg, Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory, The Center for African Art/Prestel-Verlag, 1988.
Coquet, M., et al, Africa: Magia y Poder: 2500 Anos de Arte en Nigeria, Fundacion ‘La Caixa’, 1998.
Konniger, S., (ed.), Masterpieces of Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, KIT Publishers, 2013.