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Ibeji, the cult of Yoruba twins

A book critic by Jack Vogelzang (Dr. I.Vogelzang), social geographer.

He is honorary president of the Dutch Association Friends of Ethnographica and editor of its Quarterly VVE Newsletter,  and a longtime collector. Special area of interest: Yoruba (twins).


by Dr. Jacques Vogelzang, written for 

Editor Newsletter: Dr. Jacques Vogelzang 
 E-mail: jack.vogelzang*

A comment in English on the following publication 

Translated from the Dutch, partly abridged. Price : € 65,-.


Has William Fagg’s dream : ‘Showing the great variety of artistic styles of Yorubaland by means of studying ere ibeji’ finally been realized by means of this publication? wpe7.gif (232500 bytes)

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I refer to the fact that already in 1986 I heard of the possible publication of such a work, announced as ‘the ultimate work’ on Yoruba sculpture. Many scientists would cooperate, such as William Fagg, the Drewals, the Hammers, Marilyn Houlberg, John Pemberton III, John Picton and Robert Thompson. All these coryphées on the art of the Yoruba would cooperate to set up a computer index of carver styles, based on photographs of specimen in hundreds of towns and villages in Yorubaland. The result would be a stylistic syntaxes of the whole area, based on a comparison of the work of hundreds of carvers and the study of more than 8000 objects. ( See : I.Vogelzang, Ere Ibeji, Exhibition Catalogue, Afrika Museum Berg en Dal, The Netherlands 1994, p. 16).
George Chemeche, editor of this new ibeji-book honestly admits that Fagg’s ideal has not been attained. For his edition is a costly and at first sight attractive one with photographs of about 600 ibeji statues, but the shortages are evident. I mention the following.

This publication does neither contain a typology nor a classification of the statues. The reader must satisfy himself with a division in the three well known regional units : ‘The Oyo Region ( pp. 62-156), The North-eastern and Eastern Regions : Ilorin, Igbomina and Ekiti/Opin groups (pp. 157-272), The Southern and South-western Region (pp. 272-335). Within these gross regional divisions the editor had put together groups of ibeji with a certain affinity tot each other. Sometimes this is true, sometimes this is not true at all!

What must one do with a list of ‘principal carving centres’(48, in alphabetical order) and a list of ‘Yoruba Carvers’( 127), when there is absolutely no connection with the more than 600 photographs, which follow. The more so because the captions are utterly short and most times only contain the name ‘ibej’ ( each time repeated!), the region, with the possible location, the size and the present owners. No iconographical analyses, no attributions to certain carvers. The editor Chemeche decided ‘not to include a descriptive statement or caption with each plate, thus permitting the book to be an uninterrupted visual experience’. Of course I regret this decision. It is the easy way out! A chance missed! Moreover I must add that many photographs in this rather expensive book are bad reproductions. To me it seems, after so many years op preparations , a last minute job.

The essays (pp. 23-50), of which only those by John Pemberton III and John Picton are announced by this epithet. Probably because both are emeritus-professors in art-history and anthropology respectively. Without doubt both scientists have great merits in their disciplines, but in this book their essays are rather disappointing. John Picton himself admits that his essay ‘does not present a coherent exposition, but rather ‘a series of ethnographic anecdotes’. They are all case studies of his fieldwork ,dating back to 1964/1965. His analyses from that time, however, are totally insignificant compared with the essays of Hans Witte published in the Newsletter of the Association Friends of Ethnographics ( Nieuwsbrief Vrienden van Etnografica 63,64, 70, 71) and the essays for example in the Museum Rietberg symposium edition: ‘The Yoruba Artist’ 1994. And, I am sorry to say, the ibeji images are of no aesthetic value at all. The cause of this might be the fact that parents in this region were obliged, as Picton states, to accept as carvers the ones chosen by Babalawo and oracle. In this way a bad carver, befriended with the Babalawo, could be appointed. Or even the father of the twins himself. There is no explanation for this! I could appreciate Picton’s remark that several theories for the origins and status of twin births are possible.(p.51). 
The essay by John Pemberton III is partly based on his article in ‘Yoruba, Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought’(N.Y. 1989). Yet some questions still remain unanswered or have been treated in an unsatisfactory way, such as:

1) P. Correctly states that the oldest source on ere ibeji is Lander. But in the bibliography one only finds Lander under Clapperton ( Journal of a second expedition into the interior of Africa, 1829 Philadelphia). Apparently there must be some misunderstanding about the activities of Captain Clapperton and the Lander brothers. Indeed Clapperton’s story was the first to appear. There even exists a translation in Dutch .(Rotterdam 1830). But as Clapperton had died in 1929, in Africa, Richard Lander returned to Western Africa, together with his brother, in 1830, probably to finish Clapperton’s work. ( finding a good passage between the coast and Northern Nigeria). Lander published his account of this journey in 1936 as : R.Lander, Records of Captain Clapperton’s last expedition to Africa, II. It is in this edition that the famous ‘first remarks’ on ere ibeji have been published: ‘When a child dies the mother always wears a wooden figure of a child, about 6 inches long, reaching from neck to bosom. People view this image as a sign of mourning’. One wonders if these remarks refer to ere ibeji in statu nascendi or rather to omolangidi (playing dolls) or little votive statues of Eshu, which might be viewed as precursors to the ibeji statues. Apart from that all Pemberton himself wonders if his long sequence on ‘the rise and fall of the Oyo empire ‘is relevant to the study of the ibeji cult. For that he gives 2 arguments: 1) The observations of Lander about women in 1826/27(!!) who possibly were wearing ibeji ; 2) Ibeji are protected by Shango, the canonised Alafin of Oyo , and are Orisha themselves.
2) Ibeji as Abiku-children: Ere ibeji are Orisha and are often called ibeji woro (spirit children, e.g. p. 37). But nowhere in his essay have ibeji been referred to as abiku-children/spirits. Into my opinion, however, the abiku-concept might also been seen as a possible precursor of the ibeji-cultus. In the summary of my catalogue ( Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal 1994:10,11) I wrote: ‘Rationally the cult of twins – as well as the concept of Abiku, children born to die, may be seen as a resultant of a very high birth level of twins in Yorubaland and a high level of infant mortality’. Both, the cult of twins and the Abiku-concept contain elements of consolation, especially for the mother. ( The only allegation to Abiku children in Pemberton’s article we find on p. 47. ’Small brass anklets will be added , if they (the parents) fear that the deceased is abiku, a child born to die’).

3) Ere ibeji with the double axe protruding from the head: About these kind of statues one finds the following remark: ‘An intriguing group of sculptures from Ila-Orangun, all apparently carved by the same carver from Inurin’s or Ore’s compound, are identical to ibeji carvings except for the fact that there is the image of a double axe protruding from the head. They were probably carved in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, perhaps as ibeji for a devotee of Sango. But he could find no confirmation for this from carvers and other informants in Ila-Orangun. ( fig. 2). Into my opinion there must have been a considerable number of devotees as well as more carvers involved, because the number of specimen in this style is legion. Or are they just simple Sango-dance staffs. On the other hand there also are specimen, not only with the double axe protruding from the head, but with in both hands oshe and shere, the well known symbols of Sango. (fig.3).
4) Differences in aesthetic quality: As I have already said nowhere in this book has been made an attempt to ascribe certain ibeji statues to certain carvers. Even William Fagg’s epitheton ‘Master of .....’, e.g. ‘Master of the Smiling face’ has not been mentioned, except for the numbers 204-213: ‘Master of the Owu Sango’. This exception has not been explained!
5) A last remark: The differences in aesthetic quality and in uniqueness among such a great number of ibeji published here are enormous. That surely is one of the reasons why the omission of good captions is such a mistake. As an example I mention nr. 163 (ibeji figure, Igbomina,h. 26 cm. Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal, The Netherlands): Characteristic is the body-tattoo (fur on the whole body?) and monkey like features. Probably this is the image of en Edun dudu, a Colobus-monkey, where twins are often associated with. Moreover this ibeji has no thumps, just as the Colobus-monkey. This is an example of an indispensable caption !!

Dr. Jacques Vogelzang

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