Across cultures and throughout time, great works of art have been inspired by spiritual beliefs. For the Yoruba, one of Africa's oldest and most influential cultures, art and spirituality are often intertwined. Works of art give visual form to the divine and inspire religious devotion. In turn, they are made powerful by spiritual forces. Aesthetics play an important role in the manifestation of the sacred. As the Yoruba say, art has the power to fa ajú móra (magnetize the eyes), becoming àwòwò–tún–wò (that which compells repeated gaze). Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art, co-organized by the Newark Museum and the High Museum of Art, explores the relationship between art and the spiritual world in Yoruba culture. The exhibition presents nearly seventy works of art in diverse media, including recent gifts to the organizing institutions from the collection of Bernard and Patricia Wagner as well as works from the Museums' own collections.
Although a diverse culture, the Yoruba are united by religious beliefs, language and a common tradition of origin rooted in the institution of divine kingship. The city of Ilè–Ifè, the ancient capital where the king's palace is still located today, was urbanized as early as the eighth century and became a major center of artistic production by the eleventh century. The Yoruba today make up one of Africa's largest ethnic groups with more than twenty-five million living in Nigeria, as well as in the neighboring countries of the Republic in Benin and Togo. In the United States, an estimated one-sixth of all African Americans are of Yoruba ancestry, and there are many Yoruba who have immigrated more recently as part of a burgeoning Nigerian diaspora.
Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art is co-curated by Christa Clarke, Newark Museum's Curator of Africa, the Americas and the Pacific, and Carol Thompson, the Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The accompanying catalogue includes a comprehensive essay by Dr. Babatunde Lawal, Professor of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the foremost experts on Yoruba art, who served as exhibition consultant.
Banner (detail): Attributed to the artist Areogun (c. 1880–1954) or his atelier, Ifá Divination Tray (opón Ifá ribiti), first half of 20th century Òsi–Ìlorin, Èkìtì, Region, Nigeria, wood, The Newark Museum, Gift of Bernard M. Wagner, 2007
Above: Dance Vest with Èsù Figures, 19th – 20th century, Ìgbómìnà Region, Nigeria, wood, cowrie shells, leather, pigment, The Newark Museum Gift of Bernard and Patricia Wagner, 2006