Onà: The Poetics of Art in Yoruba Cultures
The exhibition begins by addressing the creation and appreciation of art in the Yoruba world. At the entrance, visitors will encounter an impressive Epa headdress that embodies the concept of onà, a Yoruba word meaning "design," "unique form," or "embodiment of creative skill." Epa headdress are created and worn to celebrate cultural achievement in annual or biennial performances. This headress, sculpted from a single block of wood, has an elaborate composition featuring a leopard pouncing on an antelope, while a rooster perches on the leopard. An astonishing artistic achievement in terms of form, the composition dramatizes the tension of warfare while hinting at the delicate interplay of forces in the Yoruba cosmos. The work exemplifies a combination of artistic skill and cultural meaning that are critical to the creation and appreciation of art in the Yoruba world.
Oríladé: The Head is a Crown
The first section of the exhibition focuses upon art that glorifies the head, valued in Yoruba culture as a seat of intelligence and the site of perception. Both the theological and political importance of the head in Yoruba art is emphasized. The head is to the individual what Olodumare (the supreme being) is to the cosmos—a crown and a source of power. The Yoruba word oríladé—the head is a crown—is a metaphor for this relationship. According to Yoruba religious belief, the head has two aspects: the outer refers to the physical head or that which is visible, while the inner aspect refers to one's spiritual core. The spiritual conception of the head is given visual form through the creation of a range of art works, including shrines dedicated to an individual's "inner head" as well as beaded crowns and other royal regalia worn by leaders.
Amì Òrìsà: Altar Arts and Sacred Symbols
The second section, the largest of the exhibition, provides an introduction to and overview of the realm of Yoruba deities. Yoruba traditional religion recognizes more than four hundred gods and goddesses, known as òrìsà, and a supreme creator, Olòdúmarè. It is to the orisa that shrines are built and sacrifices offered. Worship normally begins with songs and oríkì (head praise), inviting the "inner head" of an òrìsà to descend on an altar. The "inner head" of a deity is signified by a natural object or nonfigurative work (àmì), empowered with rituals and charms and placed on an altar. Often these powerful signifiers are kept in a container, buried in the ground, or hidden. Their ritual power is enhanced aesthetically by the addition of ornamented pottery, liturgical implements, and sculptures on an altar. The figurative aspects of such art works—depicting devotees, gift bearers, drummers, nursing mothers and others—stress the humanity with divinity.
Odúndé, Odúnjo: Masquerade Festivals
In a dramatic visual crescendo to the exhibition, the final section features a variety of Yoruba masquerade genres. The Yoruba hold many annual festivals which include masquerade performances to give form to the sacred and to project wishes and ideals vital to the social and spiritual well–being of the community. The expression Odúnde, Odúnjo! (The festival is here, may we reap all its benefits.) sums up the enthusiasm with which the general public looks forward to the annual masquerade celebrations such as Egúngún, Epa or Eléfòn, and Gèlèdé. Masking reflects the belief that the human body is a work of art that makes the spirit visible in the physical world. A costumed body dramatizes the presence of the sublime, enabling the general public to ineract directly with it.
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 and Patricia Wagner, 2007
Top to bottom:
Epa Headress (Olóko), 20th century, Èkìtì Region, Nigeria, wood, pigment, Collection of Bernard and Patricia Wagner
Shrine for the Head (ìborí) inside its container (ilé orí), 19th – 20th century, Nigeria, cowrie shells, fiber, cloth, leather, mirror, metal, wood, The Newark Museum, Gift of Bernard and Patricia Wagner
Figure of a Bàtá Drummer, (alubàtá), 20th century, Nigeria, wood, pigment, The Newark Museum, Gift of Bernard and Patricia Wagner, 2006
Egúngún mask, 20th century, Nigeria, wood, wool, metal, pigment, The Newark Museum, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Paul E. Schneck, 1979