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Ibeji, tribal art borne out of tragedy

By Christopher Proudlove ©

Yoruba-1Manchester artist Geoffrey Key is widely regarded as one of the most important working in the country today. Auctioneers in the region are more used to selling his paintings for thousands of pounds, but now he’s set one of them another task: disposing of the characters pictured here.

He calls them his little army and he’s been collecting them for 25 years or more, but a house move has meant his collection of dozens of antique African carved figures and other tribal art has to go. The exotic and little known corner of tribal art collecting is known as Yoruba art.

The Yoruba are an ancient race of people, today making up one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa, predominantly in Nigeria. Its craftsmen are noted for their artistic traditions of

ceramics, bronze casting, weaving and sculpting, while Yoruba wood carvers are among the most prolific producers of objects for domestic and ritual use.

Interestingly, the Yoruba people also produce the highest rate of twin and multiple births in the world. In ancient times, twins or ibeji, (from ibi = born, eji = two) were believed to be evil, but by the middle of the 18th century, such beliefs were reversed and twins were celebrated and revered. They were awarded the status of minor deities, called Orishas, and their arrival was viewed as an omen of good fortune.

The cult surrounding the children of multiple births is complex and steeped in tradition. The first born is always called Taiwo, whether it is a boy or a girl. The word describes the one “having the first taste of the world”, while the second-born is named Kehinde, meaning “arriving after the other”.

However, despite being born first, Taiwo is always considered the youngest child. His brother or sister still in the womb are believed to have sent him out into the world first to tell them what it looks like. As soon as Taiwo has given a signal by crying, Kehinde will follow.

As a result of this somewhat unusual start in life, Kehinde is supposed to be more careful, more intelligent and more reflective, while Taiwo is believed to be more curious and adventurous, but also more laid back. The children are also thought to have one soul between them.

Sadly, however, the death rate among twins and triplets was – and still is – unusually high. The death of an infant was regarded as a great calamity which could be appeased only with the intervention of the family or village priest and a wood carver, chosen by the holy man, to create a figure to contain the soul of the dead child.

Called Ere ibeji, (ere = sacred) these figures usually stand between six and 10 inches tall and are carved with the features and attributes of the dead child in adulthood. A feast follows completion of the carving and its return home, where it is placed on a shrine in the hope that the soul which was split when the child died will be reunited with its siblings.

Yoruba-3Thereafter the carved ibeji is treated and cared for as if it were alive. It is rubbed in sacramental oil, washed, “fed”, clothed, sung to and prayed to. It is kept standing during the day, and is laid down at night and is often dressed in the same clothing as the living children. As a sign of wealth, some ibeji were given cloaks of pearls or cowrie shells and sandals.

Responsibility for caring for the ibeji is borne by the mother and on her death, the women of subsequent generations of the family in order to protect the household from evil and to bring good fortune. Bad fortune and curses are thought to follow and even the survival of the other children is in doubt if the ibeji is neglected. The practice continues today.

Geoffrey Key draws parallels between his collection of tribal art with those formed by such artists at Picasso, Braque and Miro. “Without their interest in tribal art there would never have been a Cubist art movement,” he told me. “Any painter alive and breathing in the 21st century cannot fail to be influenced by tribal art, it’s inevitable.” However, private collections of ibeji figures as large as his own are rare, the only other of comparable size being in New York. He was first introduced to them by a photographer on National Geographic magazine, who lived in Bolton. The photographer had travelled extensively in Nigeria and now owns a gallery selling tribal art in New York.

Many examples were acquired from him, together with others from dealers at fine art fairs around the country who were dispersing prominent collections formed in the 1920s and 30s. Geoffrey Key points out that while the figures are now widely copied and reproduced for the growing tourist market, those in his collection are tribal pieces, none of which was purchased at auction.

“They are exquisite things,” he said. “I shall be sorry to see them go but you cannot possess everything in life. I collected them for the love of owning them and to satisfy this illness that is collecting, Moving house means it’s time to let someone else have the pleasure of enjoying them.”

Sale details

The Geoffrey Key Collection will be sold at Peter Wilson’s Nantwich auction room in South Cheshire next Wednesday July 11. Is expected to raise a total of around £20,000.

It comprises almost 100 lots of single or pairs of figures, both male and female, with estimates starting at £50.

However, a pair of male and female figures attributed to the master Abogunde of Ede (fl. 1900-1925) is estimated at £1,000-1,500.

Each of this pair of figures wears neck, wrist and waistbands of beads which represent gifts from the family on the children’s birthday.

Purchased by Mr Key from the Mark Eglinton Gallery in 2005, these figures were exhibited in the UN Building in New York in 2003.

Notable elsewhere in the collection is a hardwood stool from the Congo, modelled with a crouching female figure, the seat resting on her head and raised hands, which is estimated at £3,000-5,000, while most amusing is a carved wooden face mask from the Ivory Coast with two pairs of horns, one upturned, the other downturned, which one Peter Wilson porter was only too happy to model.

Viewing at the Victoria Gallery saleroom in Market Street, Nantwich, is on Sunday July 8 from 2-4pm; Monday July 9 from 10am-5pm; Tuesday July 10 from 10am-4pm and on the morning of the sale from 9.00. The sale starts at 11am. Telephone 01270 623878.

Tags: Tribal Art

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