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Date: late 19th to early 20th century
Medium:Leather, cowrie shells, glass beads, cloth, and metal
Geographic Location: Nigeria
Dimensions: Height: 21 in. (53.34 cm) Diameter: 12 in. (30.48 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, African Collection Fund
Object Number: 2005.13
These objects from the Yoruba people of Nigeria are embroidered with cowry shells and glass beads. The smaller sculpture with a semi-circular form at the top, is the ibori, a symbol for a person's inner head, and the larger, bird- topped sculpture is the ile ori, or "house of the head", which protects, hides, and honors the importance of the head.
The Yoruba [YOUR-oo-buh] believe the head is the seat of one’s destiny and therefore, it is necessary to treat the head as a spiritual entity. The Yoruba make offerings to one’s inner head to ensure a long and full life. Because of the importance of one’s destiny, an individual invests in the largest and most elaborate ibori and ile ori possible within his or her financial means. The size and decoration of these sculptures suggest that their owner was wealthy, and the beaded bird on top of the ile ori is a form that often appears on royal crowns, which may indicate the original owner was a king.
According to the Yoruba [YOUR-oo-buh] creation story humans are created by two gods, Obatala who models the body in clay and Olurun who blows the life force into the body. The heads of humans are made by the potter Ajala, who does not always make perfect heads. Yoruba people make sacrifices to their heads to counteract the potential imperfections.
House of the Head (ile ori) Symbol of the Inner Head (ibori)
The House of the Head resembles cone-shaped Yoruba crowns, and the bird that appears on top of the House is a common feature on these royal crowns. Birds serve as a reference to “the mothers” and the procreative powers of women who play an important role in the lineal continuity.
The ibori and ile ori are covered with glass seed beads imported from Europe and cowrie shells from the Maldive Islands, which were expensive to obtain and were once used as currency in Africa. The beads and cowries were embroidered onto leather panels to create the forms of the inner head and the House of the Head. The ibori or inner head, is also filled with various materials sealed within the leather. The elaborate decoration on this ibori and large ile ori suggest the wealth of the original owner.
The Yoruba peoples are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, numbering nearly twenty-five million. They are made up of several different groups that speak the Yoruba language and inhabit large areas of Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and Togo. All Yoruba trace their origins to the city of Ife in present-day Nigeria, which is the site where the world begins in the Yoruba creation story.
1. Examine and consider the materials, colors, and patterns on the House of the Head. What do they suggest about the owner and purpose of the object?
2. The Yoruba people place great importance on the head, viewing it as crucial to one's destiny. Why is your head important in your life? Consider the sayings “to lose one’s head” and “to be head and shoulders above”. What do these sayings mean and what do they suggest about the significance of one’s head?
3. A Yoruba person aspires to live a full life and to join one's ancestors after dying naturally in old age. What practices and beliefs do we follow that insure that we lead long, fulfilling lives?
1. Research the concept of destiny in another culture and the practices undertaken to ensure a positive future. If you need help getting started, consider the Fates, Karma, or wishing wells.
2. Reflect on the Yoruba creation story and the importance of the head. Think about a particular part of the face (mouth, eyes, lips, ears, etc.) that you feel is important. Write a poem about this part of the face. Try the form of an ode.
3. Consider the meaning of the ibori and the ile ori, and their relationship to each other. One protects and shelters the other. Their shapes, patterns, and materials are similar. Create a work of art that has two integral parts made from the same materials. One part should be smaller and sheltered or protected by the second part. After completing the work, write a description of your artwork. Share your work and its meaning with others in your class.
4. Research another culture that honors or condemns a specific part of the body. If you need help getting started, consider the head and feet in Thailand, the left hand in India, and the heart in ancient Egypt.
Drewel, Henry J. and John Mason. Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe. Los Angeles: University of California, Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998.
Olaleye, Isaac. The Distant Talking Drum: Poems from Nigeria. Paintings by Lessac Frane. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong, 1995.
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. A is for Africa. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1993.
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Chidi Only Likes Blue: An African Book of Colors. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1997.
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Ebele's Favorit: A Book of African Games. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2001.
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Emeka's Gift: An African Counting Story. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 1995.
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Saying Goodbye: A Special Farewell to Mama Nkwelle. Brookfield, CT: The Brookfield Press, 2001.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.