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Yoruba African Sculpture

Yoruba African Sculpture


The Yoruba come from South Western Africa mostly from Nigeria, Benin Republic and Togo but also found in Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Ghana. The Yoruba are responsible for one of the finest and oldest artistic traditions in Africa and this tradition has remained influential and vital until today. Most of the Yoruba art include court dress, staffs and beadwork for crowns meant for the royal courts. The courts commissioned several other architectural objects like gates, posts and doors which are often embellished with cravings. Other Yoruba arts are related to masking and shrines traditions. The Yoruba are known to worship lather deities pantheon as well as shrines dedicated to the gods. They are adorned with house and carvings and alter figures as well as other ritual paraphernalia. Masking tradition in the Yoruba varies regionally and a wide variety of mask types are used in various celebrations and festivals.

Yoruba Cultural Expression: – Sculpture; – Masquerades (Egungun; Elede) and Masks

Egungun is a term used in the Yoruba culture to refer to any masking practice or masquerade. It denotes the specific Oyo Yoruba masking tradition where the practice originated from. It refers to the power concealed concept and related to the practice that works to both gods and ancestors, both of which are looked at as beings coming from beyond. Egungun has been associated more explicitly with the honoring the Yoruba ancestors in particular and the Yoruba culture have a descendant commitment to continue with the tradition and maintaining the lineage reputation.

The Egungun tradition is understood as a masking tradition that works to both honor gods and ancestors, while among the Oyo it has been linked specifically to the honoring of ancestors in particular. Agba Egungun, unlike paaka Egungun, have been characterized by brightly colored strips and lappets of cloth that are multi-layered with an edge that is saw-toothed attached to a wooden and cloth sculptural headdress but is without the horizontal superstructure characteristic of the paaka Egungun.

The headpiece varies greatly even in the Oyo region and may include figural carvings like animal and human form and more abstract carved forms. A body suit is attached to its headpiece that covers completely the performer and is always made of strip women indigo cloths that are produced locally and are normally hand woven.

The cloth making the lappets is often a mix of imported cloths coming from America, Europe, and in some cases from Southeast Asia that have been produced or imported for the African textile market.  Common fabrics in Yoruba include velvet that is thought in this culture as to be the good taste epitome and damask looked at as the royal cloth that are gold threaded with a strong metallic sunlight sheen.

Some of the other physical characteristics include a black and white knotted mesh face panel that allow the performer, the use of cowry shells, medals and buttons to decorate specifically the area surrounding the knotted mesh and the medicinal packets use or amulets attached to the costume.

An Egungun is in most cases created through a process of divination where a person learns that a deceased relative needs an Egungun and hence it is created. The person will collaborate with a maker of masquerade to make a decision on the appropriate type that may or may not be outlined through meditation and divination. All the details have to be decided upon and this includes the fabric types to be used, the medicinal and amulets packets to be included on the masquerade, and if a carver has to be commissioned to come up with a headpiece. Once the appropriate persons have been commissioned including the herbalist and carver, then the construction of the masquerade will take place. Once the masquerade has been constructed, it is taken to the Egungun society and here, the necessary rites have to be performed and a decision is made on who will dance in that particular ensemble. It this stage, the Egungun is named.

One of the significant aspects of the costume that manifests in its construction and design is its role assumed by the cloth in concealing the performer. The masquerader is concealed completely throughout the dance including the hands, face and legs. The Egungun means powers concealed. The performer concealment has meanings that are deep rooted which are bound up in notions that are commonly held of the relationship between power and secrecy among the Yoruba people.

It is important that cloth be the material that literally covers the entire body and metaphorically prevents the secrets of the marker and mortality being revealed in public.  Even if a person knows the masker identity, it cannot be revealed to the public.

Image Of Authority/Power/Oba The King

The crown is embroidered by beads with beaded veil, attributes to the Oba at the foremost, and symbolizes the civilization aspirations at the highest authority level. The crown incarnates the royal ancestral force intuition, the great moral revelation insight in the king’s person and aesthetic experience glitter.

Oba is a word used to refer to king among the Yoruba, and all the Yorubaland kings are hence known as Obas. It is said that Edo adopted the world when the Yoruba prince Oranmiyan, Eweka I, came to power in Benin Kingdom and changed the title of the royal to Oba from Ogiso. It is used now extensively in West African republics of Benin, Togo and Nigeria.

The Oba title serves as a symbolic capital which can be used to earn favors when desired by the Oba to the people, sometimes it happened vise versa. During any kind of traditional investiture ceremonies for the designated chiefs, the Oba is considered by the Yoruba as the main center of attention, taking precedence over everyone including the members of the official governments of all the three nations if present. As the Yoruba leads the nominees procession into a dais that is specially embroidered before a wider audience of well wishers and guests, different festivities take place as they are accompanied by traditional drumming.

Emblems are normally given out in accordance to seniority, and drapery worn by the chiefs and Oba are created to be not only elaborate but also expensive. Most of such activities are well covered by the local media and find their way into the public domain thereafter. Only the traditional secret initiations involving the highest ranked chiefs are kept as a secret form the outsiders. Ceremonies like the above mentioned one, and the process of maintenance and selection of networks chiefs, make two of the major power sources for the West Africa contemporary royals.

The Oba, as a sacred ruler, is traditionally considered by the Yoruba to be the ex officio chief priest ruling over all the Orisha cults that fall within his or her domain. Although most of the daily functions of the Oba position are delegated and practiced by such figures such as the Babalawos, some of the traditional Yoruba religion rites must be performed by the only Oba, and it is for this reason that the title holders are always considered to be religious leaders on top of being political and ceremonial monarchs.

Image of Spirits/Dieties/Cults


The shango worship, the deities whose power are imaged in lighting and thunder and is mainly found in the south-western and central areas of Yoruba land, which in the past, around the eighteenth century formed part of the Oyo Empire. Shango is regarded as the ancient Oyo’s legendary fourth king, whose leadership was marked by capricious and brilliant use of power.

His reign came to an end when he caused devastation to his royal family and capital city by misusing the magical power he had resulting to severe thunder storms. Following this, he was ridiculed by his own chiefs, who had suffered for a long time under his power to come up with divisions among the chiefs. Shango was then forced to live the city and went to Iloso where he died.

When Oyo continued to be plagued by trouble, those followers who were faithful to Shango declared that he had not died, but had turned to be an Orisha and was taking personal revenge upon the people who had taken over his throne. Later, the Oyo kings come up with a shrine inside the palace for the gods who they believed were fiery-tempered. The deified king cult rapidly spread as the Shango priests accompanied the emissaries of the king on their political mission all over the empire that was now emerging.

Ere Ibeji (twins) or “Children of Thunder”

The Yoruba believed that all twins share the same soul that serves the two of them, and in the event that newly born twin dies, the life of the remaining twin is imperiled now that the balance of his or her soul has been seriously disturbed. In order to counteract the danger the twin is facing, a special ritual is normally carried out. After seeking guidance from the Babalawo, an artisan is then commissioned to create a small figure from wood that symbolizes a substitute for the soul of the twin who had died. In the event that both twins died, two of such figures have to be made.

In most of the traditional African societies, twins are believed to be of preternatural origin and resulted to emotional reactions that ranged from repugnance and fear to joy and hope. In the past, the Yoruba traditions used to reject as well as sacrifice newly born twins. The strange thing about this tradition is that historical scales had to be tipped so that twins born in the recent times are now accepted and welcomed by the Yoruba and the birth of twins is now an occasion of great joy to the society.

A feast is often organized involving the whole community as well as the neighboring villages in the event that the twins happen to the children of prominent person of the tribe. It is believed that newborn twins are able to bestow health, prosperity and happiness upon their family. However, now that they can also cause disease, disaster and death, they have to be handled with all the due care, loving and respect. The upbringing of twins in the Yoruba is hence far more permissive compared to the other children.


The name Oya in Yoruba literally refers to “She Tore”. She is well known as Oya-Iyansan, to mean, the mother of nine. This follows the Niger River which is known as the Odo-Oya to the Yoruba traditions as it has nine tributaries. She is seen in different warrior-spirit aspects of the wind, fertility, lighting, magic, and lighting. She creates tornados and hurricanes and has control over the underworld. She is the tornados spirit which is believed to be her whirling skirts when she dances, lighting and any form of destruction. A part from causing destruction, Oya is the spirit of transition, change and the chaos that result to the transitions and changes. She is the owner of market place following the Yorubas saying that life is a Marketplace and their true house is found in heaven. She is the giver of life and lives at the cemeteries gates and not on the entire world that reveals her as the transition facilitator.

When Oya is danced, it often carries a tail of a horse, and her clothes have all the colors apart from black. Her facial expression is of open and big eyes, she blows and breathes up her chins and screams in many occasions.  The close association of Oya with the passage of life to death also implies that she stands out to be the only Orisha who has to be worshiped together with the Egungun, whose cult is in most cases kept separate from Orishas’. The reason why Oya is worshiped even with the ancestors is because the beloved ones who are dead are considered to be her children. In the faith stories, she has the power to transform herself and become a water buffalo.



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