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Yorùbá artist, pair of twin figures (Ère Ìbejì)

Yorùbá artist, Pair of twin figures (Ère Ìbejì), late 19th–early 20th century (Brooklyn Museum) A conversation with Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(mellow piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Brooklyn Museum and we're looking at two small, wooden figures known as Ere Ibeji. They come from the country that we now call Nigeria, they're Yoruba. - [Peri] These are twin figures. These were used by the Yoruba traditionally as receptacles for the spirits of deceased twins. The Yoruba have one of the highest twinning ratios in the world, something like 45 out of 1,000 births result in twins. - [Steven] And twins were seen as indicative of something special. Twins are celebrated in Yoruba culture. - [Peri] Unfortunately, twins don't always survive and when a mother would lose her twin she would consult a diviner to see what she might do and in some cases a carver would be brought in to carve one of these figures to hold, as a receptacle, the spirit of that child. - [Steven] So this was something that the mother could then possess that would in turn hold the spirit of her deceased child so these would've been intensely personal objects. - [Peri] And they would've been kept in shrines in her house, possibly even in her bedroom. They could've been taken out and when they were they would be tied and held in a cloth wrapper around her waist. They would've been offered millet gruel and they would've been given libations just as a child might be honored. - [Steven] But it's important to make a distinction that although these figures are treated as if they were a child they do not represent visually a child. What we're seeing here are a male and female figure and the proportions of those figures suggest an adult body rather than an infant's body. - [Peri] Their bodies suggest what we call the prime of life, that is that critical time, that perfect time in life, when you are no longer a child and you haven't yet married but you have the knowledge and you have the skills and you have the energy in which to bring forth life. This is the ideal for parents. This is where they would like their kids to get. - [Steven] So the potential that this particular child will not reach but is embodied here. So what we're seeing are objects that would've been the result of this relationship between the mother and her diviner. The figures themselves are wonderfully abstract. The hair is abstracted and is the same on both the male and the female figure. The figures wear jewelry and the faces seem to almost have been worn away. - [Peri] You can tell that these figures were loved by their mother because she has touched the faces so often that the features have actually disappeared. So she's rubbed oil on them to make them glisten. She's given them offerings of food and in the course of time these features have all but disappeared. She's also applied red camwood onto the bodies, a kind of oil, which you can see residue of and blue indigo dye to their coiffures, to their hair. - [Steven] We're seeing this set of relatively simple forms that are, nevertheless, this magnet for intense spiritual and emotional meaning. - [Peri] The objects that we have here in the Brooklyn Museum date to the late 19th, early 20th century, and while these are older pieces, this belief among the Yoruba has not died. We find women still using these Ere Ibejis but today they can take on new forms. They could be plastic manufactured dolls from China that a woman might find available in the marketplace if she can't afford to have a carver do these more elaborate types. - [Steven] As I understand it, the concern is not with the physical form of the Ere Ibeji themselves but it's with this notion of what they can hold and so it's an imbuing of power and meaning within the object rather than the object itself. - [Peri] In many cases in African art, we see that the form is less important than what the object itself stands for or contains. I think these Ere Ibeji's do have ascetic qualities that are valuable to the Yoruba but they're also very personal, cherished objects that have the spirit, the essence, the aura of your deceased child so they also have a strong connection to your past and also your future because there is a belief that any child that dies will be reincarnated in another generation. - [Steven] I'd feel very privileged to look at an object that had such a powerful connection to somebody at such a vulnerable moment in their lives. (mellow piano music)