Yoruba Art

The Yoruba of West Africa (Benin, Nigeria and Togo, with migrant communities in parts of Ghana, and Sierra Leone) are responsible for one of the finest artistic traditions in Africa, a tradition that remains vital and influential today. The arts of the Yoruba are as numerous as their deities. Beautiful sculpture abounds in wood and brass and the occasional terracotta. Varied masking traditions have resulted in a great diversity of mask forms. Additional important arts include pottery, weaving, bead-working, metal-smiting,  staffs, court dress, and beadwork for crowns, is associated with the royal courts. The courts also commissioned numerous architectural objects such as veranda posts, gates, and doors that are embellished with carvings. Other Yoruba art is related shrines and masking traditions, and many objects are placed on shrines to honor the gods and the ancestors. The Yoruba worship a large pantheon of deities, and shrines dedicated to these gods are adorned with carvings and house and array of altar figures and other ritual paraphernalia. Masking traditions vary regionally, and a wide range of mask types are employed in various festivals and celebrations.


Bronze Head of Queen Idia:

The Bronze Head of Queen Idia is a commemorative bronze head from mediaeval Benin that probably represents Queen Idia, who was a powerful monarch during the early sixteenth century at the Benin court.


Queen Idia played an instrumental role in her son’s successful military campaigns against neighbouring tribes and factions. After her death, Oba Esigie ordered dedicatory heads of the queen to be made, to be placed in front of altars or in the Queen Mother’s palace. The heads were designed to honour her military achievements and ceremonial power.


The bronze head was made using the lost wax casting technique in the early sixteenth century. It is a very realistic representation of a young woman from the Benin court, who wears a high pointed crown of lattice-shaped red coral beads. The eyes and two bands between them are inset with iron. Above each eyebrow are engraved four cicatrices. The sophisticated technique and design of the four heads suggest that they were made in the early sixteenth century, when Queen Idia, mother of Oba Esigie, ruled the Benin court.

The Ife Head:

This free-standing brass head cast in the lost wax technique was discovered in 1938 at Wunmonije Compound in Ife, Nigeria. It was found by accident during house building works together with sixteen other brass and copper heads and the upper half of a brass figure.The identification and function of the head, in common with the others discovered at this site, remain uncertain. Its elaborate beaded headdress, possibly representing a crown, suggest that it was associated with an Ooni, a ruler of Ife.


According to the oral traditions of the Yoruba people, Ife is the place where life and civilisation began. Ife is regarded as the legendary homeland of the Yoruba-speaking peoples and its sacred ruler, the Ooni, is still revered as the descendant of the original creator gods. Ife is located in Osun State in modern south-western Nigeria.


The art of Ife has produced a large corpus of sculptural works in terracotta, stone, brass and copper which were found at different sites in the city. Among these artworks the representations of humans are striking for their naturalistic style.

Mask said to represent the Oni Obalufon II, 12-15th century, copper, from the Oni’s Palace, Ife.


This life-like modelling is unique in Africa and when objects from Ife were first presented to the western world they were compared with the classical traditions of Ancient Greece and Rome. It was even suggested that such heads were evidence that Ife was the site of the lost civilization of Atlantis. In fact the sculpture of Ife is today rightly seen as one of the highest achievements of African art and culture.


Ife is rightly regarded as the birthplace of some of the highest achievements of African art and culture, combining technical accomplishment with strong aesthetic appeal. From the 12th to the 15th centuries, Ife flourished as a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa, in what is now modern Nigeria.

three-quarter view

It was an influential centre of trade connected to extensive local and long-distance trade networks which enabled the region to prosper. Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper-alloy to create a style unlike any in Africa at the time.


The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include depictions of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity. The almost pure copper mask of Obalufon II, an early Ooni (king) of Ife is one of the finest images of royal power from Ife.


woman head in Terracotta:

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Small woman’s head in terracotta, part of an image of a full figure which has been lost. It displays the typical facial scarifications of ancient Ife and an elaborate basket shaped hairstyle which indicates that the subject belonged to the royal family. 12-15th century, terracotta. National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria.


Terracotta head of an Oluwo, a female Oni, who, according to tradition, went out in the rain and whose regal garments were stained by splashes of mud. In her anger, she ordered that the most important public and religious places should be paved with fragments of terracotta. 12-15th century, terracotta, Nigeria.


Ife Terracotta Heads:

Ife is regarded as the spiritual heartland of the Yoruba people living in Nigeria.  According to Yoruba myth, Ife is the center of the creation of the world and all mankind.   Ife is also considered the birthplace of some of the highest achievements of African art and culture, combining technical accomplishment with strong aesthetic appeal.   From the 12th to the 15th century, Ife flourished as a powerful and wealthy cosmopolitan city-state in West Africa, in what is now modern Nigeria. Today Ife remains a major spiritual and religious center for the Yoruba people.  Some of its shrines and groves are still in use and rituals to key gods are performed regularly.


Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, and brass, to create a style unlike any in Africa at the time.  The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society, and include depictions of youth, disease, and idealized crown royalty.

These figurative terracotta sculptures, which represent the largest group of works, capture the diverse nature of Ife society.  Several terracotta heads bear facial striations, suggesting cultural markings, while others depict women wearing regalia or jewelry, indicating high status.


“…these heads are believed to be associated with the coronation or the accession rituals of new rulers of Yoruba city-states, which owed allegiance to Ife.”

Ife terracotta art constitutes a large and diverse corpus of structural works that include sculptures and vessels depicting human, animal, and other-worldly subjects.  The art-historical importance of Ife works lies in their highly developed and distinctive sculptural style, described alternatively as naturalistic, portrait-like, and humanistic.  These include human heads and figures depicting idealized crowned royalty.  The delicately rendered vertical facial striations that appear on many of the sculptures represent scarification patterns native to the Yoruba people.

In the Yoruba tradition, women are the clay workers.  They produce both sacred and secular pieces.


Ife Wooden Divination Tray:

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Ife Wooden Divination Tray, Areogun of Osi-Ilorin, Nigeria; Yoruba People, about 1880 – 1956.This is a fine example of African graphic design. The tray depicts some of the most important fortunes, that are at the heart of Yoruba philosophy: a healthy long life, wealth, love, children, wisdom and security. All these good fortunes are conveyed by the graphic designer of this tray .Eshu, the god who mediates between the world of the spirit and the human world symbolizes a healthy long life and is carved at the top of this tray. At the bottom, a kneeling woman with a child on her back, presenting offerings in a calabash represents children and fertility. In the left, a soldier stands in guard with a crossbow, he is a symbol of security or victory over the enemies. In the right, a priest of Osanyin, a god of healing and wisdom is depicted. He represents the health, and wisdom . At the lower left, love is represented by a couple making love, and at the lower right, a seated figure, probably a second representation of Eshu closes this circle of life . Representing wealth, a band of cowry shells, formerly used as money in West Africa, runs around the central part of the tray.The diviner sits with the tray in front of him, placed so that Eshu is opposite, facing him.


Yoruba Opon Ifa / Circular Tray





The Bronze Art of Benin:

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Benin Head, A bronze sculpture from the Kingdom of Benin. The Benin kingdom was a thriving empire situated in present-day Nigeria. Accruing its economic wealth through commerce with countries north of the Sahara, Benin rose during the 16th century and became the dominant military power and imperial force on the West Coast of Africa. At its political and religious center was a fortified city surrounded by a wall almost ten feet high. The king, or oba , of Benin, was both a political and a religious leader, and believed to be divine. Iconic works of this kind are among the masterpieces of the arts of Africa. To exalt Oba and his lineage, artists created a vast variety of cast-metal objects in the technically challenging ciré perdue technique.



Master of Ikerre


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In Yoruba culture, important artists such as the Master of Ikerre were commissioned by kings to create large and richly ornamented doors to adorn the entrance to a palace or an important shrine. The high relief carving depicts human and animal forms, from women carrying clay pots or musical instruments to men holding bows, arrows, guns, or fly whisks—and even some riding horseback.


Yoruba Ilekun (Palace Door):





Palace Door Panel Olowe of Ise:


Palace Door Panel Olowe of Ise Yoruba peoples (Ilawe-Ekiti) 20th Century Wood, pigments, iron chain 82.75 x 33.25 x 5.25 inches.





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