Urhobo Female Ancestor Figure, Nigeria
Sotheby's New York, December 2, 1983, lot 117, consigned by the above
Reynold G. Kerr, New York, acquired at the above auction
Allan Stone, New York
Dr. Perkins Foss, April, 2014
This rare and ancient Urhobo statue from the collection of Allan Stone depicts a lady of high rank and status. As part of the imagery of an oguan re edjo—a shrine commemorating the spiritual strength of the founding family of a community—she would have stood among warriors, elders, nursing mothers and children. With body tautly arched and frontally positioned, she would have most likely represented a junior wife of the founding father.
Another nearly identical statue by the same hand is in the collection of the late Murray Frum, Toronto. Published by the present writer in 2004 (Cat. 43), it is of identical height, bears similar features and has comparable surface embellishments. In all likelihood the two of them stood in the same shrine, in a typical Urhobo configuration, as a flanking pair of beautiful women at opposing ends of the group.
The face of this figure has been rendered in classic Urhobo style: sweeping forehead meeting sharply incised eyes, with a jawline that thrusts outwards to an aggressive, open mouth. Especially vivid are the forehead marks (iwu) that are generally considered to be vestigial of an earlier age, perhaps recalling the Urhobo connection to the empire of Benin, where the same word is used as a general term for body marks.
The bracelets that adorn her arms are worthy of note. Termed ikoro, they would have been made of ivory, and would have been worn by both men and women of exalted status, those who were of such a rank that no manual labor was expected of them. Men would normally have one on each wrist, and in that case both would have been carved in a concave pattern. In the case of women, the ikoro were positioned differently: on her left arm, she would wear a longer, heavier (though less embellished) bracelet, but on her right arm, she would wear a short, concave one. The reason for the difference: while women deserve even more honor, they still have to perform some unavoidable manual tasks.
Of special interest are the surface decorations that embellish the figure. An elaborate pattern covers her belly and more discrete markings appear on the outer sides of her biceps and neck. Comparable motifs appear on many Urhobo female statues that date from the same period, the mid- 19th century; indeed the Frum statue has similar marks, but not as elaborately rendered. While they brought a sensuous beauty to the wearer, and to the eyes of her admirers, these marks have deeper meanings that allude to a kind of “protective medicine,” that keeps the wearer safe and healthy. Especially important in this regard are the marks on the belly: their role would be to assure successful childbearing, offering protection to mother and child alike.