Urhobo Male Ancestor Figure (Omo Ogun), Nigeria
- Height: 48 1/2 in (123.2 cm)
Collected in situ by Philippe Guimiot between 1972 and 1973
Philippe Guimiot, Brussels
Jacques Kerchache, Paris, acquired from the above ca. 1974
Pace Primitive & Ancient Art, New York (inv. no. "4707")
Allan Stone, New York, acquired from the above on June 26, 1986
Perkins Foss, "Urhobo Statuary for Spirits and Ancestors", African Arts, July 1976, Vol. IX, No. 4, p. 18
Ekpo Eyo, Two Thousand Years of Nigerian Art, Lagos, 1977, p. 213 (color plate)
This example of large-scale Urhobo sculpture stands among the finest known examples of the tradition. It is less complex a rendering than some other well-known examples, including the Louvre-maternité and the warrior figure in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. However its elegant simplicity offers an exceptionally clean and clear execution of the type.
Omo Ogun means “Son of Ogun.” It was photographed by me in situ in the community of Orherhe, in the Agbarho village group, in June 1969. This figure—one of a group of five, all nearly life-sized, and depicting members of a family—was part of an edjo shrine that in its prime was the spiritual focus of the community.
Most large-scale Urhobo statues are associated with the edjo, a generic term for the essence of spiritual energy. Urhobo say that anything that “shows itself” to contain mystical strength, especially to cure illness or to protect one against danger contains the power of edjo. These can be bodies of water or parcels of land, even a particular tree. However in its most potent role, edjo is the force that offers spiritual protection for an entire community, and in cases, for an entire village group. Often they are seen as the driving force that motivated the family that founded the town. Up to the middle of the last century, devotees would maintain the Oguan r’edjo (“shrine for the edjo”). Edjo Ogun was said to be owned by the entire town, and to have been “discovered” by one Erhowho, who died in the middle of the 19th century. He was said to have “met it in a dream,” a common way for a new edjo to be founded. This information suggests that this work may date to about this period.
Let us consider the form of the image: a male figure, with legs bent, resting on a simple support. Muscular arms and voluminous chest suggest strength of body and character. In his right hand he holds a cylindrical object that has been broken off at the front. Its original form can only be speculated upon: it may be a replica of a small ivory horn that would have contained mystical medicinal substances, appropriate for an individual charged with the power of edjo. The identity of the object in his left hand—nearly completely broken off—is even more obscure. It may be a small ceremonial knife, and since it is in the left hand, in order to follow Urhobo tradition, it should be aimed toward the earth.
To clearly identify his subject as a man of high status, the artist has carved a single raised ridge that sweeps across the chest up to the shoulders on each side. This represents a strand of coral beads (agigo) worn by members of Ohonvworin society, a group of senior chiefs responsible for the wellbeing of the community. Particularly elegant in its simplicity, this necklace complements the curves of the swelling chest.
The sharply articulated lines of the head confirm the superiority of the hand of the artist. The upper lids slightly overhang the lower, with clearly defined pupils within. In the same manner the well-balanced ovoid mouth displays delicate teeth. In profile, the face of the statue displays the shape of the best of Urhobo art: swelling forehead above thrusting jaw-line and prominent mouth.
A hat reserved for a warrior surmounts the head. A leather band containing protective substances, rendered in wood, runs around its bottom, and above are a pair of wing-like forms extending to each side. Individuals termed the hat as erhu ofovwi, “hat-for-war,” with the no further comment, other than it was an ancient style. A single nail was attached to the front of the forehead is visible in the 1969 photograph (since removed), suggesting that at one point there had been a carved object there, that subsequently had been repaired and ultimately broken off. At the moment, only a fragment remains of what may have been an image of a bird, balanced at the front of the hat. This would make sense, as for the Urhobo, birds are often said to possess the ability to see into the far distance, to sense impending danger. Such a bird would offer the edjo a view into the metaphoric distance, i.e., into the future.
One more formal element merits consideration: the carefully rendered curve of the back. It sweeps inward, in a balanced manner common to only the best of Urhobo artistry. In various instances, individuals have mimed this form and called it an allusion to a dance gesture. By handling the back in such a way the artist has enlivened the statue with a particularly dynamic component, one suggesting motion within a static form.
The surface patina is of interest. Most Urhobo edjo statuary is coated with a white liquefied substance made from oorhe, locally translated as “chalk.” The material is actually kaolin, dug from riverbanks, and widely used for ritual purposes throughout tropical West Africa. This substance is metaphorically synonymous with the spirits of the waters (edjorame). It is offered to water spirits as food; large piles of chalk are seen in front of shrines that relate to water spirits. Some statuary is made exclusively from chalk; these are known as edjo re amare (“spirits in molded form”), and they too are classed as water spirits. Within such a context, protective water spirits metaphorically enclose the figure.
This statue has been coated with a variant: thick coats of yellow clay (enakpa), also a form of kaolin, and also extracted from riverbanks. While certainly not unique, a yellow coating is unusual. The surface has, through the years, received layer upon layer of the yellow that would have been applied annually at the time of ritual serving. Originally the statue would have been evenly coated to create a smooth, shiny surface; now, large pieces of the chalk have become desiccated and have fallen off. In 1969, certain parts of the surface had recently received further layer of white: eyes, mouth, ears, as well as the inverted umbilicus. This would have been done, in all likelihood, on the advice of divination, and to visually highlight the important features of the face.
The name Ogun is itself revealing. It is a loanword from the contiguous Benin people who live immediately north of the Urhobo, and who in the 17th and 18th centuries controlled much of what today is Urhobo territory. It relates to blacksmithing, and especially important to this statue, to military strength and prowess. Indeed the term appears also among the Yoruba, to the west, where it is the singularly most powerful Orisha, the “god” of war. These multiple warrior overtones align well with the militaristic nature of the powerful spirit-force of this figure. Omo Ogun thus carries allusions that span across southern Nigeria.
University Park, Pennsylvania