Lot 58
  • 58

Monumental Ijo Forest Spirit Figure, Nigeria

700,000 - 1,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood
  • Height: 85 7/8 in (218 cm)


Ulrich von Schroeder, Zurich
Edwin and Cherie Silver, Los Angeles, acquired from the above on October 19, 1982


Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, Los Angeles, Ways of the Rivers: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta, May 19 - November 17, 2002
LACMA, Los Angeles, Tradition as Innovation in African Art, January 27 - November 2, 2008


Werner Gillon, Collecting African Art, London, 1979, p. 54, pl. IX
Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, Ways of the Rivers: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta, 2002, private view invitation
Martha G. Anderson & Philip M. Peek, Ways of the Rivers: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta, Los Angeles, 2002, cover and p. 24, fig. 1
David Pagel, 'Dreaming of Africa', Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2002, section F, p. 1
Anne-Marie O'Connor, 'Now, Africa', Los Angeles Times, January 29, 2008, section E, p. 5
Ekpo Eyo, From Shrines to Showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art, Abuja, 2008, p. 252, cat. 196

Catalogue Note

The seven heads of this ferocious and imposing statue appear almost to spin, their staring, bulging eyes never resting, ever watchful. The startling faces, deeply carved with curved and rectilinear forms, create deep, dramatic shadows, accentuating the tremendous volume of the head. Awe-inspiring in its scale and arresting in its sheer sculptural vigor, this towering figure is both the apogee of its corpus and one of the largest and most impressive sculptures of sub-Saharan Africa.


Draining into the Bights of Benin and Biafra, the great rivers of West Africa converge in the vast swampland of the Niger Delta, bounded by a comparatively narrow belt of low-lying sand-ridges, which give way to an expansive sweep of mangrove forest and freshwater swamps. Within this area the population consists predominately of the forty or so sub-groups of the Ijo people.1

Within this landscape, the Ijo recognized the power of water and forest spirits. Water spirits (binioru) were generally considered benign (although there were exceptions2), whilst forest spirits (bouorumo) were often described as volatile and violent. Anderson notes that figurative sculptures were not required for most water spirits (usually more associated with masks), and nor were they required for ‘gods from above’ (suwooru), including clan war gods.3 However, unruly forest spirits of the psychically and physically dangerous wilderness often became the subject of shrine sculptures.

The egalitarian Ijo professed allegiance solely to their clan war gods and to no authorities in the earthly realm. Their settlements were barricaded against invaders both earthly and supernatural with “sculpted sentinels […] and potent medicines.”4 Outside of the villages, travelling posed another set of dangers: “piracy, slave raiding, and assaults on strangers once made travel along the Delta’s waterways so treacherous that the Ijo regarded trading as a dangerous activity to be undertaken by only the bravest of men […] Older inhabitants of the area still speak of a time when conflicts between villages made even local excursions risky, for small-scale wars continued to erupt well into the twentieth century.”5 These disputes seldom led to the conquest of land or other property, and it appears that the Ijo fought foremost to demonstrate their strength and courage. Their acephalous society is inextricably linked with a certain individualism which appears to have supported conflict as a means of self-accomplishment, with the supreme virtue being courage, displayed by pitting one’s prowess against that of an equal opponent. The peri warrior society was the principal means for men to obtain status within Ijo society. The peri title was “a distinction clan war gods bestowed on men for killing either human beings or animals – such as leopards, hippopotami, manatees, and sharks – that the Ijo consider to be like human beings”, and membership afforded certain privileges.6 “Among the Ijo, the intangible rewards [of peri] clearly outweighed the tangible ones, for recipients simply earned the right to drink with their left hands, wear special costumes, which differed from clan to clan, and perform a special peri ‘play’ at the funerals of other title holders.”7


This monumental sculpture from the Silver Collection of a bellicose seven headed giant may depict the war-like, seven-headed forest spirit Tebesonoma, an antagonist in the myth of the Ijo culture hero Ozidi. Ozidi’s accomplishments were traditionally celebrated among the Western Ijo,8 and the Nigerian poet-playwright John Pepper Clark was the first to draw attention to the tradition, later publishing The Ozidi Saga, a version of the myth which he had collected, translated, and edited.9 The identification of this statue with Tebesonoma, the “indefatigable fighter,”10 is supported by its seven heads as well as by its sheer size: the giant Tebesonoma is described as “so tall that he almost disappeared in the air, like a tree he stood.”11 This allusion could mean that the statue depicts not only a single powerful entity, but that he represents the power of the entire forest; as the Nigerian novelist Isidore Okpewho observes, “Tebesonoma the giant of seven heads is a fitting image of the numerous branches at the tops of many a forest tree.”12 This interpretation is further supported by the creatures of the forest which are carved on this all-powerful figure.

Regardless of an attribution to a specific spirit, this figure represents the apogee of the corpus of Ijo shrine sculpture, which consists primarily of an exceptionally small number of figures with seven heads, and a larger number of shrine figures with four heads or less. Within this entire corpus no other recorded example approaches the majestic scale of this sculpture; in quality and rarity only the seven-headed figure in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco can begin to compare (inv. no. 2004.93; height: 68 in, 172.7 cm).

Anderson notes that Ijo sculptors presented the forest figures as warriors who have multiple heads, which signify “clairvoyance, vigilance, and superhuman powers.”13 The number of heads of this sculpture is important, as seven is a number with mystical significance in Ijo cosmology. Okpewho, for instance, notes that “The Ijo believe [...] that the essence of life inheres in the fusion of seven complementary elements: of these, four are female and three male,” and the number occurs and reoccurs throughout Ijo ontology.14 These sculptures are closely tied to war. Despite their ferocious and dangerous reputation, forest spirits were enshrined by the Ijo, who believed that the spirits’ belligerent and raucous nature could be harnessed and redirected: “Enshrined spirits have to project qualities like ruthlessness and volatility to convince followers of their ability to protect them.”15


Each of the seven heads is painted in dividing fields with contrasting black and white pigment, bisected by a ridge running down the central axis of the face. The colors may refer to membership of the peri society and to the chalk and charcoal which warriors applied to themselves in the shrine before entering combat. Bared teeth, a sign of truculence and assertive personality, may refer to verbal aggression; they may also be a reference to the fact that great warriors commanded both magical knowledge, known as atamgba, and magical speech, aunbibi. This language was unintelligible to most Ijo, and those who commanded it were able to accomplish miraculous feats, such as becoming invisible from attack or ‘bulletproof’, “simply by uttering a few words.”16 The gourd medicine bottles, atu, which adorn the figure, “probably represent ‘bulletproofing medicines’, like the smoking pot, one celebrated warrior suspended from his neck to devour enemy bullets […] Charms of this sort  could also render people invisible, seek out, or ensnare enemies and destroy them.”17

The animal which stands on top of the head may be a leopard, which is associated with leadership and warfare. Anderson and Peek remark that “numerous Delta shrines […] display real leopard skulls,”18 and the leopard’s presence might also refer to the stories of warriors who could transform themselves into powerful animals. The leopard is the largest of the number of symbols of the water and forest which appear on the figure. Others include a crocodile, a tortoise, a snail, two snakes, two lizards, and three birds. Anderson records the tale of “how Snail, who lacks hands and feet, prepares for war by asking to be covered with a leaf to hide him from his enemies. His ploy recalls the medicines and shape-shifting strategies Ijo warriors employed to avoid detection.”19 Arnold Rubin notes that a bird which appears on the figure in San Francisco may be “regarded as [a] ‘messenger of the spirits;’ alternatively the motif may derive from the practice of priests and dancers wearing a live chick suspended from a string to avert evil influences.”20 While the precise significance of these creatures is sometimes opaque, they seem intended to contribute to the power of this statue, which has absorbed the peculiar qualities of all the creatures of land and water.

The janiform upper body of the sculpture illustrates the massive physique appropriate to a redoubtable warrior and emphasizes his supernatural abilities. The hulking chest heaves under the weight of his seven heads, and the four arms are held out from the body in an assertive gesture which further expands the sculpture’s volume and its all-encompassing vigilance. Each knotted fist brandishes a symbol of war and power: a cutlass, a rifle, a spear, a stout cudgel. This alert warrior has control of every available weapon, from the mysterious forces of the forest to an imported gun. The formidable torso is supported by a pair of truncated massive, muscular legs. He is assertive and defiant, prepared to take on all-comers.


As Arnold Rubin notes, “The impact of Ijo style may even have extended as far as southeastern Liberia, where similar conventions are found as a small enclave amidst more naturalistic traditions.”21 During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Kru people of southeastern present-day Liberia often worked as laborers on European ships or at trading stations along the Guinea coast, where they would have come into contact with the artistic traditions of the Niger Delta. As these people returned to their home villages, they may have introduced stylistic conventions such as “the rigorous abstraction of the forms of the human face typical of the Niger Delta.”22 Rubin notes a precisely documented mask collected at Cape Palmas in Liberia before 1849, which has been published as Ijo. The Grebo mask illustrated here shares the formal qualities, in particular, the abstract representation of multiple cylindrical eyes and rectangular mouths.

The arresting power of this awe-inspiring Ijo statue is also manifest in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s striking and primal Untitled (Two Heads on Gold), 1982. Beyond their aesthetic affinities – apparent in the pulsating, aggressive faces and the gesticulating bodies – both works evince an enthralling psychological essence. In their fascination with the wonder and horror of the human head they show how the visceral power of the imagination transcends time and space.

1. Joe Alagoa, ‘Ijo Origins and Migrations (I)’, Nigeria Magazine, No. 91, p. 279
2. See the multi-headed water spirit probably representing “Angala Pele”, or “mangrove cutter”, who is so hostile that he must be restrained by ropes or surrounded by attendants armed with sticks. Anderson and Peek, Ways of the Rivers, 2002, p. 148
3. Anderson and Peek, ibid., p. 105
4. Anderson and Peek, ibid., p. 92
5. Anderson and Peek, ibid., p. 93
6. Anderson and Peek, ibid., pp. 94-95
7. Anderson and Peek, ibid., p. 95
8. Okpewho, Blood on the Tides: the Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology, 2014, p. 55
9. Pepper Clark, The Ozidi Saga: Collected and Translated from the Oral Ijo Version of Okabou Ojobolo, 1977
10. Okpewho, ‘Performance and Plot in the Ozidi Saga’, Oral Tradition, Vol. 19, No. 1, March 2004, p. 68
11. Pepper Clark, ibid., p. 236
12. Okpewho, ibid., p. 3
13. Anderson and Peek, ibid., p. 107
14. Okpewho, ibid., p. 17
15. Anderson and Peek, ibid., p. 106
16. Anderson and Peek, ibid., p. 96
17. Anderson and Peek, ibid., pp. 96-97
18. Anderson and Peek, ‘Exhibition Preview: Ways of the Rivers: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta’, African Arts, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2002, p. 20
19. Anderson and Peek, Ways of the Rivers, 2002, p. 107
20. Rubin, Figurative Sculptures of the Niger River Delta, 1976, p. 20
21. Rubin, ibid., p. 22
22. Rubin, ibid.