African art has become one of the most sought after, from sculptures, to written art and even painted art forms. African art is based on rich traditions and culture of the continent. Perhaps of greater interest are the western art forms which have taken precedence in terms of African finds. This is because these art forms hold meaning even in today’s world. Modern African artists have been found to duplicate the same traditional art forms sometimes with the use of modern materials. The art forms continue to hold a vital place in the traditions of the continent even as such continent becomes modernized.
One of the most important aspects of African culture is that it is often gender focused. From traditional to modern times, western African tribes have continues to be concerned and to generate art around the issue of fertility. Fertility plays a major role in ensuring the continuation of the tribe, ensuring that the families have legacy and so on. Women who were infertile were often banished and frowned upon. They were considered cursed and in some cases even killed so that they would not shame their families and tribes any more. The Yoruba people especially have often used various art forms to explain and show the issues plaguing the community. A quick study of these art forms reveals the concern for fertility in addition to the underlying factors. There are several art forms from this tribe which pay homage to the women of the community, their fertility and their ability to bring newer generations to the tribe. The visual art from this tribe is especially telling, showing similarities in nature as well as differences.
This sculpture pays tribute to the Yoruba tribe’s fascination and indeed obsession with twins. (Harris 1996) shows that the tribe is not only fascinated with twins but in the recent past has become the centre of attention for the high rate of twin births in the rural village. The sculpture is made of soft wood and depicts a mother holding her two twin babies. The woman in the sculpture appears to be smiling though not at her babies. There are many analysis and explanations for this sculpture. Twins in Yoruba land have an exceptional level and standard. The community goes as far as worshipping the twins.
Based on this assumption, there are those art critics such as (Lawal 2012) indicates that the sculpture shows the standing of the artist with regard to the twin worship by the Yoruba. In this tribe the twins are not only given a high standing, they are in fact considered a good omen. Often women seek out twins to call on their fellow twins. A woman who wants to have twins for example could rub a win baby on her womb hoping that said baby will bring her luck of the twins. This sculpture therefore could have nothing to do with the woman but rather the babies. The twins themselves are the focus of the art with the woman being a by stander. Evidence of this can be found in the details that the artist has given to the babies. While the woman seems not to have intricate detail, the babies she is holding are closely designed with intricate patterns for their hair, even their eyes seem to be lifelike.
The tradition surrounding the twins is strong in this small village. In fact (Abiodun 2014) cites that twins may not be as big celebrities as their own mothers. He disagrees that the focus of the artist is on the twins but insists that the sculpture is a tribute to the woman herself. Often tribe members appease the mother of twins by bringing her gifts including animals and farm produce. It is believed that the mother of twins can sue her babies to harm anyone and bring disaster upon the village. As such she should be well taken care of, and granted her every wish. Her husband lives by appeasing her. In some clans, the women become like small gods appeased to use their powers for healing, and even brining riches and wealth. (Harris 1996) says that the plain nature of the woman in the sculpture is because of the respect granted to her. She does not need patterns or an intricate design to bring out her beauty comes from the simple fact that the gods have favored her because of her pure heart.
The sculpture is one of the many often featured in the gelede festival. The gelede festival is a festival honoring the women folk in Yoruba. This is an especially unique culture considering the African traditions. Majority of the rural African tribes have relegated the role of the women and girls to one of not being seen. Whenever folksong and stories mention women they are either being evil or as witches holding their tribes hostage. It is therefore surprising to find a sculpture celebrating a woman similar to the Iyaibeji . The genelede sculpture is quite different from other art forms depicting women from Africa. In these sculptures, the woman is often naked and exposed. In this sculpture, she appears to be warm and decent. The sculpture done by local Yoruba artists shows the respect for women.
The sculpture itself shows the woman carrying a traditional woven tray used for carrying goods and performing tasks in the home. (Thompson 1974) is quite impressed with the talent of the artist and his skills which brings out the traditional tray in a unique manner. The tray seems to be a natural extension of the woman’s body. Perhaps in his own way, the artist was trying to show the Yoruba woman as he understood her. She is seen as a hardworking woman, often carrying her tray from one place to another sometimes with a child on her back. The tray is a symbol of her hard work and desire to feed her family. She is never without it, for she knows not where she will find some yams, beans or even fruit for her children.
This sculpture is from the 20th century and includes some modern material including the modern treatment of the wood. The base of the sculpture seems to be made from a different material than the sculpture. However, this cannot be proven by simple observation. The sculpture is less than five feet high and can be decoratively placed in offices and/or houses. However majority of the people purchasing the sculpture do so from the desire to interact with the unique and rich Yoruba culture. The sculpture is seen as the birthplace, the guardian of the tribe, the community and legacy of the tribe.
The similarity of both sculptures is not just the fact that they come from one tribe. In fact the main similarity comes from the focus of both sculptures that is the woman. The sculptures are both centered on the woman and her unique ability to carry on the community through her hard work and womb which nurtures the future generations. Using traditional wood, the sculptors and artist bring out aspects of the woman that are to be celebrated rather than ignored. The artists are also focused in the face of the woman giving special attention to her smile. The smile is important for the joy of the woman is often translated as the joy of the community. The most basic of similarities however comes from the material used in making the sculptures that is carved wood from the traditional Yoruba culture.
The main difference of the sculpture comes of course from the aspects that the artist wishes to highlight. The first sculpture is focused on the mother of twins, the main issue being that she has twins. The twins are therefore given special attention and detail. On the other hand, the second sculpture focuses not on any specific accomplishment but rather celebrates the existence of the woman herself. Both sculptures however are a testimony to the Yoruba culture where women are greatly celebrated and daughters are thought to be a man’s good omen in his home, (Okediji 2002). The gelede sculpture is important to note is mostly used in the form of a head dress, while the mother of twins is simply just a sculpture. For this reason, the Gelede could be much lighter than the other.
Abiodun, Rowland. Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art. , 2014
Harris, Michael D. Contemporary Yoruba Art in Ile-Ife: History, Continuum, Motive, and Transformation. , 1996.
Lawal, Babatunde. Yoruba. Milan, Italy: 5 Continents, 2012
Okediji, Moyosore B. African Renaissance: New Forms, Old Images in Yoruba Art. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002
Thompson, Robert F. Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at Ucla. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976