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Article on African Art at Arcy Art Original Oil Paintings - Duality in Yoruba Art

African Art - The Symbolic and Philosophical Importance of Duality in Yoruba Art
By Rudi Carstens Editor and Artist of Arcy Art Original Oil Paintings

Duality has a significant symbolic and philosophical importance in Yoruba art. In this article I will investigate this importance further by concentrating on the manifestation of duality in two specific Yoruba cults.

The Yoruba people are spread through out South Western Nigeria and in parts of neighbouring Benin and Toga. The Yoruba people are divided into twenty subgroups which were traditionally autonomous kingdoms (fagg 1982:XI). The ancient city of Ife is the political and religious centre of Yoruba society and the power of a Yoruba king is drawn from the Oba (king) of Ife. Yoruba culture is typified by a variety of cults and although there exists various differences regarding the importance and rituals of these cults in the various regions, the underlying cosmological and philosophical importance remain consistent. In most of these cults the issue of twoness or doubling is important to Yoruba philosophy which is based on the tensions between various opposites.

Yoruba religion comprises of a variety of "Orsa" (gods) and semi deities. Various cults have been formed to worship the various "Orsa", witches or ancestors. These are not exclusive of each other though and various cross influences can be seen within these various cults. Allegiance to a cult is usually inherited from one's father. A person may not worship more than one "Orisa", for example a Gelede worshipper is forbidden to consult an Ifa diviner (fagg 1983:18).

Yoruba philosophy is not based on the European concept of good and evil with all life forces (ase) having the potential to be either good or bad. This balance between opposing forces is maintained in other opposites such as; male/female, dark/light, left/right, silence/noise, nature/culture, action/inaction. This philosophy based on tension between opposing forces manifests itself in the occurrence of duality in many Yoruba artworks. I will look further into the way in which this duality manifests itself within the Efe/Gelede and Ogboni cults concentrating mainly on the opposing forces existing between male and female.

In Yoruba kingdoms the "Oba" does not hold absolute power but the power is limited to the almost equal power of the Ogboni elders. The Ogboni elders consists of the oldest and wisest members of the community. The Ogboni is a secret society and its members can be either male or female. The Ogboni cult worships "Onile" (owner of the earth) and the Ogboni will often intervene where a dispute arises and blood has been spilled on the ground. They will resolve the dispute and cleanse the space where the sacred earth has been stained by the spill of blood. It is believed that the secret of the society is its members knowledge of a primordial unity which transcends the opposing forces that characterizes human experience (fagg 1982:186). This unity is emblemized by the unification of opposing forces to create a third and more powerful force. The Ogboni oath "two members becomes three" also emphasizes this idea of unification.

Two art works typical of the Ogboni cult are the carved drums and small brass figures called "edan". Each Ogboni member's house has a series of four or more drums ranging in height from one meter to less than half a meter. The largest drum is almost always carved in low relief around all its sides. The central figure on the larger drum is usually a figure with mudfishlike creatures where his/her legs should be. Each Ogboni house also has at least one pair of "edan". The "edan" is handed to an initiate into the higher ranks of the Ogboni society. The "edan" is a twin brass image of a male and a female joined together with a chain. The joining of the males and females by the chain represents the Ogboni philosophy of joining two opposing forces to create a third more powerful one. These "edan" are kept in the inner sanctuary of the house and it seems as if their function is purely symbolic in nature. The sacred emblem is also placed on the spot on the earth where blood has been spilled on the ground as result of a dispute.

The function of the Efe/Gelede cult is to honour "our mothers" which refer to the special powers of women in Yoruba culture which can be either can good or bad at any given moment. Gelede festivals are held once a year from March to May when the first rains arrive. These festivals are also held when a member of the cult dies.

The power of "our mothers" are found in their creative powers and their powers within the realm of witchcraft where they are also referred to as witches (aje). The Gelede festivals are not only held to honor the mothers but also to pacify them. This duality within the vital life force of women is expressed in terms like "one with two faces", "one with two bodies" and "one of two colours" (Drewell:549). The "Iyalashe" is the head of the Gelede society and she has great power which extends into other cults. The power of the mothers are in their inner force and women who are able to maintain patience and self control are believed to possess more of this inner force.

The deity of the Gelede, Iyánlá, is described as cool and patient despite her destructive potential. The coolness does not refer to an inherent goodness of the deity but rather to a quiet inner strength. Opposite forces of male and female underlies the philosophy of the Gelede cult and the mothers are feared by both men and women because of their mystic powers. They are not able though to act out these powers and each mother must have a male counterpart to carry out her work.

The Efe/Gelede festival is characterized by song and dance performances with a variety of masks. Masks are worn on top of the heads of male dancers and they are clad in multicoloured cloths. The masks appear in pairs and are predominantly naturalistic in appearance. When these masks are not in use they are kept in a clubhouse of one of the members. Almost all Gelede masks consist of two basic units; the idealized human faces and a superstructure. Gelede masks are not meant to be seen in isolation and the masks together with the multicoloured cloths, dance steps and the ceremony form the complete artwork. Traditionally the Gelede performances take place in or near the market-place and the Iyánlá mask makes its appearance at night.

The Iyánlá mask represents the face of the "Great Mother" and is a sacred and mostly inaccessible mask. Great care is taken within the ritual to prevent anybody gazing on the face of the "Great Mother" and specific procedures accompanies the creation of the Iyánlá mask. It is the responsibility of the elders of the community to prepare the wood in which the mask is to be carved and an elaborate sacrificial ceremony is undertaken to ensure the success of the work. After the completion of the mask it is taken to a shrine for the application of certain medicines. The Iyánlá mask is characterized by a long flat extension below the face and the mask is considerably larger in size than any of the other Gelede masks. The largeness of the mask refers to the "inner force" of the "great mother" as this force is believed to reside inside the head. In performances a large white cloth, extending eight to ten yards in length (Drewal:561), is attached to the Iyánlá mask. During the course of the year contributions are made in money for the lengthening of the cloth. In this way the community participates in caring for the "great mother". The extension on the mask below the chin is the mask's most distinctive characterization and this extension is consistently identified as a beard. In Yoruba philosophy the beard is associated with elders and bearded women are believed to possess extraordinary spiritual power. The beard is also suggestive of the transformative powers of the mothers.

Duality comes to the foreground in various ways within Yoruba art. In the Ogboni cult opposing forces are combined to create a third stronger force which is symbolized by the "edan". In this sculpture male and female figures are joined by a chain to symbolize the combining of opposite forces. In the Efe/Gelede cult references are found to the opposing forces of male and female as well as the dual male and female nature within the "mothers". Duality is further found in the potential of the "mothers" to be either good or evil at any given time. There is also an underlying duality within the elaborate Gelede festivals where the "mothers" are honoured and pacified at the same time.


Abiodun, R; Drewel H & Pemberton J. 1994. The Yoruba artist. New theoretical perspective on African art. Washington: Smithsonian.

Beier, U. 1985. Gelede Masks. Odu. no 6.

Drewell, H J. Art and the perception of women in Yoruba culture. Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines 68. vol XVII - 4: 545-567.

Fagg, W & Pemberton, J. 1982. Yoruba: Sculpture of West Africa. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Vansina, J. 1984. Art history in Africa: an introduction to method. London: Longman.

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