Okenekene Headdress

I came across the Okenekene headdress complex in December of 2016, while doing some research on a purchased piece (note: research post purchase) from the Merton D. Simpson collection. As indicated in a prior blog, I do have a weakness for the water spirit headdress.

The headdress is peculiar to Ijebu-Yorubaland[1] which occupies the costal plain between the interior Yoruba kingdoms of Ife, Ijesha, Egba, Ibadan, and Oyo and the coastal waterways. The Ijebu recognize the presence and power of spirits controlling Delta waters, and acknowledge that they adopted and adapted their Agbo masquerades from Niger Delta peoples (primarily the Ijo).

Here are a few examples,


Okenekene Headdress : The house and clock reflect the impressive  quarters of the water spirits living below the surface. The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

The piece typically consists of three sections,


Typically shows  coiled vines, and a heart shaped paddle, (or woro leaf). This will also have a chameleon, and or a python component.


The middle area shows the abstract anthropomorphic representation of the water spirit with long pointed ears. Atop the domed area there may be shown an animal representation, or a more human related reference (e.g. an umbrella or rudder).


Typically reflects a reference to static/dynamic, natural/spiritual activity in the water.


Okenekene : Showing chameleon, and python components at the back, the umbrella in the middle, and the fishing eagle within the waves to the front. [E1]

Another similarly styled headdress from the Seattle Art museum, also incorporates the chameleon (from the Yoruba creation myth).


Okenekene : worn horizontally, they can be described as a juxtaposition of natural, spiritual, and human references. [E2]

A more modern, and less complicated representation of the Okenekene.


Okenekene imagery in masquerade (1982): Ways of the Rivers, pg. 209.

Ijebu-Yoruba complex Components


Beliefs held by the Ijaw are of particular interest because these people are probably the oldest inhabitants of Nigeria. The Ijaw think that pythons hold the spirits of the sons of Adumu, himself a python, and the chief of the water spirits. Women are forbidden to mention his name or to approach his temples. At times lights may be seen gleaming below the surface of the water which this python deity inhabits. On some occasions the lights rise to the tops of the palm trees. Serpents are carved on the statue of Adumu at Adum’ Ama on a small tributary of the Santa Barbara River. Here come all who aspire to act as diviners or prophetesses. Such a priestess is forbidden to have relationships with a man; her husband is one of the sacred serpents. Every eighth day the water spirit is supposed to rise out of the water in order to visit his wife. On that day she sleeps alone, does not leave the house after dark, and pours libations before the Owe (water spirit) symbols. Inside her shrine are posts and staves representing serpents whose coils are said to typify the whirling dance performed in honor of the chief python god Adumu. “It is the spirit of the python that enters the priestess, making her gyrate in the mystic dance and utter oracles.”

When inspired, she will dance for a period varying from three to five days, during which she may not drink water. The language spoken during trance is said to be incomprehensible to the worshipers. In the Brass country, where Ogidia, the python war god, is worshiped, there are three main festivals in his honor. At the first of these (Buruolali), there is a presentation of yams at night, by a woman. These yams, which have been procured by the priests and chiefs, have to be in the form of serpents. At a second ceremony, a smooth-skinned male is offered as a sacrifice (Indiolali ceremony). Thirdly, there is Iseniolali. At this rite, women who have been appointed by the chiefs and priests gather shellfish. These are cooked at the shrine of Ogidia amid great rejoicing. Among the Ijaw people, pythons are never killed because they are thought to bring a blessing on any house they enter. At death the reptiles are buried with the honors of a chief.


Birds also appear frequently in water spirit headdresses. For the Kalabari Ijo, these are probably references to oru ogolo, the talkative bulbul bird that is said to live in villages and to speak the language of the spirits. It communicates messages from the spirits to the humans.

In Agbo masks, birds ride on the backs of crocodiles and on the snouts of such masks as Igodo and Okenekene. In these latter instances the bird is probably a fishing eagle.

For the Ijebu, the bird is linked with water spirits, as it is in the Delta.

[1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 197

[2] The Serpent in African Belief and Custom, WILFRID D. HAMBLY


[3] Ways of the Rivers, Martha G. Anderson & Philip M. Peek

[E1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 203

[E2] Africa – Dictionaries of Civilization, pg.197

The Tortoise and the Snake.

While visiting the Yale University Art gallery (03/20/16) I came across a Yoruba door with four panels. The third panel showed four characters, a tortoise, a man, and a small antelope.

door 2

Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #3).

I disagreed with the following description,

“… a coiled snake seizes an antelope while a small kneeling figure strikes the snake with an axe, thus representing the Yoruba proverb ‘We are all struggling’.”

With no mention of the tortoise (Ijapa – the animal trickster hero or villain who plays the role of Anansi the spider among the Ashanti, and that of the hare (Brer Rabbit in the USA) in other parts of West Africa[1]), I came up with another description,

The combination of ‘small and innocent’ will better survive ‘size and treachery’, through the combination of ‘prowess and cunning’…. or to make a long story short “idealism can only get you so far”. This panel resonates with me from a very real life perspective since while guile can easily morph into treachery there is no mistaking who lies at the bottom of the economic food chain.

This is the door in its entirety followed by the exhibit description. It shows detail, imagination, and simplicity of design combined to produce a really wonderful artistic result.


Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Yale Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr.)

For Panel #1.

door 1

Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #1).

“The relief on the top panel depicts a woman holding an upside-down child on her back – a reference to the unpredictable earth mother, Iya Ile. The child holds the head and tail of a snake, symbolizing Ogun, the god of Iron, who is worshipped by hunters, warriors, and blacksmiths. The woman faces a drummer, a kneeling man, and a hunting dog”.

door 3

Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #2).

“In the second panel a hunter on horseback holds a pistol and a spear”.

door 4

Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #4).

“In the bottom panel, two triumphant hunters smoke pipes while being honored by two flute players”.

This piece demonstrates the multifaceted nature of African Tribal Art, which transforms the practical door into a carrier of norms, ritual thought, and value systems.



[1] Harold Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore, 1996 pg 221.

Collections, Addictions, History Past, and Present

Collecting African Tribal art is as interesting as it is addictive. Every piece can provide the start of another collection based on multiple factors, such as Tribe, society, function, symbol, location, material, and/or type. Every piece truly represents a lonely ‘soul’ crying out for company, but this argument holds little water with my inner financial advisor.

On NY marathon Sunday I happened to be in Harlem (by chance) near one of my favorite African stores, African Paradise. The store has many items, carvings, and african knick-knacks so there was a lot to look through. Reme, the owner is a wonderful fountain of knowledge who never fails to surprise, and I was also lucky to find the company of an old ‘dealer’ who shared his knowledge when we had different opinions. The reality is that you can only learn so much from books, and suffice to say I can now identify palm nuts (used in Ifa divination practice), and won’t easily confuse them with kola nuts (which can produce a euphoric, stimulating feeling).

There were many decent buys but I settled on a swarthy Yoruba rider to contrast the lone Yoruba (warrior) rider in my collection. At several recent auctions the Dogon, and Senufo riders grabbed most of the attention (and higher prices) due to their level of stylistic, and abstract distinction. The two carvings are shown below.

Yoruba horseman

[E1] Yoruba Horseman – Headdress

The carving styles are as different as Yin and Yang but they were both Yoruba, old, and ‘command their space’. In particular the new addition had a long curved extension of the hair which may be reminiscent of Eshu (the trickster of Yoruba theology).

Yoruba horseman

[E2] Yoruba Rider – probably Eshu related

What was amazing (and embarrassing) however was the response to my questions regarding the praise songs being played in the background. I was informed that the singer was none other than Ella Andall (of ‘Bring back the Power’ fame), a Trinidadian singer who was very popular for her renditions of Yoruba music. The CD in question was “Osun Bamise”, which I couldn’t find on Itunes, (but I later settled for downloading her Sango related praise songs).
The video attached shows a view of Yoruba (Oshun) related celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago.

To add insult to injury Reme recommended an old study – “Guinea’s Other Suns: The African Dynamic in Trinidad Culture”, by Maureen Warner-Lewis. I had no idea this text existed, and although pleasantly surprised I was again embarrassed to be twice schooled on aspects of my own heritage.
From a book review done by Monica Schuler, Social and Economic Studies, June 1992,

Guinea’s Other Suns is an engaging interdisciplinary work, important both as a reference tool for scholars and as a textbook for Caribbean and African diaspora studies.
Maureen Warner-Lewis, a Trinidadian sociolinguist at UWI, Mona, Jamaica, wrote these collected essays over a period of fifteen years. Their strength derives from her extensive field work among descendants of liberated Africans in Trinidad, first-hand knowledge of Yoruba language and society, and perceptive sociolinguistic analysis.

Needless to say my copy is now en route, but I fear the deficit of understanding my history, both past and present would have been better covered in my youth.

[E1],[E2] AplusAfricanArt Collection

Threads of Association, Symbols, and Miniatures in African Art

I admit it took me several years of collecting African Tribal art to even begin to see the beauty in miniatures, but I’m well on the way to being hooked. What I appreciate now beyond the aesthetics of the art itself is the ability of miniatures to convey aspects of culture and tradition both through association with people/events, and also through the symbols represented.

The two examples shown below are an Ogoni mask, (it’s hard enough to get a large mask), and an Edan brass couple.

Ogoni mask

[E1] Ogoni Mask

While the mask is fascinating, with its patina, hinged jaw, and scarification, my association-link is firmly rooted in the fight of the Ogonis both against exploitation of natural resources, and environmental damage, and the inspirational life of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

On October 31, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogonis were sentenced to death by a Special Tribunal. In blatant defiance of numerous appeals by the international community, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight fellow Ogoni were brutally executed on Friday, November 10, 1995. Ken Saro-Wiwa is remembered as an author, poet, and activist who stood up against the exploitation of his people. [1]

In the Edan sculpture shown note several items of iconography,
– The hand gestures of both figures are very important, in that they duplicate the greeting gesture of one Ogboni member to another.[2]
– The bulging eyes, typical of Yoruba art, allude to the devotee’s state of divine possession. [3]
– The chain joining the figures marks the symbolic unity underlying the man-woman opposition and the Ogboni intervention that makes this unity possible. [3]


[E2] Edan – Ogboni emblems, Yoruba

Edan are among the most fascinating sculptured objects in Yoruba culture. They are presented to an initiate into the higher ranks of a secret society, Ogboni or Oshugbo. Ogboni is one of the most prominent Yoruba religious cult societies, which worships the owner of the earth, Onile.

Its prime function is to harmonise all spirits and forces of nature. It is led by the eldest and wisest man and woman from the community. The edan were worn around initiates’ necks, as symbols of rank, at society meetings and ceremonies. The casting over an iron rod signifies the union of the magical forces associated with brass and iron.

The non-rusting character of brass symbolises immortality – the desire for longevity and well-being. The union of the male and female figures by a chain represents the duality of Onile. Ogboni venerates Onile to ensure human survival, peace, happiness, and social stability in the community.

The edan are used in five main functions: judicial, oracular, healing, protective, and communication/surveillance (Roache, 1971).
• For the judicial role, it is believed that an edan placed upright by its spike on the ground will fall should a man not confess his guilt.
• For its oracular role, it is required to be present with its owner in ifa divination for predicting the owner’s future. The Ogboni society has its own odu, a set of sacred verses of the spiritual and ethical tradition of ifa, predictions; that relate to both mundane and spiritual prescriptions.
• For the healing role, the edan are sometimes shaped like a spoon for medicine preparation.
• For the protective role, the edan are worn or carried to keep the bearer from harm and witchcraft.
• For the communication and surveillance role, the edan are believed to have the power to travel in the form of a bird to disseminate messages as well as to watch over people. [4]

[1] Refugee Review Tribunal, Response # NGA32636
[2] https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/15413/lot/2540/
[3] Africa – Dictionaries of Civilisation, p.244
[4] http://www.michaelbackmanltd.com/1399.html

[E1], [E2] Private collection, AplusAfricanArt

Ethnologists, Exasperation, and Epa

While Collecting African Tribal Art one comes across the herculean exploits of the Epa masqueraders. The substructure of the mask is a grotesque form consisting of bulging eyes, and features. The superstructure conveys different motifs and can be in stark contrast to the janus type support.

In the late 1970s J. Oyo indicated that there was substantial variation in the form and function of various Yoruba masquerades. The main ones identified were as follows,

  • Egungun, which could be ancestral, or entertainment based, and found among Oyo Yoruba groups.
  • Agemo, Agbo, and Ekine which are found among the Ijebu,
  • Gelede, found in the Egbado,
  • and Epa, found mostly in the Ekiti region.[1]

During the week ending 120311 we added the first EPA mask (shown below), to the collection. The mask is approximately 50″ high, over 60lbs, and displays a dog with pup, grasping a goat, while having a hen on his back. The mask conveys fertility, and caring, while at the same time covering all the sacrificial bases normally associated with Epa related deities.

Epa Mask

The names of the headpieces, as well as the names of individual masquerades, are based on the sculptural motifs on the superstructures of the headpieces. These motifs include mothers with children which are connected with the Yoruba’s desire for plentiful issue; warrior motifs which reflect the wars waged against the Ekiti and Igbomina in the past; and motifs based on Qsanyin, the god of medicine; these emphasise another attribute of this group of masquerades as giver of physical and spiritual health, (J. Ojo 1978)


E1 - Epa Mother_Child motif

According to J. D. Clarke, the celebrations of the Ora people are somewhat different. In this instance of the celebration, Epa is believed to have been a great craver, who is a principal Orisha of the Ora people, and who watched over the fortunes of the community. This to some extent explains the arrav of carved and painted masks which are put on display during the festival.

E2 - Epa Oloko mask, Bamgboye, 1930

Some of the masks are four feet high and two feet broad. The principal mask is called Oloko (lit. “he who has the farm”) and represents Ekun, the Leopard, shown as an animal jumping upon the back of another animal. The mask next in importance is Agbo, the Ram, followed by Aja, the Dog. Olomoyeye, the Mother of Children, a mask representing a woman seated, surrounded by many children, and Ologun, the Warrior, a man on horseback also surrounded by children, are two other important masks. The majority of the smaller masks depict rams with long horns, or dogs with long tails.[2]


One distinct difference was that the festival witnessed by Clarke (1944), involved tests of manhood and strength, demonstrated by wearers of the Epa masks jumping on a mound approximately three feet high. Ojo (1978) also disputed the weights of the mask as not exceeding sixty pounds.

E3 - Epa Jagunjagun mask, Warrior motif

Yet another perspective is provided from the Opada people in Egbe, where the Epa festival is celebrated to commune with their deity.

The Epa day is preceded by a seventeen day notice to the entire community, the notice affording time to re-establish the legitimacy, and legality of the Epa festival for that year. An announcer, who is also a clan member goes about with his agogo (local bell) every evening to remind people about the great festival on the way.

    The worshippers build a statue to symbolize the Epa deity. On the day of the celebration, the image is carried by a designated member to Irele (Shrine) of the Epa. The Shrine is at the forest of Epa situated at the outskirt of the town. The Opada clan, (the custodian) of Epa is comprised of four sub-groups, each of which possesses its own statue for Epa. At the Epa forest, each presents its image to appease the deity with different animal sacrifices.


Sub-Clan Name

Name of Epa Statue

Animal Sacrifice

1 Idare Ajigbopon Cock
2 Abude Somlao Goat
3 Irokoo Awojagbinrin Dog
4 Oke Oba for Oba Opada Olomoyeye Goat


The author concludes that the festival provides more ample opportunities of appreciating the culture, since the value judgement of the participants for their culture is rekindled, re-orientated, and re-solidified. This is important in the face of the gradual erosion of the cultural values by westernization, actualized through education, technology, and religion (Christianity, and Islam).[3]

[1] http://www.jstor.org/stable/2801941 The Symbolism and Significance of Epa-Type Masquerade, 1978, J.R.O. Oyo, pg.456.

[2] http://www.jstor.org/stable/2844297  Three Yoruba Fertility Ceremonies, 1944, J. D. Clarke.Three

[3] http://www.unilorin.edu.ng/publications/balogun/Doc1.pdf  Okun Orature: The Socio-Cultural relevance of ‘Agiri’ and Epa Festivals, 2007, Jide Balogun.

E1 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40793609  A Yoruba Epa Mask, 1997, Fasiku Alaye

E2 Yoruba, Sculpture of West Africa, W. Fagg et al, pg. 21

E3 Yoruba, Sculpture of West Africa, W. Fagg et al, pg. 21

Yoruba Scarification

In collecting tribal African art one eventually stumbles across the huge diversity and complexity of the Nigerian genre. The use of Scarification intersects religious, cultural, social, aesthetic, and legal boundaries.

“Originally used medicinally and to distinguish friend from foe in times of war, the custom offers many Nigerians a sense of continuity in a rapidly changing world.” The practice is declining, and is now restricted to rural areas. “The origin of the practice — to identify people in the tribal wars — is no longer relevant, and the people who identify it with cultural beliefs haven’t had so much contact with formal education or urbanization.”[1]

E1 Yoruba Scarification[2]

The charts below show Nigerian scarification patterns and their associated locales.

E2 Scarification Chart

Scarification marks are also commonly used with tribal masks and statues. For example, the cult of Shango started in Oyo-Ile. The marks shown on the Shango dance wand are the marks of “the older line of Bashorun” in Oyo and are called meta aagberi (Abraham 1958:300)[3].

E3 Shango Dance Wand

E4 Nigerian Regions and Cities

E5 Offering Bowl – Olumeye Figure

Olumeye figures typically show Yoruba facial scarification patterns. “They are differentiated by the stylization of the hair, the design of the ear, and the elaborate patterns incised on the back of the arms of the bride, as well as on the bowl she holds.”[4]

[3] Yoruba – Sculpture of West Africa. Fagg et al, p 74.

[4] Yoruba – Sculpture of West Africa. Fagg et al, p 88.

Worthless …… as in “that’s worthless”!!

As a minority I’ve had the extreme pleasure of taking umbrage (always liked that phrase) at the following comments :

1)   He/she will never amount to anything,

2)   That car is worthless…. you couldn’t get a dollar for it,

3)   That African Art is worthless junk!!

The question of how much we would pay to save another life is an interesting one. At the low end, of course that would be zero.  If we knew that someone was dying from hunger, lack of water, or medication, in some part of the world we would not necessarily contribute a one-time sum of $5, nor commit to a monthly contribution of the same. An intermediate cost can be figured out using insurance and healthcare realities, and at the high end, one would sacrifice their own life to save another – still this would not address the true worth of the individual to his family, society, and loving friends.

E1 : Soweto Riots - Death of 12 yr old Hector Pieterson, showing his 17yr old sister Antoinette alongside., 1976 (Sam Nzima photo)

We tend to (are conditioned to) frame the concept of worth in terms of what we can get on the open market, or future earnings potential. In economic or financial terms this would be referred to as a “fair market value”.  The fact though is that this differs tremendously from the “replacement value”, which is more subjective and arguably more suited to items or products of a more unique nature, or items filling a pressing need (score one for the 1998 Jetta).

The kicker is that a human being is the single most complex entity on the planet. Nothing we can come up with can compare. Not the ipad, nor a supercomputer, nor the most sophisticated combination of gems and precious metals. This is the curse of supply and demand (S&D). With six (6.9) billion bodies (and counting), our worth is not what it used to be.  With quaint phrases such as “collateral damage”, and “the end justifies the means”, we have rationalized our worth to the point where society has been desensitized to the value and uniqueness of human life, and the gift of thought.

Yoruba Offering Bowl - Nigeria

Likewise African Art  has much the tougher battle. In an age where we celebrate Harry Potter, vampires, ghost whisperers, and the like, Tribal African Art still suffers from historical condemnation (in the mainstream), and religious ostracizing. Here too the issue of worth defined by the S&D basis is paramount, but similarly there are other issues of historical style, and culture that should be taken into account. The long and short is that if one is in the market for a profit, then one may be totally forgiven for referring to African Art as worthless (on some arbitrary personal scale), but if one recognizes that each piece may carry some cultural significance or vestige of tribal African history, then maybe not so much.


E1 : http://www.awesomestories.com/assets/soweto-uprising-hector-pieterson

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