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.

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] The Symbolism and Significance of Epa-Type Masquerade, 1978, J.R.O. Oyo, pg.456.

[2]  Three Yoruba Fertility Ceremonies, 1944, J. D. Clarke.Three

[3]  Okun Orature: The Socio-Cultural relevance of ‘Agiri’ and Epa Festivals, 2007, Jide Balogun.

E1  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

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