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,

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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,

Back:

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

Middle:

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).

Front:

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

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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).

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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.

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

Ijebu-Yoruba complex Components

Python[2]

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[3]

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

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1525/aa.1929.31.4.02a00060/asset/aa.1929.31.4.02a00060.pdf;jsessionid=7534E7071431626BC682F7D0CD464BC3.f01t01?v=1&t=iz1r67lt&s=1c30c9afebd796232de7a81c52a43f8e9e7d1fa5

[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

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Five Things one should know about the Ijebu (Jebu/Geebu)

1. Prosperous Times
During the 16th century, the Ijebu kingdom (1500-1750) dominated Nigeria’s coastal region. Portuguese copper was traded and the Ijebu cast brass objects that demonstrated an influence derived from the Benin kingdom. However their bracelets, bells, and office staffs were usually decorated with half human/half-animal figures with globular eyes and often curved forehead scarifications.[1]

2. Tragic History
During the nineteenth century the Ijebu controlled the trading lanes between Lagos and Ibadan. They refused to cede control to the British, and in 1892 the British launched attacks, and incursions on Ijebuland, using Maxim guns, and burning villages.
It is telling that solider-adventurer Frederick Lugard, in his defense against charges of excessive death rates in Uganda from his own use of the gun, stated: “On the West Coast, in the ‘Jebu’ war, undertaken by Government, I have been told ‘several thousands’ were mowed down by the Maxim.”[2]

3. Igodo Headdress
Ijebu Yoruba living along the coast celebrate water spirits with an elaborate program of masquerades called Agbo. They adapted Agbo from the Ijo of the Niger Delta, who are famous for their Ekine masquerades in honor of the ‘water people’, (owu), spirits that “own “ portions of creeks, controlling their water level, currents, waves, and the depth of fish shoals. One distinctive headdress is known as the Igodo. The shape of Igodo masks plays on the form of a paddle and on that of a boat’s prow, evoking the closeness between water-oriented people and spirits of the deep. Two creatures used from Ijo mythology are the python, (the mythic progenitor of all water spirits), and the fishing eagle (ogolo), which carries messages from the water spirits to humans.[3]

Igodo Headdress

Igodo Headdress

4. Ijebu (adjective)
The Ijebu people are commonly assumed to be stingy people. Ijebus are very rich and successful, more so than most other Yoruba tribes, but along with this they are also popularily deemed extremely miserly with their wealth. Hence ‘Ijebu’ is a popular slang used to refer to any one miserly with money or other resource.[4]

5. Perils of Ijebu Kingship
Prior to British rule, the Ijebu tribe of the Yoruba race was divided into two branches, known respectively as the Ijebu Ode and the Ijebu Remon. The Ode branch of the tribe is ruled by a chief who bears the title of Awujale and is surrounded by a great deal of mystery. The Remon branch of the Ijebu tribe is governed by a chief, who ranks below the Awujale. This subordinate chief used to be killed with ceremony after a rule of three years,[5] but Ulli Beier (cited by Willett) notes that, according to the existing tradition in Ijebu, the kings were put to death after a reign of only seven years.[6]

[1] The Tribal Arts of Africa; Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste p 100
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ijebu_Kingdom
[3] African Art; Schmalenbach, Werner p 147
[4] http://nigerianwiki.com/wiki/Ijebu
[5] http://www.bartleby.com/196/63.html
[6] Art of Africa; Kerchache, J. et al, p 535

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