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
[3] Africa – Dictionaries of Civilisation, p.244

[E1], [E2] Private collection, AplusAfricanArt

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