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6 / Death

Twin Figures (Ère Ìbejì)
Twin Figures (Ère Ìbejì)
Artist / Origin Yoruba artist, Nigeria
Region: Africa
Date Early 20th century
Material Wood
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: approx. 10 in. (25.4 cm.) (each)
Location National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria
Credit Photo Courtesy of Marilyn Houlberg

expert perspective

Babatunde LawalProfessor of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University

Additional Resources

Houlberg, Marilyn H. “Ibeji Images of the Yoruba.” African Arts 7.1 (1973): 20–27.

Lawal, Babatunde. “The Living Dead: Art and Immortality among the Yoruba.” Africa 47.1 (1977): 50–61.

Lawal, Babatune, Christa Clarke, and Carol Thompson. Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art, Featuring the Bernard and Patricia Wagner Collection. Exhibition catalogue organized and co-published by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and The Newark Museum, New Jersey, 2007.

Micheli, C. Angelo. “Doubles and Twins: A New Approach to Contemporary Studio Photography in West Africa.” African Arts (Spring 2008): 66–85.

Pemberton III, J., J. Picton, and L.O. Fakeye. Ibeji: The Cult of Yoruba Twins. Edited by G. Chemeche. Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2006.

Thompson, Robert Farris. “Sons of Thunder: Twin Images among the Oyo and Other Yoruba Groups.” African Arts 4.3 (1971): 8–13, 77–80.

Twin Figures (Ère Ìbejì)

» Yoruba artist, Nigeria

The Yoruba, who number over twenty-five million, live primarily in Nigeria, with smaller populations in the Republics of Benin and Togo.

The twin birth rate among the Yoruba is the highest in the world, with forty-five out of every 1,000 births resulting in twins. When a twin dies in Yorubaland, an ère ìbejì is created. More than just memorials, these sculptures are regarded as containers for the soul of the deceased.

According to Yoruba belief, every person has a spirit counterpart that is left behind in heaven when he or she is born. When twins are born, it is believed that the bond between human and spirit-double is so strong that the two cannot be separated. Because of this, twins are considered sacred. The ère ìbejì honors the deceased twin. At the same time, by localizing the spirit of the dead twin, the figure is meant to ensure that the living twin does not follow his or her sibling into death. Once the soul of the deceased has been invoked, the ère ìbejì is treated as a living child; it is washed, fed, and clothed like the surviving twin.

Should the second twin die, another ère ìbejì is created. The mother of the twins keeps both figures, continuing to treat both as if alive and venerating them as she would any of the òrìsàs, or Yoruba deities. Periodically, the mother also organizes memorial feasts. These celebrations are intended to bring her good fortune and perhaps bring the children back to her through future births. The mother might carry the ère ìbejì with her at such events, securing them to her body as she dances to honor them.

While an artisan carves each sculpture to commemorate a specific infant, ère ìbejì are not portrait likenesses. The objects are highly stylized, and though they often represent children who died in infancy, they usually have the form of mature adults. Even if the twins they represent were not identical, pairs of ère ìbejì are always made to look the same. In this way, the artist celebrates the powerful connection between them.

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