Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: Twin Figures (Ère Ìbejì)
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.
Babatunde Lawal, Professor of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University
“In the past, the Yoruba believed that every individual has a spirit partner in heaven. And that before an individual was born he or she would have to negotiate with the spirit partner—that you promise to do certain things to succeed in life. Now, in the case of twins, the Yoruba believed that the bond between the two before birth was so close that one could not live without the other. As a result the two of them were born together. And the Yoruba have one of the highest twin births in the world; about forty-five in every 1,000. Now if one of the twins should die, the belief is that the other might follow unless certain measures are taken. As a result ère ìbejì, twin memorials, will be created into which the soul of the deceased will be invoked. And then the statuettes called ère ìbejì is given to the child, the surviving twin to play with until he or she comes of age, when a memorial may be kept on an altar in remembrance of the deceased. If the second twin should die, you create another memorial in their memory, and then the mother of the twin keeps both. And it is believed that the spirits of these twins will continue to bless their appearance.
Even though many of the twins died in infancy, the artists have been trained to make the statuette of the memorial look like mature adults—a kind of idealization—to emphasize that they live on in the hereafter, and are now more powerful than when embodied as humans. So that through this way the art again mediates life. And it is believed that twins may return to the same mother in various forms.”
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.