Shrine Figure (Edjo Re Akare)

Nigeria, Urhobo. Late 19th – early 20th centuries
Wood, pigment
Gift of William S. Arnett

The Urhobo people of the oil-rich inland Niger Delta of Nigeria created two types of large-scale sacred figures. One type was carved to honor spirits (edjo) of the water, land, and atmosphere, and the other was made to venerate real as well as mythic founding ancestors of the town (eshe). Both focus on the militaristic qualities thought to typify powerful ancestors, heroes, and spirits. The Urhobo figure wears a number of the ritual items related to warfare and title-taking, e.g. the bead necklace of the men’s title society, stylized as a round collar, as well as the single cylindrical bead (ophara) worn at the neck.

Because both arms are broken off it is impossible to know whether the hands originally held the sword and cutlass associated with the spirit figures or the prestige objects held by ancestors. A small gourd containing protective medicines, sheared in two, hangs in the middle of the elongated chest and overlaps the vertical lineage citrification mark that extends from chest to navel. Below this is a prominent tubular “belt-for-war” with attached medicine bundles. In real life these were made of leather and stuffed with medicinal substances. The imported European top hat speaks to wealth derived from trade. All such figures were situated in communal shrines, hidden behind a mud and fiber screen. Correct decorum called for the dressing of the figure in actual cotton waistcloths, but the covering of this example is now lost.