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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Igbo, Urhobo : Urhobo Wooden Polychrome Sculpture of a Woman
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Urhobo Wooden Polychrome Sculpture of a Woman - X.1026 (LSO)
Origin: Niger River Delta
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 39.5" (100.3cm) high x 7.0" (17.8cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood and Paint

Location: Great Britain
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This striking polychrome sculpture is a representation of a forest spirit or an ancestor, made by the Urhobo It is an unusual piece in terms of structure and style. It is traditional in possessing light “skin” with dark detailing, but is unusual in terms of size and also the unusual headwear (traditionally, “top hat” like headwear is donned by these figures). The figure is deliberately disproportionate with an oversized head, a thin body and remarkably elongated limbs. The features are cubist and linear. The torso is painted in dark paint, while the remainder – with the exception of some details such as scarring and jewellery – is rendered in white. The gender of the figure is expressed through small breasts and lightly-marked pudenda. The face is set in a fierce expression with open mouth and glaring eyes, and vertical forehead scarring. The perimeter of the head is highlighted with red paint, perhaps indicating repainting. The “hat” resembles a crown with central eminences rising above a flat base. The neck is ringed with a dark wood collar that projects to the shoulders, and each arm is decorated with bracelets. The limbs are marked sectorially with relief lines, but no attempt has been made to make these naturalistic; this adds to the figure’s rather ghostly and commanding appearance.

The Urhobo are one of a number of tribal groups living in the Niger River Delta area, and make their living from mixed agriculture and fishing. They live in small villages which are focused around huts containing ancestor figures which watch over the population and “preside” at meetings of elders. The Urhobo live in tentative respect of forest spirits known as Edjo, which surround them at all times and are appeased by the carving of Edjo sculptures. Smaller figures in the same general style are usually considered to represent Edjo’s spouses. The two sculpture classes can be differentiated by the fact that Edjo figures carry weapons or magical containers, while ancestors are usually represented as seated or Janus figures. The style of rendering is akin to that of the Igbo, to whom the Urhobo are culturally related. Other related tribes include the Oron and the Isoko.

There is considerable stylistic overlap between the two figure types, and there are also many unique pieces (such as this one). Edjo spouses are generally somewhat smaller than this pice, but the obvious gender of the piece makes it likely to be an extraordinary – and therefore rare –example of this group. It is certainly a beautifully-rendered and sophisticated piece of African art.

Bacquart, J. 2000. The Tribal Arts of Africa. Thames and Hudson, London. - (X.1026 (LSO))


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