By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)

Nigeria; Yoruba (Ife) artist

Head of an Oni


H. 29 cm (11 7/16")

National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria, 6

Photo by Dirk Bakker


This life-size head from Wunmonije compound was made of copper. It has traces of black and white paint on its eyes, red paint on its neck, and black and red stripes around its eyes. Perhaps the heads were all originally painted, or the paint may be from a later reuse. There are two principle theories concerning how these heads were used. Willett proposes that they “were used in second burial ceremonies some time after the funeral of the King. The head carried the crown of the dead King and was attached to a wooden body by the holes on its neck. The ritual demonstrated that, although the King was dead, the power of the office continued” (Eyo and Willett 1980: 93). Drewal, however, feels they were used in annual rites of renewal and purification and should be understood as altars to the ruler’s head and beaded regalia (1989: 67).