New Materials and Contexts

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Mother of twins at Igbo-ora, Oyo, uses a plastic doll to represent her twin son who died in 1970.

Photograph by Marilyn Houlberg, c.1970

EEPA 2005-002-05336

Marilyn Houlberg Collection

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution

An excellent example of fluid accommodation of materials obtained through trade is the case of Yoruba ibejis. Ibeji figures are Yoruba twin figures created upon the death of one or both twins as a resting place for the deceased's spirit. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Yoruba ibejis took the form of sculpted wooden figures to be placed upon an altar and cared for as a living person. Nowadays, it is not unusual to see twin figures carried in a woman's wrap made of bright red or green celluloid plastic purchased in a local market. The use of plastic has not replaced wooden figures, which are still made and used today, but provides an alternative to an older idiom. As Susan Vogel states in Africa Explores (1991), “these practices represent an updating of the tradition without a rupture.”