Art and Centralized Power

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

King of Ijebu-Ife, Yoruba peoples, central Ijebu area, Nigeria, 1982. Photo by H.J. Drewal and M.T. Drewal. 


One version of the origin story states that the founder and first king of the Yoruba, Oduduwa, who ruled at Ile-Ife, gave each of his sons a beaded crown and sent them off to govern their own kingdoms. Ever since the mid-nineteenth century, Yoruba kings have been concerned to demonstrate links with Oduduwa and Ile-Ife by wearing the sacred beaded crown. It is said that when a king dons the crown, his "inner head" becomes joined with the spirits of his ancestors who have entered the pantheon of gods. In the past, the faces of kings were not to be seen, for it is within the crown that the royal power resides. Yoruba beaded crowns not only conceal the wearers' faces, but also depict the face of Oduduwa. As such, the particular human identity of the person is subsumed by the far greater persona of the first king, and each king is seen as a human incarnation of this deity.