Collection Highlight

A babalawo ("diviner") of the West African Yoruba people uses an Opon Igede Ifa to store the tools of his trade. These include a divination tray, beads, cowrie shells, kola or palm nuts, divination chains, and a tapper used to awaken the gods. The inside of the bowl is segmented to keep these tools respectfully isolated.

Divination serves to reveal and help shape one's destiny. The divination bowl emulates the form of a human head (ori). There are at least six related bowls attributed to the artist Areogun. One can infer from them that the piece missing from the top of this bowl was once a four-part braided topknot. The Yoruba believe that one's head is essentially the "self," and the cone formed by a topknot houses the ebb and flow of the life force. The "face," or main figure on this bowl, depicts a male priest of Osanyin, whose head is shaved bilaterally, with a tuft of hair projecting from the right. Divination bags hang at his sides. In his left hand, he holds a horn containing medicines, and in his right, a wrought-iron staff with bells, surmounted by a bird.

The Yoruba define an artist as one who is a skilled designer. The word for "art" (ona) encompasses both craftsmanship and elaboration. Carvers apprentice with a master for years, and often more than one craftsman was involved in carving important works. Areogun himself apprenticed for 16 years to Bamgbose (d. 1920), a master carver from Osi llorin. The sculpture of Bamgbose and Areogun share certain stylistic aspects, but while Bamgbose skillfully incorporated open areas, Areogun is renowned for his masterly arrangement of multiple figures in a condensed space.
Areogun was intimately familiar with both the ritual and iconography of divination. This knowledge is expressed in the accoutrements of the twelve figures that circumnavigate the top of this bowl, and in the nine figures around the bottom, which include women and musicians celebrating the more important personages depicted above. There is no narrative in the organization of any of these figures, but they are all familiar Yoruba types. Together they express the fluctuating circumstances of life and the interdependence of the human and divine.

Text by Michael W. Conner, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008