Ancient Forces and Contemporary Voices:
An Exploration of Yoruba Orishas through the Ages
This exhibit features collections divided according to four pivotal Yoruba spirits, or orishas, Eshu, Shango, Ogun, and Oshun, with the aim of evidencing how each entity contributes to Yoruba spirituality and art in the Old and New Worlds. Orishas, which act as the “messengers and embodiment” of ase, the spiritual life force and energy of the Yoruba, connect the mortal to the divine and thus serve as the backbone in our study of Yoruba spirituality (Thompson 1983, 5). Through examining both historical and contemporary portrayals of each deity, we draw conclusions about Yoruba beliefs, values, and sensibilities, as well as identify key components regarding Yoruba visual culture and creative aesthetics.
To preface the sub-themes of our exhibition, we examine the overarching significance of ase, iwa, and ewa within Yoruba spirituality. Acting as both the “identifying energy,” or life force, of Yoruba society, as well as the “creative power” in Yoruba verbal and visual arts, ase provides a groundwork for understanding aesthetics through a Yoruba lens (Aboidan 1994, 71). As we, in our Western understanding, grapple to define ase, we turn particularly to the significance of the head as a central point in Yoruba spirituality and art.
In addition to our investigation of ase, we explore iwa, which corresponds to the essential nature of an entity, and ewa, or the outward expression of that nature; together, both concepts play pivotal roles in successfully decoding Yoruba art. Finally, we examine how both Yoruba spirituality and creative practices have maintained core, abiding values while adapting to diaspora and displacement in an ever-changing world.
Origins and Manifestations of Ase
As creation’s pervasive life source, ase instills purpose and unity within the cosmos. The concept of ase has moved far beyond Yorubaland, however, to reference sacred places, modes of worship, and artworks within the New World, standing as “the most important religio-aesthetic phenomenon to have survived transatlantic slavery nearly intact” (Abiodun 1994, 57). Knowing this, it grows clear that perhaps no concept better exemplifies the Yoruba place in the Black Diaspora nor better connects the intricacies of Yoruba spirituality than that of ase.
Yoruba art, such as the carved head here, exemplifies the search for ase through cultivating the dual qualities of good character, or iwa, and and coolness, or itutu. The head’s balance and symmetry denote iwa, “the force infusing physical beauty with everlastingness,” and the subject’s serene, even serious expression, indicates somber devotion, the central component of mystic coolness (Thompson, 1983, 9).
In studying carved and cast Yoruba heads, which frequently possess a similar aesthetic, scholar, Suzanne Preston Blier, notes the absence of muscular differentiation, suggesting a lack of emotional expression and highlighting the importance of reposed dignity as a shared, rather than individualistic, trait among those who attain coolness.
As one studies Yoruba portrayals of both orishas and devotees, the overarching significance of character and coolness grows evident. Art compels the Yoruba to capture the infinite, with even the ordinary containing an essence of the divine. The undying endurance of Yoruba art and influence throughout the Diaspora poignantly speaks to this eternal drive.
The Importance of Iwa and Ewa
Although long dismissed within Western thought as primitive and even grotesque, Yoruba figurative art actually points to a deep awareness of aesthetics. Yoruba expression of the human figure harmonizes the concepts of iwa, or character, and ewa, or beauty. However, these Western translations only serve as superficial definitions. Iwa, more completely, exists as “the essential nature of a person or thing,” with ewa subsequently derived from iwa, acting as “the expression and appreciation of iwa” (Abiodun 2014, 245).
Therefore, even a seemingly grotesque figure, such as the one presented here, possesses a profound aesthetic understanding. Simply put, it has ewa, representing the essential inner nature of its subject, which extends to qualities that “are not necessarily pleasing or attractive” (Abiodun 2014, 247). Yoruba aesthetics mandate representation of the imperfect, rather than preclude it. While this belief conflicts with the Western understanding of beauty, it nonetheless reveals the intricate ties of Yoruba spirituality to artistic practice. Moreover, the focus on iwa and ewa as prerequisites for successful art making further instills the importance of ase. That is, iwa and ewa serve as specific expressions of ase, the pervasive life force which touches all aspects of Yoruba art, spirituality, and worldview.
The Crown: Gateway to the Orishas
Although all Yoruba devotees strive to evidence the qualities of iwa and itutu, fully manifesting ase is an achievement reserved for only the highest individuals. Taking into account the Yoruba connection between the head, the mind, and good character, it grows apparent why the crown carries such significance in Yoruba visual culture. Indeed, the crown falls under the jurisdiction of the king alone, as it connects the ruler to the orishas, harboring the very essence of divine kingship.
According to Blier, Yoruba headgear draws direct inspiration from origin stories, with the deity, Obatala, employing his vital force, or ase, to solidify creation. Osangangan Obamakin, the 2nd Ooni of Ife, then filled the Earth with Light and brought down the crown; thus, the crown has become equated with light and authority, all connected back to the vital ase of Obatala.
Given the crown’s deep connection to ase and orishas, each aesthetic choice surrounding it—including beads, birds and feather plumes, veils, knots, and diadems—possesses utmost significance. In the crown exhibited here, for example, the fringe serves to protect commoners from the king’s gaze, and the bird—the animal of power—represents protection. The colors, “red, white (yellow), and black (dark blue) constitute the primary Yoruba color triad” and the triangular forms likely reference the Thunder god, Shango, as rain and agriculture are of particular concern to the king (Blier 2015, 372). Thereby, both the details and the overarching significance of the crown connects to the importance of ase and the orishas.
The Contemporary Presence of Iwa and Ewa
The principles of iwa and ewa are dually prevalent in contemporary art of the Yoruba Diaspora, evidencing a continuum of traditions and convictions, despite ever-changing forms. American artist, Chris Vondrasek’s, 1995 sculpture of Eshu exhibits this persistence of the orisha’s essential nature in spite of shifting aesthetics. The figure maintains Eshu’s traditionally rigid stance and pointed, phallic-like headgear, while boasting contemporary additions, including a clarinet and bottle tops, along with Coca-Cola and Sprite bottles.
Rowland Abiodun notes how the contemporary components of Vondrasek’s sculpture reference long-held associations with Eshu. The clarinet, “calls attention to Eshu as… the unusual child who fails to conform to the Yoruba norm that forbids the playing of flutes at mid-day,” and the figure’s black tuxedo pants with a red stripe allude to the orisha’s favorite cap (Abiodun 2014, 285).
The commercial soft drink bottles, however, perhaps stand as the most noteworthy addition. Traditional depictions of Eshu typically include cowrie shells, once a Yoruba currency; this references the marketplace, an unpredictable venue aptly connected with the “trickster god.” Vondrasek’s substitution of pop bottles, a contemporary commodity, for cowrie shells alludes to the modern marketplace.
Additionally, Vondrasek’s inclusion of soda bottles points to the Kongo-derived tradition of bottle trees, a practice designed for “protecting the household through invocation of the dead” that continues in the contemporary southern United States (Thompson 1983, 142). Just as Eshu, a classically contradictory orisha, melds seemingly disparate eras, he encompasses multiple contrasting cultures, pointing to the expanse of the Yoruba Diaspora.
Despite centuries of trauma, displacement, and diaspora, the Yoruba have endured as a culture and creative power. Perhaps this resiliency has roots in the uniquely Yoruba belief that “I am better off on the farm than in my hometown,” meaning one finds greatest fulfillment when away from the familiar (Yai 1999, 35). Scholar, Michael Harris, echoes this proverb when he claims, “In departure, perhaps they have returned to themselves” (Harris, 1999, 29).
We believe our final artifact, an ironwork fence with symbols of orisha, epitomizes the presence of the Yoruba within the Black Diaspora. Carybé, the fence’s creator, claims no Yoruba heritage. Indeed, he is white, having gravitated to Yoruba spirituality in Brazil. His work evidences this influence, with the waves and fishes in Carybé’s ironwork likely referencing the Brazilian devotion to the Yoruba river goddess Yemayá; black and white worshipers alike unite annually in Rio for one of the western hemisphere’s most celebrated festivals for the orisha.
Despite sharing no ethnic commonalities with the Yoruba people, Yai argues, Carybé’s work expresses Yoruba sensitivity in full. Carybé, Yai asserts, exemplifies the Yoruba principle of da asa, meaning “to create a new style, literally, to split or break the tradition.” Indeed, this is perhaps the Yoruba people’s greatest strength; through continual turbulence and turmoil, the Yoruba adapted their culture but never destroyed it. Due to the Yoruba ability to find fulfillment in the unfamiliar, orishas of old find contemporary voices and new life as the Diaspora moves forward.