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Head and hairstyle in yoruba art;;

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VII:2/Winter 2001/Spring 2002

by Babatunde Lawal

The emphasis on the head (Ori) in Yoruba figure sculpture goes beyond
its biological importance as the seat of the brain that controls the body.
It reveals the anthropocentric nature of Yoruba cosmology, which
identifies the Supreme Being, Olodumare, as the head of a pantheon of
deities called òrìsà, who act as the agents of its enabling power (àse).
This Supreme Being is sometimes called Oba Orun, the King of
Heaven, and Olu Iwa, Lord/Head of Existence (Idowu 1995:37-38; and
Euba 1985:3). 1
The Head should be accorded His due
This is the oracle's charge to the one thousand seven hundred divinities
Who must render annual tributes to Olodumare
(Idowu 1995:53).
The primacy of Olodumare is reflected in the common sayings Ori lo da ni,
enikan o ' d'Ori o (It is the Head that created us; nobody created the Head)
and Ori eni, l'Eleda eni (One's head is one's creator) (dos Santos and dos
Santos 1971:49; see also Abiodun 1986: 18). As these sayings indicate, the
apical position of the physical head resonates in the traditional Yoruba
system of government. For example, all members of an extended family
living together are under the authority of the head of a compound (Baálè
ilé) in which they live, and all compound heads are responsible to a district
fig. 1
head (Olori adugbo). Any matter that the latter could not resolve would be
referred to a higher authority such as the village head (Báálé or Olu). At the top of this
hierarchy is the Oba, a divine king, high priest, and the ruler of a given town, who is assisted
by a council of elders or chiefs (Ojo 1966:119-20). Thus the head is to an individual what
Olodumare is to the cosmos and a king to the body politic-a source of power.
In order to fully understand the significance of this metaphor, it must be noted that the
Yoruba creation myth traces the origin of the human body to an archetypal sculpture (ere)
modeled by the artist-deity Obatala and then activated by the divine breath (emi) of
Olodumare, located in the sculpture's head. This creative process occurs inside a pregnant
woman's body and takes about nine months to mature. According to the myth, every
individual, before being born into the physical world, must proceed to the workshop of

2 offers gifts and prayers every morning before turning to the family òrìsà. and identity. they have the ability to assist an individual only within the boundaries already predetermined by Olodumare. see also Idowu 1995:38-56. Naturalism is favored in most of the sculptures meant to recall the physical likeness of an individual. which often rises like a crown. Alade 1972: 8-10. . are often intentionally stylized to emphasize their non-material state of existence. such as the terra-cotta and bronze heads from Ife.000 cowrie shells (fig. The degree of realism in Yoruba portraiture depends on which aspect is being emphasized. Lawal 1985. one's guardian spirit in the physical world) (Ladele et al. 2 Hence the popular Yoruba slogan. 4 The importance of the head is apparent in both naturalistic and stylized representations. Orilonise. 3). Each inner head contains Olodumare's àse (enabling power)." 3 Iconology of the Head Yoruba religion focuses on the worship of the òrìsà because of the belief that they act on behalf of Olodumare. "One's success or failure in life depends on the head. the heavenly potter. even if they have a human essence. It is called Ori Ode (external head). and the one chosen by an individual predetermines his/her lot (ipin) in the physical world. 4 communicate with the òrìsà. and Okemuyiwa and Fabunmi 1989:15-20). communication.Ajalamopin. The size and ornateness of the container depend on the social or economic status of its owner. this altar is a cone-shaped object containing fig. 5). It is encased in leather and adorned with cowrie shells (owo eyo). or "inner heads" on display in Ajalamopin's workshop. or the spirits of dead ancestors. every adult Yoruba dedicated an altar to the Ori Inu. The ibori is kept in a crown-shaped container called ile ori (house of the head). ready-made Ori Inu. Ori inu mi ko ma ba ti ode je (May my inner head not spoil my outer one) (Drewal. The desire for harmony between the two aspects of the head is expressed in the popular prayer. Although the physical head is highly valued because of its social and biological importance as a site of perception. and Abiodun 1989: 26). in the past. which can be lavishly adorned with as many as 12. Pemberton. who is too exalted to be approached directly. It is to the ibori that an individual fig. the Ultimate Head. The òrìsà themselves are said to be subject to their own Ori (Abimbola 1976:115). whom the inner head represents in an individual. Called ibori. Ko s'òrìsà ti i da ni i gbe lehin ori eni (No òrìsà can help an individual without the consent of his or her head) (Abimbola 1971:81. which is also called Ori Apere. Asiniwaye (Venerable head. as well as the ako second-burial effigies that mark the last symbolic appearance of a deceased ancestor among the living (fig. to choose one of several undifferentiated. The practice continues today in the rural areas. it is regarded as no more than the outer shell for the inner head. Hence the popular saying. Thus. meaning that despite their popularity as the agents or manifestations of àse. Yet Olodumare is indirectly involved in the day-to-day life of an individual through his/her Ori Inu. not only through its size but also through the detailed and elaborate treatment of the coiffure. 3 divination powder (iyerosun) mixed with earth into which a diviner has chanted sacred incantations and verses meant to attract good luck to its owner (fig. Sculptures placed on altars to fig.4). again underscoring the preeminence of Olodumare. 1986:42). proclaiming the head's lordship over the body.

These are represented by paired male and female figures. which can be broken up etymologically as o-là = to cut. clothes. the Yoruba have not only redesigned their habitat. the nature of the baby's inner head and what should be done to preserve a good destiny or to rectify a bad one. occupation. the special power that continually inspires and sustains the human "will to adorn. The richness of the tradition can be gleaned from Yoruba masks and figure sculptures that will be used to illustrate the major styles. status. Thus. and power. the hard (negative) and the soft (positive). As such. This is why Yoruba women have traditionally regarded hairdressing as a mark of honor to the inner head (Araba 1978:8). The earth. the inner head. the goddess who combs her hair with a hoe). 6 culture. paying special attention to one's behavior. 5 the physical head constitutes for the Ori Inu. Ogere. unkempt hair is likened to a jungle. This accounts for the emphasis on appearance in Yoruba fig. This ceremony is called imori (know the . To be socially acceptable is to be well groomed. It is responsible for transforming much of what was once a wilderness into the civilization it is today (Lawal 1996:23-24). The town (ilú) denotes the ordered. the Yoruba creation myth identifies the human body as a work of art produced by the artist-deity Obatala." 5 In other words. the Yoruba have created a wide range of hairstyles that not only reflect the primacy of the head but also communicate taste. Adeoye 1989:359). Omo Adáríhurun (Humanity. they have personified the earth as a beauty-conscious goddess whose cognomen is Ilè. apart from its social significance. as a goddess. the parents of a new baby often consulted a diviner on the third day after its birth to find out. a sloppily dressed person is ridiculed as ara oko (literally bush creature). Children's Hair In the past. an allusion to the farming and building activities that continually shape and reshape the human environment (Verger 1966:35. both temporal and spiritual. though they are often idealized in art for aesthetic reasons. It is pertinent to note that the Yoruba word for civilization is òlàjú.Art and Language of Yoruba Hairstyles The Yoruba sometimes refer to Homo sapiens as Eda. that is. and the jungle (igbó) the unordered. A f'oko yeri (Earth. and applied arts. It is believed that taking good care of one's hair is an indirect way of currying favor with one's Ori Inu. and hair. cultured. and unpredictable. As mentioned earlier. the species that grows hair mainly on the head)." as well as the creativity manifest in the visual. partly because the human body is not covered with hair like that of the lower animals. and the individual concerned is easily mistaken for a psychopath. among other things. and predictable. ojú = face/head. The hair on the head (irun Orí) is often likened to a grove that must be well maintained to hallow the sanctuary that fig. uncultivated. "to give the earth a human face. One implication of the myth is that the human body encapsulates àse. 6 By the same token. performing. respectively (Lawal 1995: 41-47). and partly because the hair that grows on the lower part of the abdomen is usually covered by dress. which will be discussed below. is thought to have two aspects. only the hair on the human head and face is noticeable.

8 about once a month or when it appears overgrown. As a male child grows older. the head is shaved clean (irun fifa korodo) fig. 8 as indicated in this Dàda's panegyric (oriki): 9 Dàda Awuru . alejò ayé (New baby. Fig. leaving a strip of hair called jongori running from the front to the occiput. To formally welcome the baby to the world of the living (Ilé Ayé). 7 Until the ceremony. Babies born with knotted or curly hair are considered sacred and are automatically given the name Dàda or Ekine. Identical hairstyles easily identify a pair. Young girls. these children are thought to attract wealth to their parents. 7 and partly because their knots of hair are likened to cowrie shells (money).. Partly because they are thought to be special gifts from the orisa fig. especially among the Ijebu. 9 (a. although it is done at a later date. Sometimes the back and sides of the head are shaved. the baby is often addressed as Omo titun. In some areas of Yorubaland.c) Young and . a stranger to the physical world). A patch of hair left on the crown is called osu. there is a naming ceremony on the seventh or ninth day after its birth during which its head is completely shaved. the heads of twins are painted with special designs during the ritual that initiates them into the cult of twins (ibid.:379). the "heads of Dàda children are shaved only under special ritual conditions. By and large. parents endeavor to keep their children's hair as clean and decent as possible. male or female. twins (ibeji) are also regarded as sacred because of their unusual birth. As Marilyn Houlberg has noted. are usually allowed to wear their hair long.b. as twins. Their heads too are usually not shaved during their naming ceremonies. The one who wears a crown of money The one who wears an embroidered dress The one who carries a leaded staff of office You carry a big crown of money to the market.head) or ikose waye (the first steps on earth) (Idowu 1995:192). on the other hand. [author's translation] (Sowande and Ajanaku 1969:43) A Dàda's head is not shaved during the naming ceremonies because it is believed that the knotted hair has special powers.. Like Dàda. The hair may be washed but must not be combed. though it is knotted or braided into designs similar to those worn by maidens and older women. The act of head-shaving may be said to mark the incorporation of the already sacred child into the world of the living" (Houlberg 1979:377). because it is they who will be accused of negligence if a child's hair looks unkempt.

which consists of three round patches of hair arranged in the front. leaves the head half-shaved. because all the . the beard bespeaks maturity. are expected to keep their hair very long. pouch-like cap called àdìrò. and (c) the relatively recent practice of binding (irun kiko). called ifari apakan. the loose weave (irun biba) is usually covered with a scarf or head tie. see Picton 1994:fig.Adult Male Hair Except for occupational or ritual reasons. and maturity. irungbon l'agba. wisdom. young princes as well as the children of the rich may wear the ààso. a majority of Yoruba women fashion their hair into an assortment of crown-like designs (sometimes adorned with colorful beads) both to honor their inner head and in keeping with the popular adage Irun l'ewa obinrin (The hair adds to a woman's beauty). the moustache betrays insolence). Young and Adult Female Hair While most males shave their heads. Called ààso oluode. it will be discussed below in the section dealing with more contemporary issues. One popular style of irun didi is called sùkú (knotted hair). Since hair binding (irun kiko) is a relatively recent development. There are three principal methods of shaping the hair: (a) loose weave (irun biba). Another peculiar male hairstyle. a detailed plaiting of the hair into intricate designs. although it may be left uncovered indoors. mamu l'afojudi (Gray hair bespeaks old age. however. 7). As a result. Certain hairstyles. a casual and temporary parting and knotting into big buns or cornrows until fig. young and old. especially the èsó (leaders of the military guards) (Adeoye 1979:164). center. most males shave their head. For example. In order to accommodate the hair. 10 the front to the back). when gray hair (ewu) and beard (irugbon) are considered marks of experience. and chin until old age. using a black thread to tie strands of hair into filaments that are then gathered to form intricate designs (Daramola and Jeje 1975:90). a branch of the Aresa royal house of the Old Oyo Empire whose leaders were noted for their deep knowledge of herbal medicine and magical charms (Adeoye 1979: 165-66). Another variation of the ààso identifies powerful hunters and warriors. females. This has innumerable variations but space limitations will not allow a description of all the substyles. as reflected in the popular saying Ewu l'ogbo. which is also used to store small charms. almost touching the shoulder (for illustration. The following section will focus on the tight weave or braid (irun didi). and may be made to hang down on the left side of the head (fig. the cap hangs heavily on the left side of the head. (b) tight weave (irun didi). It can identify an individual as a member of the Aragberi clan. 6). may be shaved to allow ritual substances to be rubbed onto or incised into the scalp. which will be discussed below. Otherwise. however. so only the most prevalent ones will be highlighted. may indicate social status or unusual power. 11 the styling can be done by a professional. 1.3). some hunters and warriors wear a long. moustache. this patch of hair is braided into a knot (fig. More often. instead of sporting the common jongori (the strip of hair in the middle of the head that runs from fig. The head of a female initiate or patient. It has another important meaning as well. it is a patch of hair growing on a spot in the middle of the head into which potent medicine has been infused to empower the body both physically and spiritually.10 Being a temporary measure. and back of the head.

" [back] [3] Orilonise is an abbreviation of the saying Orilonise. C. 544. and Amoo 1986:14. one of the Oyo king's senior ilari. [back] [15] The National Theatre in Iganmu. 12 Notes [1] The Yoruba word Olu (lord). vol. pp. Hence some Yoruba translate Oluwa. see Houlberg 1979:382-91. as "Our Overall Head. 46. 1979. . [back] [13] For a detailed analysis of these similarities. see Sowande and Ajanaku 1969:43-44. [back] [7] Generally. [back] [5] For other implications of the face in Yoruba art. who are not normally possessed by the orisa. Drewal 1992:131-32. for an excellent analysis of some of them. Lagos. [back] [12] At Ijebu Ode. Asa ati Ise Yoruba. [back] [8] For more on this category of children. Rowland. See Bascom 1969:56.d. 4-20. 51-58. Vogel 1997:46. the "Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture. the potter. "Ajala. [back] [4] For more on this. see Houlberg 1979." It is a chant addressed to the "Inner head" (Ori Inu) of a person. Second Burial Effigy in Owo. see Akinnuoye (n. New York: Paragon House. Wande.2 and 7." held in Nigeria in February 1977. for instance." in La Notion de Personne en Afrique Noire. Ibadan. human potentials are predetermined). 1. ---. 1989. Obakosetan. Laogun. Oxford: Oxford University Press. for instance. plates 7. however." in African Traditional Religion in Contemporary Society. a synonym for "head.). In Ile-Ife. Houlberg 1979:375-78. no. "The Yoruba Concept of Human Personality. 1986. For illustrations of some of these hairstyles. Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus. Paris: Colloques Internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique." in Ife: Annals of the Institute of African Studies. Nigeria: Evans Brothers." See Mustapha. Nigeria: Oxford University Press. edited by Jacob K.fig. 1976. wilderness/civilization dichotomy has been noted in other African cultures.3. pp. "The Place of Traditional Religion in Contemporary Africa: The Yoruba Example. and Abiodun 1989:26. 8-39." Ajalamopin is also known as Ajala Alamo. Ibadan. Eda Layanmo (The head determines one's lot in life." is a title borne by the governors of small Yoruba towns. Adeoye. 1971. was specially constructed to host FESTAC. [back] [2] Since the Yoruba word for fate is ipin. the molder of heads concealing a person's fate. the royal messengers are called odi. ---." in Africa. a baby girl is named on the seventh day. Igbagbo ati Esin Yoruba. [back] [6] A similar town/jungle. no. [back] [11] The female hairstyle is also common among the priests of Orisa Agemo (associated with the spiritual well-being of the Ijebu Yoruba). ---. 1991. Ajalamopin means "Ajala. ---. Abiodun. See Margaret T. [back] [10] Hair binding with thread (irun kiko) is also known as irun olowu (binding with thread). 1976. Olupona. and Lawal 1977: 50-61. [back] [14] According to Johnson 1921:468. Abiodun 1976. There are some variations. see Lawal 1985:100-101. [back] [9] The literal translation of the term oriki is "head-praise. [back] References Abimbola. a girl is named on the sixth day and a boy on the seventh day. a baby boy on the ninth day. See. and is meant to inspire that person to live up to expectations. another name for the Supreme Being. no. 1. Pemberton. pp. Ajayi. "Verbal and Visual Metaphors in Yoruba Ritualistic Art of the Ori. "A Reconsideration of the Function of Ako. and Drewal. see Cordwell 1953:220-25. carried as his staff of office a leather fan with red and green embroidery.

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