Ewe Female Twin Figure and Yoruba Male Twin Figures

ewe map paint edited

Fig. 1 Ewe peoples in western Africa

The Ewe people of southeastern Ghana, southern Togo, and Benin (fig. 1),[1] are known for their creation of narrow-strip woven textiles similar to Akan Kente cloth, but also for carving small wooden figures at the birth of twins, an event viewed as a cause for celebration and a “happy and auspicious occasion.”[2] Therefore, the Ewe venovi, or twin figures, are used to immortalize and honor the people that they depict.

Twin figures are carved out of wood and can depict one twin, a set of twins, or a set of triplets. They are usually commissioned from a sculptor by the twins’ mother so that if a twin dies, the parents will have a small figure to take his or her place in their memory.  The figures are treated as though they are living people as well: they are clothed, bathed, fed, and carried from place to place. It is the mother who primarily cares for the twin images, then other relatives if she passes away. The figures do not actually look like children, however, as they possess features of adults such as appropriate genitalia and intricate hairstyles. In a set of twin figures, each one must be treated the same regardless of gender. They are fed the same, bathed at the same time, and clothed the same way, until they reach puberty.[3]

The Ewe Female venovi figure in Loyola’s African art collection is characteristic of a typical twin figure from this region (fig. 2).[4] It has bulging eyes with darkened protrusions in the center to denote irises. The figure’s oval head with flattened face features: darkened, curved, raised eyebrows; a protruding, oblong nose; a thin, incised horizontal line to denote the mouth; small, rounded ears with piercings; and a prominently ringed neck. The hair is darkened with pigment and braided in two sections that cascade down the back of the head. The twin figure’s hands and arms are carved away from its body, in a style called the “horseshoe structure,”[5] which is shared by all venovi figures. The figure has no base and stands with its feet apart. The tips of its breasts and buttocks have been cut off, along with the front of the left foot. Such alterations are not uncommon in many types of African art as they are traded around the world. Overall, the figure is worn, with pigmented areas that have faded over time and with repeated use – showing just how crucial this figure was in Ewe culture.

ewe female front back

Fig. 2 Ewe Female Twin Figure

Ibeji Twins cropped

Fig. 3 Yoruba Male Twin Figures

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Fig. 4 Yoruba peoples in Benin and Nigeria

Similarly, ibeji images carved by Yoruba sculptors were also made to depict twins (fig.3).[6] These figures are common in southwestern Nigeria (fig. 4),[7] an area that is known to have an extremely high rate of twin births and a correspondingly high infant mortality rate.[8] In Yoruba culture, twins are considered to be both a blessing and potentially dangerous.[9] If one of the twins died, it was considered a particularly bad omen that could bring bad luck upon the existing twin, its family, and its village. To combat this potential for bad luck, the mother would commission a local sculptor to create a figure to represent her deceased child. The remaining twin was then said to have a complete soul once again. The carver would be paid with a feast and the figure would remain in a shrine in the family’s house where it would be cared for as if it were the deceased child (fig. 5).[10] Ibeji serve to avert evil from the household, strengthen the manifestations of family love, stare down death, illuminate the pathway through the valley of immortality, and bring good fortune to all who treat them with respect and offer them tokens of affection. Mothers would even sing to and dance with their twin figures to show such respect.[11]

yoruba ibeji mom houlberg ph lamp 2004 261

Fig. 5 Yoruba mother holding twin figures

Even though ibeji are made to memorialize an infant, they are usually depicted as fully mature adults, with the appropriate genitalia, hairstyles and facial scarifications. They were often clothed with beaded vests and/or caps, the hair rubbed with indigo and the body covered with red camwood powder.[12] Loyola’s figures, too, have the male genitalia and muscular torsos of a mature adult, with toes and fingers individually carved. They display crested hairstyles, large triangular eyes with pierced irises, broad noses, and vertical scarification marks on their foreheads and cheeks. Unlike our Ewe Female Twin image, these Male Twin Figures stand on round bases, with arms hanging straight and hands resting on the thighs – fitting tributes to the memory of departed twins. Yoruba mothers who were gifted twins by the gods were said to be especially generous and upright, echoed in this traditional Yoruba saying: “Let she who fantasizes having twins adopt a gentle character.”[13]

Mary McGrath, Class of 2017 and Lydia Pritchard, Class of 2018

[1] Adapted from map by Monika Feinen, “Distribution area of Ewe-languages,” African Studies, University of Cologne. http://www.afrikanistik.phil-fak.uni-koeln.de/ewe.html?&L=1.
[2] Elisabeth Cameron, “Ewe Peoples,” in Isn’t S/he a Doll? Play and Ritual in African Sculpture (LA: University of California, 1996), 67.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ewe Female Twin Figure, Ewe peoples, Ghana, Togo, Benin, wood and black pigment, 9 13/16” x 2 11/16” x 2 1/3”. Baltimore: Julio Fine Arts Gallery, Loyola University Maryland.
[5] John Povey, review of “Twin Figures from West Africa,” African Arts 15, no.1 (Nov., 1981): 85.
[6] Male Twin Figures, Yoruba Peoples, Nigeria, wood. Baltimore: Julio Fine Arts Gallery, Loyola University Maryland.
[7] Map adapted from “Map of Yoruba Peoples,” Mapsof.net. http://mapsof.net/africa/map-of-yoruba-peoples.
[8] Robert Farris Thompson, “Sons of Thunder: Twin Images among the Oyo and Other Yoruba Groups,” African Arts 4, no. 3 (Spring, 1971): 8.
[9] Frederick John Lamp, “Cooling Double Trouble: Yoruba Twin Figures (Ere Ibeji),” in See the Music Hear the Dance: Rethinking African Art at The Baltimore Museum of Art, edited by Frederick John Lamp. (Munich: Prestel, 2004), 260.
[10] Yoruba mother holding figures of deceased twins, Nigeria, photo by Marilyn Houlberg, in See the Music Hear the Dance, 262.
[11] Thompson, “Sons of Thunder: Twin Images among the Oyo and Other Yoruba Groups”: 8-11, 78.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Dejo Afolayan, Nigeria, 1988, quoted in Robert Farris Thompson, “African Art in Motion,” in Pamela McClusky, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back (Princeton: Seattle Art Museum, 2002), 31.