This striking polychrome sculpture is a representation of a forest sprite or an ancestor, made by the Urhobo It is an unusual piece in terms of structure and style. It is traditional in possessing light “skin” with dark detailing and relief items of clothing (including a variation on a top hat) but is unusual in that it is kneeling rather than standing/sitting, and also for the fact that the arms are jointed at the shoulders. The figure is patinated from handling, and has thus lost some of the white pigment with which it was originally decorated. It has a loincloth, a belt, a necklace, two armlets and two bracelets, all rendered in dark wood. The navel is also marked as a circle inside a large diamond. The face is powerfully carved with drilled pupils, dark eyes, a triangular nose and a protuberant mouth with trefoil scarring on either side. The hair is rendered as a dark-painted widows-peak arrangement, which is surmounted by a tall hat with a wide brim. The figure is decidedly plump, which usually implies wealth and prosperity in African art. The arms are carved separately from the rest of the body and are flexed at the elbow.
The Urhobo are one of a number of tribal groups living in the Niger River Delta area, and make their living from mixed agriculture and fishing. They live in small villages which are focused around huts containing ancestor figures which watch over the population and “preside” at meetings of elders. The Urhobo live in tentative respect of forest spirits known as Edjo, which surround them at all times and are appeased by the carving of Edjo sculptures. Smaller figures in the same general style are usually considered to represent Edjo’s spouses. The two sculpture classes can be differentiated by the fact that Edjo figures carry weapons or magical containers, while ancestors are usually represented as seated or Janus figures. The style of rendering is akin to that of the Igbo, to whom the Urhobo are culturally related. Other related tribes include the Oron and the Isoko.
There is considerable stylistic overlap between the groups and there are also many unique pieces (such as this one), hence the uncertainty with the current piece. In balance, however, it is most likely to be a Edjo figure. It is certainly a beautifully-rendered and sophisticated piece of African art.
Bacquart, J. 2000. The Tribal Arts of Africa. Thames and Hudson, London.