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: Ijo Duen Fobara, or Ancestor Screen


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' duen fobara or Ancestor Screen, is one of a very few existing outside of Africa, the other comparable examples belonging to British museums (figure 1). It has an unusual provenance. It was collected by Percy Amaury Talbot, author of books and articles on the Delta tribes, in Abonnema Village before 1916. The screens which Talbot brought to England may well be the oldest in existence, collected in the wake of an iconoclastic frenzy touched off by the self-styled prophet Elijah II in December 1915. His influence, which swept from the coast into the interior of Nigeria, resulted in the destruction of many old African "idols." In a lecture presented to the African Society on June 21, 1916, and later published in their Journal, Talbot comments on the difficulty of obtaining these elaborate Kalabari images:
So highly were these reverenced that my utmost offers were unable to obtain a single specimen, while a large price was demanded for even the copy of a solitary figure. It is indicative of the power of the pseudo-prophet that save in one or two rare cases which resisted his influence, all were torn down or destroyed with the exception of certain [re]presentative examples which some friendly chiefs were, at considerable risks from fanatical iconoclasts, persuaded to confide in me, and have thus been secured for the national collections.1
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' screen remained in the British Museum until 1970 when it was acquired through trade by a private collector who later released it to a dealer.The huge delta of the Niger River dominates the coast of Nigeria, creating a brackish tidal swamp. This area is a maze of small drainage streams into which the Niger disappears, and then emerges with two main outlets to the sea, the Forcados and the Nun rivers. The highest land in the delta is usually along the banks of the meandering streams which catch sediment and are gradually built up so that they rise above the highest floods and tides. These high places are covered with tropical rain forest vegetation, including oil and raffia palms. Behind these banks and rivers the lower land supports only mangrove trees. The inhabitants of this lowland area live in tiny, widely dispersed communities, commonly isolated even from each other.In the center of the Niger Delta live the Ijo (or Ijaw) people. The Ijo probably moved into the central Delta sometime during the fifteenth century. Their typical trade probably first consisted of salt, always important to interior Africa, slaves and fish; later, after Portuguese and Dutch contact, more slaves; and still later, in the nineteenth century, palm oil to the British. Their geographic remoteness and their ferocity and cannibalistic tendencies left them more undisturbed by outsiders than most Nigerian tribes. Recently petroleum was found in the Delta and the presence of big oil companies will probably touch the Ijo more than the occasional ship which in the past anchored offshore from their raffia-thatched villages.The Ijo-speaking people who fill the Delta are divided into many sub-groups, one of which is the Kalabari (or Calabar). The Kalabari live in twenty-five small villages on the eastern side of the Niger Delta. Some of the Kalabari villages, such as new Calabar, or Owoame, changed in the sixteenth century from a fishing to a European trade economy. The New Calabar fishermen developed the concept of a "House," which was a trading corporation with an elected head. The head and the traders under him were constantly buying slaves. To integrate the slaves into the House they were given fictional lineage ties to the House.Kalabari villages are divided into lineage groups which are either patrilineal or matrilineal. A man may trace his ancestry through a series of male or female links, depending on the bride price of his mother. A child of a high bride-price woman belongs to his father's group; a child of a low bride-price woman belongs to his mother's group or lineage. Each lineage is a land-holding unit with an elected head and fellow members who have strong obligations of mutual aid. The ancestors of each lineage group are naturally both influential and interested spectators in the daily lives of their descendants.The Kalabari believe that each person has a spirit, or teme, which is the invisible vital force in life. There are free and fixed spirits: free spirits are usually more powerful. Among the free spirits are the duen, or ancestors, the spirits of once living people who pursue and preserve the values and desires they pursued in life. In honor of the duen, the Kalabari construct duen fobara, or ancestor screens.When an important member of the Kalabari lineage dies, a proper memorial must be carved for his spirit and set up in the ancestral shrine in the compound. Such a sculpture is called duen fobara, or "forehead of the dead." The forehead (fobara) is that part of a person associated with controlling his fortunes. The duen is the spiritual aspect of a person that lives on after death and remains active in the affairs of the community, looking after its family, attending celebrations, and commanding respect from its descendants. "When a man sets out for trade, fishing, or indeed any business, he has always in mind that the spirits of the ancestors are round him, ready to help in difficulty or danger and eager to bring prosperity to the House."2Deceased members serve as the foundation on which the welfare of the House depends and must thus be treated with reverence, yet they may be manipulated by following certain practices. Horton interprets the Kalabari proverb "If a spirit becomes too violent, they will tell him the stick they carved him with,"3 as the belief that even spiritual power can be limited by confining it in a sculptural form. He relates a story to illustrate the function sculpture has for the Kalabari:Once upon a time, when a man reached a great age, he no longer walked. He no longer spoke or fed. When that time came, they would take him into the shrine of the ancestors and let him on a stool. When it was time to feed him, they would bring in food and drink. They would throw some of the food in front of him, shouting "come and eat." They would also give food to the ancestor sculptures round about in just the same way. When the old man died and began to rot, they would go on doing the same thing till just his bones were left. Then they would put the carving on top of the stool. This is how they first made ancestor sculpture. But these things worried people too much. If they did not make the sculpture, the dead man would come out in spirit and finish off his housepeople. And if they did make it, with those legs and arms they had carved he would still come out and finish off his house. So when it came to a certain time, they no longer carved the whole man. They carved the head and trunk and left off the legs. That is why, if you look at these ancestor sculptures today, you will scarcely see one with legs.4Although many such sculptures are equipped with limbs, Horton feels the story equates the role of the body at the point of death and that of ancestral sculptures; both serve to confine the will. The sculpture controls the spirit by restricting its movements. A sculpture is thought of as the "name" of the spirit; ". . . The spirits come and stay in their names."5There are elaborate mechanics for the proper and reverential treatment of an important man whose death will be commemorated with a screen. When a chief dies, his body is laid in state in the Wari Kuba, the hall opening into the shrine room, with his head toward the ancestors. For a great warrior, a drum is used to signal the ancestors that he will join them. The following day the women lay the manillas they have worn around their necks in front of the shrine, and a funeral play is enacted by the members of the Ekine Society, a secret men's society which masquerades and dances. After his death the play which belonged to the man will be given in his honor. If a family is not sufficiently wealthy to stage the required events, the ceremony must be delayed until the family can afford it. Precious ornaments, fabrics, gin, tobacco and even dishes are placed in the grave as offerings, "but seldom or never food, because that is provided by the sacrifices made to him on each eighth day."6Talbot records that ten months later, when the family can afford it, the Kopinai feast is held. At that time the relatives order the carved memorial and set out for Fouche island to collect it and return it to the village, placing it in the compound of an unrelated family. If done by day, it must be well covered. "On the fourth day after the sculpture's arrival the kinsmen, who have returned from the water parade, go thither, armed as if for battle, followed by the women of the House, shouting and singing. A mimic fight is held with the people of the compound where it has sought shelter, after which the image is carried off in triumph by the relatives and installed in the shrine prepared for its reception."7 The family feasts and sings that they have freed their father and returned him to the family.The ancestral shrines are described as arbourlike and are called Arua; the chamber where the memorials rest is the Ikpu. The Arua are furnished with tables, glasses and plates for the food provided every eighth day. Conical clay forms with depressions for offering libations and large and small manillas are set in front of the shrines. These forms alone may suffice as ancestor shrines if the family cannot afford the more dramatic carved screens (figure 2).8These various funeral rites may last for years, but even after these are concluded, the head of the household returns with food and drink as offerings on every eighth day, the Fene Bene.Duen fobara are carved in odumdum wood (from the Newbouldia laevis tree),9 chosen, Horton assumes, because of its association with orderly human social life. The larger central figure, representing the deceased ancestor, wears the headdress of the masquerade he favored while alive. He and the two flanking smaller figures (or occasionally more than two) which represent his housepeople or followers are seated and depicted in both Talbot's and Horton's photographs wearing cloth skirts around their waists. A row of chevrons is frequently carved down their torsos, forking toward the waist, obviously representing a backbone. An informant explained, "The dead are people, only they had died. So when we make carvings for them, we compare the carvings with the way they were when they lived. That is why we might carve something which a dead man was fond of and put it in his hand."10 The objects in the hands of the figures of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' screen have been displaced, although we have the small heads which were perched on top of the screen, representing the great number of dependents, slaves and followers of the chief. No meaning has been ascertained for the letters at the top, for the various geometric patterns which decorate the screens or for the two squared, framed "windows" that usually appear above both flanking figures. The screens are often painted in a monochrome yellow background with white and black details.The duen fobara are constructed with this standard set of elements and make no attempt at individualized portraiture. The Kalabari recognize an ancestral representation by the accessories rather than the features. The most important of these, the headdress, duplicates in miniature one worn in the ancestor's favorite Ekine Society masquerade. Objects he liked may be placed in his hands. Although an artist might wait for a spirit visit to guide his hands, the elements he combines are prescribed, and it is more a matter of how he puts these together than of independent creation.One screen still in the British Museum closely resembles the Minneapolis example, both in the features of the figures and in the background of the general pattern of the screen to which they are attached-both have two vertical bands of plaiting with a zig-zag pattern painted in a more-or-less light and dark pattern; even the conical hats of the flanking figures are alike (figures 3 and 1). The similarity of these two screens suggests that they may have been manufactured by the same hand or easily by the members of the same family. Another screen, in a different style, possibly collected at the same time, is distinguished by pointed faces and rounded eyes (figure 4). Further comparison with the Minneapolis screen can also be made with other published British pieces (figure 5), including several photographs in Talbot's writings and those more recently included in Robin Horton's book Kalabari Sculpture.Talbot claims that the production of such screens was left to the Pokia family of Fouche Island (or Ifoko). Horton notes that although carving has been practiced only as a secondary and semi-professional skill among the Kalabari, the reported specialization of the Pokia family is an exception. The number of skills involved in making the figures, headdresses and elaborate backdrops of the duen fobara accounted for the unique transfer of this occupation from generation to generation. Although by Horton's time the production was no longer the monopoly of the Pokia family it was still practiced locally.The duen fobara depart from the great body of Kalabari sculpture in their calculation for visual effect. Despite the general apathy of the Kalabari about the aesthetic aspects of sculpture, the ancestral screens are imposing, elaborately constructed and prominently paraded and displayed. They are the prerogative of the very privileged leaders of the community. Horton suggests that the rather unusual functions assigned to this type of cult object have something to do with its being a relatively recent adaptation from a culture which made very different uses of its sculptures-possibly from Benin. Talbot claims that sacred stools originally represented the ancestors and Horton speculatively dates the introduction of the duen fobara to only two hundred years ago.11The format of the duen fobara is exceptional in African art. More commonly, ancestral representations are of single figures rather than a composed figural grouping. Moreover, most of these representations are carved in the round-whereas the Ijo figures are strictly frontal, dimension added only by the curious addition of lashed-on limbs. The further adding on of small heads on pegs on tops of the screens and the detachable items fitted into the hands, swords and tusks, supports the impression of an assemblage.The most reasonable explanation for this quite uncharacteristic example of African art is that it is a hybrid of two different traditions. According to Douglas Fraser, "The hieratic scale of the figures, their plaque-like organization, and the use of heraldic flanking all probably indicate influence stemming from the art of Benin, especially the bronze plaques. . . ."12 At the same time, other structural features of the Ijo image are clearly not of Benin derivation: the angularity of the figures, the nonorganic rhythmic shaping of forms, the constructive aesthetic of assembling the object out of many small pieces of wood are structural features not found in Benin but shared by the Ijo with Ibo and Ibibio-speaking groups in and near the Delta.Horton believes that a bronze plaque of three figures flanked by snakes which was found in a Kalabari village possibly came there from Benin.13 This Benin link is obscure, but still very probable. The theory of Benin migration proposed long ago and accepted by some Ijos seems insupportable, but traditions support the idea of contact between the two cultures. The legend of the Ijo giving temporary refuge to Odum, an important eighteenth-century House head in Benin, and his return to the Niger Delta coincides loosely with the replacement of ancestral stools with memorial screens, and may give support to this theory.14The Ijo screen which belongs to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is an outstanding example of this rare type of African funerary monument.Ellen Bradbury is the Curator of Primitive Art at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Ms. Bradbury assembled the recent Black Kingdoms exhibition in Minneapolis. Martha Anderson, a former intern at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is studying with professor Roy Sieber at the University of Indiana and recently published a review of the Minneapolis collection in African Arts.Endnotes
  1. Percy Amaury Talbot, Journal of the African Society, 15, no. 60 (July 1916).
  2. Percy Amaury Talbot, Tribes of the Niger Delta, Their Religions and Customs (London: Sheldon Press, 1932), p. 258.
  3. Robin Horton, Kalabari Sculpture (Lagos: Department of Antiquities, 1963), pp. 8-9.
  4. Ibid., p. 9.
  5. Ibid., p. 4.
  6. Talbot, op. cit., p. 233.
  7. Arthur G. Leonard, The Lower Niger and Its Tribes (London: MacMillan and Co., 1906), p. 164. The ceremony of this sham-fight seems to indicate the idea that if a thing is worth having, it is worth fighting for. For as the spirit of the late-liberated, in his present dual capacity of spiritual head and mediator or communicator, is absolutely indispensable to the household, the struggle to get possession of him is practical and vigorous evidence of the anxiety of its members to retain a power without which the House is helpless and uncontrollable.
  8. Talbot, op. cit., p. 309.
  9. Horton, op. cit., p. 30.
  10. Ibid., p. 33.
  11. Horton, op. cit., p. 44.
  12. Douglas Fraser and H. M. Cole, eds. African Arts and Leadership (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972).
  13. Horton, op. cit., p. 45.
  14. Ibid., p. 45.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. African (Nigerian)
    XIX century
    Memorial Screen, Ijo Culture
    Wood and raffia
    37-1/2 in. x 28 in.
    The John R. Van Derlip Fund
  2. The stacks of bracelets in this photograph are called manillas. (In the background, note the table, glasses and plate which are to provide food for the spirits.)
  3. Example from the British Museum. It is interesting to note in this screen that the top still contains heads which may have been the heads of his retainers. The ancestor figure still carries a head and staff.
  4. These figures as well as the other examples from the British Museum still preserve the spirits.
  5. Another example of these rare Ijo screens from the British Museum. The only screen in the United States is in the Minneapolis collection.
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Source: Ellen Bradbury and Martha Anderson, "Ijo Duen Fobara, or Ancestor Screen," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 61 (1974): 66-73.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009