Female Twin Figure

Accession Number

Female Twin Figure


Artist Nationality
Yoruba (culture or style)

Object Creation Date
circa 1925-1940

Medium & Support
carved wood and glass beads

10 1/16 in x 3 in x 3 in (25.56 cm x 7.62 cm x 7.62 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Milford Golden

Label copy
The word "altar" or "shrine" in the Yoruba language means both "face of the gods" and threshold to the gods." An altar is a locus of worship, a point of connection, and the place of the "in-between" where life and death converge and this world meets the one beyond. For genetic reasons, Yoruba have the highest twinning rate of any human population. They honor deceased twins with altars like the one reconstructed here. An altar is a living art form that must be fed and cared for by devotees who leave offerings of food and sacrificial gifts in adoration of the departed. Twins who die in infancy have Ibeji figures such as these carved in their honor. Bearing and nourishing newborn twins is physically difficult and dangerous to the health of both mother and nuslings, and many do perish. The hope is that by honoring a twin that dies, its other will survive and flourish.
Twins are particularly common in Yoruba culture and are considered divine, bringing good fortune to those who honor them and bad fortune to those who neglect them. Consequently, parents of a deceased twin may commission a carved sculpture to appease the spirit. The figures receive attention similar to that given to living children, and may be bathed, rubbed with oil, fed, clothed, and/or adorned with beads.

Subject matter
Up until the 1980s, Ere ibeji were small figures used by Yoruba peoples in the worship of twins. This tradition has largely been replaced by portraits and plastic dolls (cf. Micheli, Doubles and Twins in African Arts, Spring 2008, p. 79). Twins are thought to be two bodies sharing one soul, so to placate as well as embody the spirit (emi), a figure (ere) would be carved to represent the deceased twin (ibeji) (cf. Drewal, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, 1989, p. 170). Yoruba peoples have the highest rate of twins per birth in the world, and in the past, high infant mortality meant many twin figures were carved (cf. Nicklin, Yoruba: A Celebration of African Art, 1991, p. 30). The ere ibeji  was treated as a living person, regularly fed, washed, clothed, and carried (cf. Nicklin, Yoruba: A Celebration of African Art, 1991, p. 30). As a center of this ritual activity, these twin figures transformed from a memorial to an embodiment of the deceased twin that allowed them to be present to the living (cf. Drewal, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, 1989, p. 175). In addition to housing the spirit of a deceased twin, ere ibeji also represented the Yoruba ideal of good character. Part of what constitutes good character is a sense of composure or ‘coolness’, called itutu (cf. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 1983, p. 12-13). Many aspects of ere ibeji embody this sense of ‘coolness’. The calm face with serious, sealed lips and a poised stance with hands at the sides is a position of spiritual alertness that reflects ‘coolness’ and thus, good character (cf. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 1983, p. 11).  After being carved, the head of the twin figure would be rubbed with an indigo dyed cloth and some hairstyles/headgear were painted with blue pigment (cf. Drewal, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, 1989, p. 172-173; Doris, Yoruba Images and Aesthetics, 2004, p. 22), as blue is the color of ‘coolness’. Twins are also associated with Shango, the Yoruba orisa (or god) of thunder, and the protector of ibeji, as twins are called “children of thunder” (cf. Drewal, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, 1989, p. 170). Some aspects of ere ibeji reference Shango, such as the rubbing of the twin figure with red camwood powder, as Shango is associated with the color red, and plaited hairstyles, as Shango is often depicted with plaited hair (cf. Doris, Yoruba Images and Aesthetics, 2004, p. 22). The beads around the neck and waist of this ere ibeji may refer to various orisas (gods) or ancestors worshipped by the family (cf. Doris, Yoruba Images and Aesthetics, 2004, p. 22). 

Physical Description
Standing female figure with prominent breasts on a square base. The hands are placed at the sides and there are strings of beads around the waist and neck. On the cheeks and forehead there are incised marks and the hair has a rounded, comb-like shape with horizontal grooves. 

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type

Collection Area

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children (people by age group)
commemorative sculpture
personal shrines

2 Related Resources

Devotional Objects Across Religions
(Part of 4 Learning Collections)
Cabinet V: Shelf 1
(Part of: Albertine Monroe-Brown Study-Storage Gallery)

& Author Notes

Web Use Permitted

On display

UMMA Gallery Location ➜ AMH, 2nd floor ➜ 205 (Albertine Monroe-Brown Study-Storage Gallery) ➜ Cabinet V ➜ Shelf 1