Ógbóni Society Plaque (Primary Title)

Unknown (Artist)

19th century or earlier
copper alloy
Nigeria, Republic of Benin
Overall: 8 5/8 × 7 1/8 × 2 1/4 in. (21.91 × 18.1 × 5.72 cm)

This plaque was made for a Yoruba society of ruling elders, the Ógbóni, one of the most important Yoruba governing institutions. Ógbóni members are the oldest and wisest men and women in a community. By virtue of their age, they are considered close to the spirit-realm of the ancestors. Within each community, the Ógbóni decide the most serious judicial matters and control the selection, installation, and funerals of community rulers.

The features of the face on this plaque illustrate several Ógbóni concepts. The strongly projecting forehead suggests the power of intellect; the projecting eyes suggests penetrating insight as well as àse, “spiritual energy or life force.” The mudfish issuing from the nostrils symbolize the Ógbóni capacity to function in two worlds. These fish can live in water or on land, a metaphor for the ability to cross between the two halves of the Yoruba universe—aye, the world of the living; and òrun, the spirit-realm.

In the same way, the materials used to make Ógbóni objects also symbolize transition between two different states: metal, the material of choice, represents the transformation of natural one into liquid form, which then solidifies into objects of strength and beauty. The small holes along the edge of this plaque provide loops for attached to ceremonial garb. When not being worn, this mask might have been place on an altar, where sacrificial offerings would be poured over it.

Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund
"Het Geheime Ogboni-Genootschap." Berg en Dal, Netherlands: Afrika Museum, 1976.
Dobbelmann, Th. Het Geheime Ogboni-genootschap. Berg en Dal, Netherlands: Afrika Museum, 1976. (illus. 147)

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