Cosmic Connections

Lidded bowl, Areogun of Osi Illorin, Ekiti, Nigeria, late 19th-mid 20th century; National Museum of African Art collection

Bowl, Luba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, late 19th- early 20th century; National Museum of African Art collection

Top, Lidded bowl, Areogun of Osi Illorin, Ekiti, Nigeria, late 19th-mid 20th century

The Yoruba cosmos is conceived as a lidded vessel – usually a gourd/calabash or a spherical wooden bowl – its two sections defining the separate but interconnected world of the living and the spiritual realm of ancestors and spirits. The iron spike piercing the top of the lid suggests an axis mundi that connects the complementary domains of sacred and secular in Yoruba worldview.  The vessel was made by the Yoruba master Areogun, a prolific artist who carved many doors, house posts, masks and lidded bowls. Several of the low-relief figures and attributes on this bowl suggest an association with Shango, god of thunder. Other images recall Eshu, the divine messenger and trickster, and Ogun, god of iron.

Bottom, Bowl, Luba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, late 19th– early 20th century

Luba objects associated with divination are connected to the moon, with the rising moon an apt metaphor for a heightened state of awareness and clairvoyance that occurs during spirit possession.  Mary Nooter Roberts, a scholar of Luba art history, notes that the receptacles of Luba bowl figures often contain traces of white mpemba pigment, which is applied to the faces of spirit mediums and is viewed as surrogate moonlight.  The bowls are placed near spirit mediums during consultation.

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