Yoruba sculptors carved several of the implements that diviner-priests (babalawo) used in the Ifa divination ritual to consult Orunmila, the god of wisdom. The Yoruba sought Orunmila's help to understand the cause of misfortune or to secure blessings and advice on significant undertakings. Ifa divination implements include a wooden or ivory tapper (iroke Ifa) with which to signal the deity; a wooden or, rarely, ivory container (agere Ifa) for the 16 sacred palm nuts that are manipulated during the ritual; and a wood board or tray (opon Ifa) on which the diviner makes the mark(s) of an odu, the corpus of verses that prescribe the action necessary to assure success.
Although Ifa divination is a system of religious practice, the iconography of its sculpture is varied. This cup, for example, is supported on three curved mudfish. The mudfish is highly symbolic, since it lives when other creatures would die--certain species burrowing into the river bed when water is low or others crawling on land to reach water. The sticks through the fish suggest it has been smoked for sale in the market place as a meal or a sacrificial offering.
Cup composed of wood bowl supported by three openwork curled mudfish on circular base.
Bill Withers, Los Angeles, -- to 1976
Currents: Water in African Art, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., June 2016-ongoing
Artful Animals, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., July 1, 2009-July 25, 2010