The Urhobo, who number about 1 1/2 million, occupy the western fringe of the Niger River Delta in southern Nigeria, where a green rainforest belt descending from Benin City meets the alluvial plains of the delta proper. The perimeters of Urhoboland are defined by two rivers: the Ethiope to the north and the Forcados to the south. Urhoboland is crossed by a multitude of waterways that flow southward into the Forcados, the most important of these being the Warri and the Kiagbodo. In earlier times, trade and communication relied on these waterways, and since the development of drivable roads after the 1930s, and most especially since the 1980s, the use of smaller creeks and rivers for travel has declined.

Inseparable Realms of Akpo and Erivwin

Neighboring the Urhobo are the Benin people to the north, the Ijo [or Ijaw] to the south, the Itsekiri to the west and the Isoko and Ukuane Igbo to the east.

Urhobo traditional life comprises two inseparable realms: Akpo, the visible, tangible world of the living and Erivwin, the invisible realm of the sacred, otherworldly forces--gods, divinities, spirits and ancestors--that influence human affairs. The well-being of the people in Akpo very much depends upon the good will of the forces in Erivwin.

The first cry of a newborn--called atarhe, or "speaking-out"--is understood to be a prediction of the good things that will happen in his or her life: health, family, wealth. An individual maintains certain works of art that help to fulfill the expectations of the atarhe.

Traditional Urhobo believe they are surrounded by spiritual forces called edjo that can exist in any natural object, be it a tree, a parcel of forest or a body of water. The edjo are unapproachable entities. They are contacted through large wood and clay sculptures that are maintained in remote, often almost inaccessible shrines. A more direct spiritual force is the orhan, a shrine for healing and health. The orhan takes the form of an elaborate clay vessel, usually sunk into the earth, containing herbs and other sacred objects. As the power and reputation of an orhan spread, it attracts many adherents from far away.

Wood, pigment
Collection of David and Clifford Gelbard (cat. 17)
Wood, pigment
Private collection (cat. 6)
Wood, cotton cord, palm kernel shells
Private collection (cat. 54)