Bench Fragment Male Figure,19th–20th century- Met Museum New York
By Prof. Carol Ann Lorenz

Collections of Esan Art

By far the greatest numbers of Esan sculptures are preserved in the palaces of kings, the homes of traditional chiefs, and the shrines of priests, diviners, and family heads. The artworks remaining in Esan communities constitute the largest and most important visual resource for this study. Because surviving sculptures are revered as family or community relics, Esan people have not readily parted with them. Nevertheless, some Esan sculptures have been collected by the Nigerian Antiquities Department and are stored in two branches of the Nigerian National Museum, in Lagos and in Benin. The smaller collection in Benin includes carved doors, boxes and bowls, figurated kola containers, and a ram head. The largest collection at Lagos contains similar objects in addition to numerous large house posts and human figures.

Although museums in Britain hold enormous numbers of Benin sculptures, most of them acquired through the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, there are few Esan objects in public collections. The largest British collection of Esan sculpture is housed at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, and includes small objects such as dolls, combs, a kola nut box, and a stool panel, in addition to numerous early textile samples. These objects were collected by Northcote W. Thomas, a government anthropologist who visited a number of Esan kingdoms during the early colonial era. The Museum of Mankind in London has a small but significant collection of Esan carved stools, figurated bowls, altarpieces for the worship of the hands, and a mirror case. The Horniman Museum owns two figures which may be Esan.

In the United States, the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds an architectural panel, door, ram head, figurated kola container, and stool element. The National Museum of African Art has also has a ram head, and the Fowler Museum owns an architectural panel. The largest private holdings are part of the controversial Nigerian collection of the late Roger de la pared. Although de la Burde claimed that his father collected the bulk of the collection during two expeditions to Nigeria in the early 1900s, no evidence can be found to support this contention, nor can his father's ownership of these works be documented. Most of the Esan objects in his collection -- including figure house posts, doors, and smaller objects -- are authentic, but their provenance and collected data are unproven. Esan objects may also be found in small numbers in other American collections and in the collection of Celia Barclay in London, as well as in the hands of a number of African art dealers.

Sources about Esan Art

Written sources of Esan culture are very few, and these rarely contain any information about the arts. The earliest written documents were prepared by colonial officials shortly after the British conquest of the Benin Empire. Among them are the works of P.A. Talbot and Northcote W. Thomas, both government anthropologists. Talbot's Tbe Peoples of Southern Nigeria (1926), a massive work which attempts to include information from each group under broad headings such as ancestor worship or occupations and industries, rarely mention Ishan at all, and references to the arts are still rare. Thomas's Anthropological Report on the Edo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria (1910a) were concerned with linguistics and customs, but not with the arts. He discusses two-dimensional motifs in a short article (1910b) but Esan art is mentioned only in passing. Of great value, however, are Thomas's photographs of Ishan and the accompanying unpublished notes preserved at Cambridge University.

British colonial intelligence reports (Jull, 1932a, b; Butcher 1932, 1935b-f, 1936; Hawkesworth 1932; Scallon 1936a-b, 1937a-b, and others) document the history and socio-political organization of the various Esan kingdoms, but they offer no information about Esan artists or their works. R.E. Bradbury's work on the Scheme for the Study of Benin History and Culture took him to a small number of Esan communities where he photographed sculptures and interviewed Ishan leaders. His research in Esan, while valuable, was brief and it was tangential to his focal project in Benin. His notes from Esan are very few, and consist primarily of those he made in reference to his photographs. The Esan Series (IS) documents in the Bradbury Archives at the University of Birmingham are not based on fieldwork; rather, they are notes culled from the British intelligence reports. Bradbury's published and unpublished materials on Benin are, nevertheless, useful to this work for comments on Esan made by Bradbury's Benin informants, and for the opportunity to compare Benin and Esan cultural data.

A number of Esan "sons of the soil" have taken up the pen to record !shan history and culture. These include Christopher Okojie, M.O. Ikekhua, and Emmanuel 0. Ughulu, western-educated men with the means to publish their books privately. The most useful of these books is Christopher Okojie's Esan Natiye Laws and eustgms (1960). Okojie devotes the first half of his book to an outline of Esan social organization and customary law, while the second half records oral histories from each of the Esan kingdoms. Although Okojie's book is useful, it does not speak of Esan visual arts except in passing references to masquerades, decorated earthen walls or the like, and his section on crafts consists of just ten lines ([1960]: 26, 30). Ikekhua ([1960]) and Ughulu (1950) attempt to reconstruct Esan history, but their works are neither well researched nor well organized. Although there are valuable bits of cultural information in these works, they do not discuss Esan arts.

There is a small number of publications (e.g., Celenko 1983, de la Burde 1972, Donne 1972, Fagg 1968, Ross 1994, Thompson 1974, Wittmer and Arnett 1978) which illustrate Esan pieces in private and public African art collections; the illustrations are valuable but they are rarely accompanied by substantive information. Similarly, a few sources (e.g., Fagg and Plass 1964, Akinrinsola 1965) illustrate Esan art in situ, but again there is little if any concomitant discussion. Some scholars have looked at Esan art from a comparative point of view. William Fagg (1962), for example, has suggested a relationship between Esan and Yoruba house post carving, while Robin Poynor (1976, 1978, and 1987a) is interested in the formal similarities between certain masks found both in Esan and Owo. Jean Borgatti's unpublished M. A. Thesis (1971) offers an overview of the art of the Northern Edo peoples, among whom she includes Esan. Her work was based primarily on published and archival photographs and museum research rather than fieldwork; nevertheless, it constitutes a valuable preliminary survey of the art of Esan. Prior to the current work, however, no art historical fieldwork had been done in Esan, and the sources available (with the notable exception of Borgatti, 1971) contained only scattered comments or illustrations without attempting to analyse Esan art in any way.

Fieldwork in Esan

The current work is based primarily on a year of fieldwork (1980) among the Esan people, 2 during which I researched all of art production and use. Brief periods of subsequent research in 1988 and 1990 focussed on sculpture iconography and masquerade history. The preparation of this thesis also involved two trips to England (1981, 1985) to consult the Bradbury Archives at the University of Birmingham Library and museum collections in London and

My fieldwork was designed to survey Esan art production and use, focussing on wood sculpture and masquerades; to gauge (if possible) the historical depth of various art forms; to examine Esan art in the context of its culture; to evaluate the scope of the artistic patrimony from Benin; and to investigate the shared characteristics of Esan art and that of its neighbours. In examining these issues, I focussed on the morphology and iconographic content of Esan sculpture, in an attempt to determine the 2. Research in 1980 was carried out with the assistance Of a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, and at Columbia University, Department of Art History and Archaeology Summer Travel Grant. Research in England in 1981 was assisted by a Mrs. Giles Whiting Fellowship supplement.



The traditional artistic endeavours of the Esan people are many and varied, and include body arts, weaving, mat making, pottery, painting, mud sculpture, and the sculpture in wood which will be the focus of this work. This chapter will provide a brief overview of the visual arts of Esan, which have never before been surveyed, while the next chapter will introduce the art of the woodcarver specifically. This chapter will provide further evidence of culture contact between the Esan people and their neighbours, and it will also serve to illustrate forms of art, such as costume and regalia, which are depicted in wood sculpture.

Scarification and Tattooing.

Perhaps the most basic of Esan arts concerns the decoration of the body. Permanent body and facial marks are ancient in the Edo era. In Benin, the earliest brass heads, dated to the early fifteenth century, depict three or four ikharo scars above each eye. These marks, called ikbaro, are said to be the original tribal marks of the Edos, probably predating the current dynasty of kings in Benin (Aisien 1986: 22, 29), but they went out of use in the distant past. Other Edo facial marks belong to a tattooing tradition called iwu, which also includes several long vertical marks on the torso. Although these marks have also fallen into disuse, they can still be seen on some very elderly Binis and Esans. Their origin, however, is the subject of conflicting oral traditions. One tradition which is widely accepted in Benin and Esan claims that Oba Ewuare introduced iwu to Benin in an attempt to identify his subjects and prevent them from fleeing Benin and taking refuge in neighboring kingdoms during the political upheavals of the mid-fifteenth century (Okojie [1960]: 32, 35; Egharevba 1968: 15). Other stories place the origin of in the reigns of Oba Orobiru (early fifteenth century) or Oba Ehengbuda (late sixteenth century) (Aisien 1986: 11-13, 63-64). Benin brass plaques and figures illustrate marks, but the earliest of these artifacts date to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Likewise, written documents by European visitors to Benin can only confirm that the marks were in use by the early seventeenth century (Nevadomsky 1992: 6).

Whenever the practice of iwu tattooing originated, these marks clearly became a sign of citizenship in Benin. 1 Aisien (1986: 18) states that the osiwu or Edo surgeons accept the story which places the origin of in Ehengbuda's reign.

They distinguished the freeborn citizen of Benin from slaves and foreigners, and became a prerequisite for admission to the palace societies (Aisien 1986: 20, 53). Okojie ([1960]: 32, 35) believes that Esan people began imitating marks for the sake of identification with the dominant Benin culture. The adoption of tattoos thus became part of the building of a new Esan ethnic identity based on incorporation within the Benin Empire. Benin-style marks also diffused to other peoples within the Benin Empire, including the Ika Igbos and eastern Yorubas (Aisien 1986:

As tattoos became widespread, variations in the number of marks evolved to distinguish members of the royal family from commoners (Aisien 1986: 22, 33; Okojie [1960]:

47) The royal male – marks consisted of a wide vertical band from each shoulder to the waist on both the chest and the back, and a fifth band which originated at the sternum, broke at the navel, and continued to the waist. Bini commoners had one additional mark, but Esan commoners had just three marks confined to the chest (Okojie [1960]: 47; Aisien 1986: 22-24, 33). Moreover, in Benin, royal women did not wear facial while commoner women did. Facial as well as differences in the number of torso marks also distinguished men and women; 3 female body scarification in Benin and Esan consisted of a doubling of the male incisions plus additional lines (aberhe in Benin, abihiaqha in Ishan) fanning out below the navel (Okojie [1960]: 47, 117; Aisien 1986: 24). Moreover, these marks became associated with the coming of age of both men and women, who were expected to undergo tattooing before marriage (Aisien 1986: 21; Okojie [1960]: 47).

Although Esan men and women wore these tattoos, called ikho (tattoo) or isekele (belly marks), in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when large figurated house posts and doors were being carved in Esan, these sculptures rarely depict the tattoos (Figs. 75, 76). Esan sculpture helps us to understand that by the late nineteenth century at least, Esan identity was more focussed on autonomy and independence from Benin rather than alignment with a powerful overlord. By this time, marks might have been too closely associated with Benin to be appropriate in Esan royal sculpture, which was commissioned to proclaim the status and power of the local leadership.

Most patterns appearing on the bodies (as well as the clothing and regalia) of Esan house post and door figures are merely decorative, but occasionally ethnic marks are clearly indicated. These marks consist of three short radiating strokes at the outer corner of each eye (abelamben), and a series of short vertical marks below (and sometimes above) each eye. Such marks can still be seen among elderly Esans today (Fig 4), and are sometimes elaborated into pointed oval, leaf-like patterns surrounding the eye (e.g., Okojie [1960]: 34; Ineme Adeh, Uromi, 29 August 1980).

In the early twentieth century, British colonialism changed the fabric of Edo culture which had sustained the art of tattooing. Official disapproval of both
scarification and the semi-nudity in which it was displayed may have taken their toll on the practice. The colonial government also eliminated slavery, obviating the need to distinguish freeborn citizens from slaves, and ended Intertribal wars, in which ethnic marks had identified compatriots so as to avoid fatal mistakes" (Okojie [1960]: 45). More importantly, in dismantling the Edo Empire, the British freed Esan from tributary status in Benin, and reduced the prestige associated with Benin citizenship. Akhile, the most elderly man in Ugbegun (Akhile, Odionwele of Ugbegun, September 1980) stated that his generation was the last to undergo Benin-style tattooing in order to be admitted to the Oba's palace.

Akhile is one of a handful of elderly Esans who bear the Edo marks; however, he also has a number of nontraditional patterns on his arm, neck and back. As the use of Bini marks faded in Esan around the 1930s, a new style of fanciful tattoo designs gained ground. The new tattoos acquired the still vital local significance of scarification in Esan: physical endurance and the willingness to withstand pain as a sign of adulthood and marriageability. In addition, the new style of scarification allowed for individual creativity, and appealed to san aesthetics of personal beauty (ose). Both men and women underwent tattooing for fancy and to be attractive to the opposite sex (e.g., Usifo Ufua, Uromi, 2 September 1980).

The innovative decorative designs, called Ona, were executed on the chest, face, shoulders, arms, back, and calves of the leg (Fig. 5). Some of these designs draw upon traditional motifs such as lizard (omiomben), or modern images like a wristwatch (agogo) or stylized writing. Most, however, are non-representational, although they may have names such as ekpyti (box) or ukpamen (raindrop). Many of these designs are composed of combinations of simple geometric elements; often the diamonds, triangles, and squares are concentrically arranged or filled with dots or subsidiary shapes. Their corners sprout circles or curling lines which add to the intricacy and delicacy of the designs. While the old designs were executed with a curved knife, a bundle of needles could be used to trace the more decorative modern patterns (Abayior Egbor, Uromi, August 1980), allowing for a variable thick and thin quality to the line which was a measure of the skill of the surgeon (onwena).

In the terminology, functions, and patterns, these Esan body designs are similar to kolo tattoos among the Yoruba people (Fig. 6). The Yoruba word for tattoo designs is onon (Drewal 1988: 84), a cognate with the Esan ona. Moreover, some Esans referred to the marks as igun (e.g., Ikemun, Ekpon, 1 December 1980), suggesting a relationship with the god of iron, Idigun; in Yorubaland, his counterpart Ogun is the patron deity of scarification experts (Drewal 1988: 84). Functionally, both the Esan and Yoruba tattoos serve to beautify the body, signal marriageability, and proclaim the courage and endurance of both men and women (Drewal 1988: 83).

Although Yoruba designs cover a greater area of the body and can be far more elaborate than the Esan examples, many of the smaller and simpler Yoruba patterns are identical to those of Esan (Fig. 6). 4 The greater elaboration and extensiveness of the Yoruba designs suggests that the direction of transmission of this tradition was from Yoruba to Esan. The Yoruba patterns may also be of greater antiquity, having been noted as early as the mid nineteenth century (Drewal 1988: 87, citing Burton 1863).

Although it is not clear when the new patterns began in Esan, there seems to have been a transitional period when both the Benin iwu and the new ona were both in use. Living Esan men and women with both types of scarification received their marks as young adults in the 1930s and 1940s, but the practice may have begun somewhat earlier. It is unlikely, however, that Yoruba-style marks could have made much impact in Esan before the turn of the century, when political and cultural changes caused the markings to lose their significance. That these designs were never fully integrated into Esan culture is also suggested by the fact that they have already been defunct for some decades, and can be seen nowadays only on mature men and women.

There is, however, another type of Esan body scarification which is still common today. These designs, also technically tattoos, are decorative but their primary function is medicinal. Children (and sometimes adults) who have suffered from repeated bouts of malaria or other fevers receive these marks, called ikho generically or specifically, which consist of one or more series of diamond patterns arranged longitudinally on the side of the torso, and sometimes short lines radiating from the navel.

Medicinal preparations (ikbumun) are rubbed into the incisions to create the darkened pattern and, it is said, to aid in strengthening the spleen (e.g., Josiah Itua, Edohen of Opoji, 12 September 1980). Where political loyalties and the quest for personal beauty have failed to keep alive the tradition of body tattooing, magico-religious reasons continue to provide the impetus for continuing this noteworthy art form.

Body Painting

The Esan people also engage in non-permanent body alterations, including painting with local chalk (ere) or with charcoal (iiomebhi) or soot. At one time, reddish camwood (ume) was also used as a beautifying body paint. While body painting is significant, no particular skill is involved. For example, chalk or kaolin is crushed and mixed with water to form a liquid paint, or else simply powdered and applied in its dry state. The whiteness (afuamhin) of the chalk are associated with purity and goodness, and in particular with the beneficent ancestors. Chalk is kept on ancestral altars and in shrines for the deities, to be applied to the worshippers as a blessing. Chalk blessings also occur at title-takings, celebrations of the birth of a child, and other joyful occasions. There are no particular designs made with the chalk, which is simply applied in broad strokes to the forehead, chest, back, arms, or feet as the occasion dictates. The same is true for the blackening charcoal or soot, which is smeared onto the face and other parts of the body during mourning, or for the tu-uki ceremonial, in which a person atones for misbehaviour in a former life in order to improve his present situation (e.g., Patrick Alabi, Egoro, 22 September 1980; cf. Melzian 1937: 200-201).

White chalk is, however, sometimes carefully applied to the face, particularly around the eyes, by members of various cult groups, priests, diviners and traditional doctors (Fig. 8). The chalk "spectacles aid them in seeing clearly that which is not normally seen, that is, the desires of the ancestors and divinities and the resolution of life's problems. Similar marks once aided warriors in battle. Body painting also marks life transitions, as in chalk lines and circles which traditionally decorate the face of a mother during her outing ceremony fourteen days after the birth of her child (e.g., Okojie [1960]: 52), and in the decorative body paint worn by young girls in Ebelle during a five-day coming of age ceremony (H.H. Imadujemu Igbenijie, Onojie of Ebelle, 25 November 1980). Chalk is also applied to shrine objects and to wood sculptures, both as a blessing and a preservative.


Face and body painting is primarily religious in nature, and rarely has any aesthetic significance. Hair, on the other hand, is often carefully sculpted in diverse and elaborate styles. Traditional Esan hairdos are closely related to those of Benin, and reflect the wearer's age, gender, rank and life transitions. Today, however, most men of all social classes will crop their hair closely. Gone are the  plaited hair styles of men from royal and chiefly families, and the elders' single plaited ponytail decorated with a bead (Okojie [1960]: 43). The priest's traditional long curls (ogbihiagha) are rare, but long locks can still be seen among children dedicated to various deities.
Benin Kingdom Bride
Moreover, only a few Enijie and chiefs still wear their hair shaped into the lateral crest called akpata or uguakpata (Fig. 3) Which was exclusive to the elites of the Edo empire (Ben-Amos 1980: cap. Fig. 60; Aisien 1986: 57).

Traditional female hair styles are more elaborate, but nowadays they are relegated to ceremonial occasions, as women prefer to plait or bind their hair in pan-Nigerian styles. The young girl's red-dyed plaits (eto-ikpododo) and bangs which were left long as a sign of modesty are now defunct, as is the showy hairdo dressed with coins and beads (ojieto) which was the virginal girl's reward after clitoridectomy (Okojie [1960]: 43, 45). The elaborate style for new mothers, with its five large loops of hair coated with yellow ekasa soap, is also nearly a thing of the past. A beehive-like hairdo (eto-okuku), once reserved for unmarried daughters of the nobility, is nowadays the preferred style for female mourners of any deceased man of status. The social significance of the many-lobed etuke hair style (Fig. 9), which was once the prerogative of the wives of the Onojie or chiefs, is also almost completely lost.

All of the hairstyles of adult women of status are elaborate, often requiring the addition of hairpieces or the use of a wig, and decorated with beads and other ornaments. On the other hand, an extremely simple female hairdo which still retains its original significance is the shaving of the head of widows! So strongly is the shaved head associated with death and mourning, that a woman is forbidden to shave her hair at any other time (Okojie [1960]: 45).

Costume and Ornament

The traditional clothing and ornaments worn by Esan people also comment upon the gender, age, and status of the wearer. In times past, young boys and girls went naked until puberty. Girls wore strings of akpono, discoid waist beads now made of plastic, but once produced by painstaking chipping shell into shape. At one time akpgno beads were a measure of the wealth of a family and the value placed on their daughters; waist beads were also given as gifts to young women from their suitors. Today akpono beads are used almost exclusively for ceremonial occasions, and mostly wear with clothing.

Traditional adult attire, consisting of unstructured wrappers, is still common in Esan villages. Men wear large wrappers, constructed of three long panels of handwoven cloth, in two common styles. In the first, called igbulu or igbu (Fig. 10), the cloth is wrapped around the body under one arm and over the other shoulder like a toga, and worn with a small loin wrapper below. The second style, called ubunuku, consists of a cloth wrapped around the lower body and tucked in on the right side or bunched up in front, leaving the chest bare (Fig. 11). 5 This style, which might be worn relaxing at home, is also typical male ceremonial and ritual attire. The ubunuku wrapper is the only form of male clothing represented in Esan sculpture but it is not clear whether this is because it is an older style, or because of its ritual associations, or for some other reason. A man of status might wear a large wrapper every day, even to and from his farm where he would strip to his loin cloth for work. A common man would formerly simply wear the loin cloth and perhaps a tunic for all but special occasions. A sturdy hand woven tunic is still common among farmers and hunters, despite the loin cloth has been replaced with shorts.  
 Igbulu or Igbu
This style of male wrapper is also known in Benin and in Owo. In Benin it is called ebuluku (Melzian 1937: xvii) while in Owo the term is ibolukun (Drewal and Pemberton 1989: 17); both are cognates with the Esan ubunuku.

Traditional women's clothing consisted of a smaller wrapper constructed of only two handwoven panels, worn around the body from the armpits to the ankles, and tucked in at the left side (Fig. 9). In the seclusion of her home, she might wear the wrapper only from the waist down, but quickly rearrange it should a male stranger arrive. For ceremonial occasions, women may wear a special wrapper in this way, or an elaborate outfit consisting of blouse, wrapper, head tie and shawl in the costliest of fabrics.

Ceremonial occasions also demanded the use of ornaments by both men and women. Precious materials such as coral and ivory were usually restricted to the Enijie and chiefs, following a pattern of exlusivity established in Benin. Although these prerogatives have eroded somewhat in modern times, the Onojie's coral beaded crown (arhu-iyie), collar (idigba), and shirt (ewu-ivie) remain his exclusive ornaments (Fig. 12) , just as similar ornaments are reserved for the Oba in Benin. Indeed, such ornaments were once strictly regulated by Benin, and were bestowed upon Esan Enijie upon their accession to the throne.

In fact, Benin's desire to regulate coral beadwork once led to conflict with the leader of Ogwa. The story is told of Ekhimere, an early eighteenth-century leader of Ogwa who was a contemporary of Oba Akenzua I of Benin. Ekhimere, though recognized by Benin only as a war leader (Okakulo), dared to keep a coral bead carver (okanivie) in his household. When the Oba learned of it, he sent for the bead carver and all the beads he had made, but Ekhimere ignored him. The Oba finally sent warriors for Ekhimere's head, but he preferred to commit suicide, taking the bead carver with him, than to obey the dictates of Benin (Okojie [1960] :316).  This story provides another example of a bid for independent leadership in Esan, in this case by imitation of the Oba's prerogatives.

Even today, the relative freedom to wear coral bead  ornaments is most often exercised in one's home village,  where any man or woman of status might wear simple long strings of coral or other red beads on special occasions. When visiting the palace, however, only chiefs or priests with the license to wear coral would dare to do so. Large beads (ekan) of coral or other red substances were particularly valued in Esan, as in Benin, and were used as  a centerpiece in a string of smaller beads, or by elder men as a hair ornament in times past. Coral beads also decorated the elaborate hairdos of women.
Interestingly, no other types of beads seem to have been important in Esan, despite its access to trade from various directions, and its proximity to Yoruba land where many types of beads were associated with gods and royalty (Thompson 1970). 

Some, but perhaps not all, Enijie wore decorated ivory and brass cuffs and armlets, but those which are preserved in the palaces were acquired from Benin and not locally  manufactured. Women of rank once wore plain ivory armlets (ahamhan), but these have gone out of fashion and many ivory heirlooms have been sold away. The Enij ie and certain chiefs wore rings of brass or other metals (egba ) on the upper arm, but for protection more than as ornament. In general, ornament does not seem to have been of crucial importance in Ishan. For example, although Esan Enijie may have been pleased to acquire coral crowns and other regalia, they are never depicted in Ishan sculpture, where human figures rarely wear ornaments at all. This is in sharp contrast to the royal arts of Benin, where such ornaments are illustrated in profuse detail. On the Ishan village level, more homely items of local materials have status significance. For example, carved walking sticks and pottery pipes were signs of distinction for elders. Elders and chiefs might wear soft cloth caps and carry decorative leather flywhisks or fans and the importance of cloth as a status indicator has already been mentioned.


At one time, virtually every Esan woman wove cloth. Although her body tattoos signalled her marriageability, no man would woo her unless she were skilled in weaving (udomhin). Her cloth not only supplied the household with clothing, coverlets, towels, utility bags and other necessary items, but provided welcome income. Esan cloth (ukpesan or ukpon-esan) was valued by its neighbors,
including Bini patrons who risked the dangers of travelling in the forest to buy cloth at Irrua, Uromi, Ekpoma and other Esan markets (Bradbury BS 320.2).

Since the turn of the century, however, Esan weaving and the associated arts of spinning and dyeing have been threatened by the introduction of machine-produced fabrics and threads, and the realities of a cash economy tied to the world market. During the colonial era, Britain attempted to bolster her own textile industry by flooding Nigerian markets with cheap commercial fabrics, while purchasing raw cotton and cotton seed. The first European trader in Uromi, around 1903, was a Mr. W. Percival, nicknamed oibo ikpon olulu (cotton cloth white man), an agent of the British Cotton Growing Association which also established a cotton plantation near Ugboha (Ikekhua c.1960: 54-55).

Trade in the exotic new fabrics reduced the demand for local handweavings. Weavers who remained active abandoned their cotton farms and purchased imported cotton thread.  A modest quantity of cotton was first exported from Nigeria to England around 1850. By 1857, 200,000 finished cotton cloths were being exported to Brazil, and in 1860 alone, 417,000 pounds of cotton were shipped to England (Talbot 1926, I: 51).

Which was softer than handspun cotton and eliminated the tedious carding and spinning. The cost of the imported thread increased the price of the finished cloth, however, which became a luxury item with a still more limited clientele. Unable to rely on regular commissions for the cash income needed to pay taxes, school fees and other costs in modern Nigeria, many weavers have invested their time in trading, hair dressing and other occupations (e.g., Paul Ojeaga, Uromi, July 1980). The current situation is still more drastic, because most of the remaining weavers are elderly, and girls eschew traditional domestic arts in favor of western education. Commenting on this situation, an Esan elder stated that the world had turned upside down (agbon fie gbe de no), and compared the loss of weaving  skills to the disappearance of certain animals from the forests (Okoedigun Okoebu, Uromi, 29 August 1980).

Hand woven cloth is still preferred for ceremonial wear, but the dearth of local weavers (and, no doubt, the continuing appeal of the exotic) has caused some Esans to patronize Yoruba, Northern Edo, Ebira or Igbo weavers.

(Although Es men do not actively weave, some learn the craft, as well as techniques of cotton preparation and spinning, by assisting their mothers (Madam Ibhadeobhor Aikaneze, Ewohimi, April 1980; Paul Ojeaga, Uromi, July 1980).

Esan weaving is a woman's affair,' practiced on a vertical single – heddled loom (erido, Fig. 16) typical of  women's looms throughout Nigeria (Lamb and Holmes 1980). The earliest Esan weavings were made of raw palm fibers; plain white cloths (okbon and utane) from fibers alone or with a fiber warp and cotton weft (Fig. 17), are still required for the men's irhuen coming of age ceremony (H.H . Ogbebor, Onojie of Egoro, 17 September 1980; cf. Scallon 1936a: 15) . At an undetermined date in the distant past, cotton was introduced and cultivated in Ishan; European visitors from the sixteenth century on report seeing cotton grown and woven throughout the Edo area (Ben-Amos 1978: 50).

Weaving in local handspun cotton (olulu or olu) is still occasionally practiced, the resultant coarse but durable cloth being used for shorts, tunics and shoulder bags wornby farmers and hunters. Traditionally, this type of cloth is executed in white with a wide variety of named, warpstriped patterns in shades of brown derived from bark, coconut shell, and other vegetal sources (Madam Iyore, Uromi, 25 July 1980). Vegetal dyes also produce red, blue, orange, green, yellow and buff colors (Ibhadeobhor Aikaneze, Ewohimi, 10 April 1980).

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge University has a large collection of samples of Esan cloth from Irrua and Uromi together with the names of the striped patterns. This collection, assembled early in the century, represents a larger sample of old striped cloth than could be seen in the field today.

Colorfully striped cloths for special occasions, especially those with a predominance of red, are called ikpododo, the local meaning of which is cloth of flowers" (Andrew Ogbeide, Ekpoma, 10 April 1980). 

For the striped warps, Esan weavers generally purchase commercial thread in the same colors they can obtain from local vegetal dyes. Supplementary weft patterns (ona), however, are executed in an array of non-traditional colors, often in rayon and other shiny fibers. The use of wildly colored designs on an otherwise conservative palette suggests that the designs themselves are non – traditional. Indeed, early samples of Esan cloth, such as those preserved in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University, include no supplementary weft patterns, and plain white and brown striped cloth was still described as typically Esan in the early 1950s (Bradbury E 126).

It is likely that the technology of weaving with floating weft threads derives from Igbo sources, particularly from Akwete which is widely known for both weaving and trading such textiles (Aronson 1980). Some Esan weavers do indeed call cloth with extensive supplementary designs akwete (e.g., Ekeba Aziegbeni, Ewatto.

The word ododo is widely used in Nigeria to refer to the prized British red flannel cloth introduced during the colonial era (Lamb and Holmes 1980; cf. Kasfir 1984: 163, 165).

The same word (ona) is used for designs on cloth and for tattoo patterns. Visually, however, there is no resemblance between the two sets of designs.

24 November 1980), although it is more commonly called aqbenelen or written upon cloth (Andrew Ogbeide, Ekpoma, 10 April 1980), as if the designs were scrawled over the surface. The names of other weft float patterns further suggest that Esan weavers have been exposed to a great variety of foreign textile traditions. For example, kente derives from Ghanaian cloth of the same name, and George" refers to a weave based on an Indian madras prototype popular in the British colonies. A design called adekule refers to Yoruba weaving (Jeannette Okogun, Ewohimi, 19 July 1980); ekule is the Esan word for Akure, the Yoruba town most familiar to Esans.

None of these cloths, however, look much like their namesakes. Instead, Esan weavers have reinterpreted the foreign model or reduced it to a particular characteristic.  To weaver Katrine Isidahome (Ohordua, 30 November 1980), for
example, kente simply means cloth which includes many colors  and designs. Most of the supplementary weft patterns,  moreover, have Ishan names and local significance; these include representations of weapons, tools, household equipment, game boards, animals, plants, foods, celestial bodies, and articles of clothing. Furthermore, although it is acceptable to copy designs of another weaver or culture, the ability to invent new designs is widely appreciated as a sign of great skill (e.g., Ibhadeobhor Aikaneze, Ewohimi, 26 June 1980). This ability to create or reinvent new patterns suggests that there is still some vitality in Esan weaving, although the number of active weavers is relatively small.

Mat Weaving and Basketry

Mat weaving (ido-ewa) is also a threatened art in Ishan  as a whole, although some villages are still noted for this skill. Formerly handwoven mats (ewa) covered molded earthen beds, and were placed on the floor as bedding for children.
These uses are current only in poor or remote households, but as a matter of tradition a handwoven mat continues to line the molded mud throne (ojiukbuo) of some Enijie, even though it may be covered over with sumptuous draperies and cushions. Traditional funerals also require a hand woven mat, in which the deceased is wrapped for burial.

Mat weaving, like cloth weaving, is an art practiced by women, who use the domestic Elo knife to pare, split, and scrape the pulp from long stems of palm or other plants (Fig. 18). The flattened fibers are used to weave mats of various sizes, as well as fans (unofo or utowu) and trays (otete). Patterns can be created in contrasting colors of green, using the light inside and dark outside of the stem (Esther Iyore, Uromi, 21 July 1980). Alternatively, the stems can be dyed in any natural color. Some occasions call for a highly decorated mat; for example, a mat woven in an intricate pattern (Fig. 19) is used to decorate the bed of a new bride in Ebunlen, Uzea (Chief J.O. Ojabhole, 15 October 1980).

Basketry, a related woman's art, is almost completely defunct. It is clear from oral traditions that basketry was practiced in some kingdoms of Ishan, but the extent of the craft cannot now be determined. One story suggests that baskets (okhuale) in Uromi were once plentiful and cheap: a newcomer blacksmith who amazed Uromi residents with his skill at forging knives and hoes was in turn so impressed with their baskets that he offered coral beads to buy them, earning himself a nickname as a fool (no ohuan. Literally the sheep) (Okojie [1960]: 218). Nowadays Esan markets offer only dome-shaped baskets for transporting fowl; such baskets are not really woven, but are constructed of pliable canes lashed together. A rectangular basket woven from thing canes is still used by diviners in Esan as well as in Igbo land across the Niger. Although most domestic baskets have been replaced by modern plastic and enamelware containers, religious usages tend to be more conservative. Diviners cherish the baskets they have inherited from their forebears, but can commission a new one locally when needed.

Leatherworking is an art which is exclusive to men (Fig. 20). The leatherworker uses the untanned hides of antelope, deer or cow which he skins himself or buys from hunters and butchers in the market. After the hair is removed from the hide, the leatherworker cuts out the basic elements of a round box-stool (ekpokin), flywhisk (ijiakpa), small ceremonial fan (azuzu), or the large fan of men of status, also known as azuzu. Mundane leather goods like sandals are rarely made by leatherworkers today; rather, their skills are focussed on the creation of traditional prestige or ceremonial items. Flat surfaces, such as the round azuzu (Fig. 15), may be decorated with appliqué leather or cloth shapes, while thin strips of leather bind edges and wrap handles. Sometimes the strips are plaited (udomhin, the same word as weaving) before application. Brass studs may be applied for functional as well as decorative purposes (Inede Akhogba, Uromi, 21 August 1980).

Esan leather goods are similar to their counterparts in Benin (cf. Dark 1973: 64-6), where the ceremonial ekpokin box and round azuzu fan are said to date from the time of the Ogisos (Egharevba 1968: 1). Interestingly, certain leather objects with political significance in Benin, including waist ornaments, caps and other costume items associated with chieftaincy (cf. Dark 1973: 65), are not included in the Esan leatherworker's repertoire, perhaps because of sanctions from Benin or because they do not fit Ishan conceptions of chieftaincy regalia. Rather, the leather objects which are associated with status in Ishan are the ijiakpa flywhisk and the azuzu fan possessed by both elders and chiefs (Figs. 10, 15). Moreover, the azuzu fan and the e.k pokin box are illustrated in Esan wood sculpture (e.g., Figs. 51, 67) as symbols of rank.

The ekpokin is an offering box which has both political and religious meaning; formerly it carried tribute from Esan kingdoms to the Oba of Benin, but was also used, and continues to be used, to contain gifts for the Enijie and sacrificial goods for the deities. Large and small azuzu fans are also used in religious observances. Priests sometimes hold the larger and more ornamental fans as emblems of their status, and to maintain "coolness" or peace (ofure) during highly charged rites, festivals or masquerades. The smaller fans are used as percussion instruments by both men and women members of some religious cults.
Brass Casting

Many Esan palaces, chiefly homes and royal shrines possess brass figures, maskettes, armlets, kolanut boxes, bells and other sculptures cast in Benin. Some of these appear to date from the sixteenth century, having been presented to Esan Enijie by various Obas as gifts, rewards for assistance, or payment for slaves (H.H. S.U. Enosegbe II, Onojie of Ewohimi, 14 August 1980). New Benin brasses are also proudly displayed in many Esan palaces (Fig. 12), as they are still appropriate gifts to Enijie upon their installation or on other state occasions. Symbols of office such as ada and ebenlen swords (Figs. 12, 21) may be cast in brass (others are iron), and some Enijie have unusual brass leadership staffs. Finally, Enijie and other dignitaries possess brass egba or protective circlets, which they wear or carry when leaving their compounds.
Ada - ebenlen
Although large and decorative brass objects, especially those which are symbols of office, are exclusive to Esan elites, religious specialists may use small brass works, such as the bells (elo or elolo) which are kept in many shrines. These bells, as well as those used in ancestral masquerade costumes, and crotals (awenwen) for decorating diviners' gowns, are purchased in Benin. Diviners also commission miniature ewawa figures from Bini brass casters.

Brass casting has a long history in Benin. According to Egharevba (1968: 11), it was introduced to Benin during the late thirteenth century reign of Oba Oguola. Until that time, brass emblems of kingship were sent from Ife to Benin, but Oguola asked that a brass caster be sent to teach his people the craft. A similar tradition is held by the lineage of the Ineh, the senior titleholder in the guild of brass casters and a descendant of the Ife caster who settled in Benin; however, the second-ranking family, holding the Ihama title, claims that brass smiths worked in Benin during the earlier Ogiso period, but produced only small objects at that time (Ben-Amos 1980: 17).

Although the archaeological record is far from complete, a thirteenth to fourteenth century site in Benin has yielded copper alloy bracelets and other small objects which were not cast but smithed (Connah 1975: 63, 143). Brass casting was introduced later, but the date remains speculative; Dark (1973: 7, 9) dates the first brass heads cast by the lost wax process to the fourteenth to fifteenth century, while the Ihama locates this event in the reign of Oba Ewuare (Ben-Amos 1980: 17).

Despite the evidence of early brass casting in nearby Benin, and the large numbers of brasses produced there over the centuries, brass working is virtually unknown in Esan. It seems probable that brass casting was introduced to Benin after it had begun to develop as a major power among the small Edo states. Benin is likely to have had access to  brass through contact with Yoruba land, where Oyo was a southern entrepot of the trans-Saharan trade.

As a relatively rare and costly commodity, brass was controlled by the Oba and would have been difficult or impossible for Esan to acquire. Moreover, because of its red color and shininess, brass was associated with violent power and the other-worldly sources of royal authority (Ben-Amos n.d.), and became a guarded prerogative of the Obas of Benin. The organization of the brass casters into a guild under royal control may represent the forcible sequestering of skilled.

Although the Esan Plateau mini-states were northern oriented towards the savannah, they were surely not large or powerful enough to attract trans-saharan trade to their own area casters in Benin. l2 Brass casters may also have been coerced into remaining in Benin by grants of titles and privileges (Ben-Amos 1980: 17). Thus, although the nettlesome Esans  of old flouted the Oba's authority at every opportunity, they had neither the raw materials nor the technical skills to institute their own brass workshops. Even today, however, when brass is readily available and the suzerainty of Benin has been undermined by a century of colonial and federal rule, no local brass casting has developed in Esan. While the Enijie and other high-ranking Ishans maintain brass objects as a sign of prestige, those objects must be acquired in Benin.

Ironworking technology was probably an important factor in the migrations of proto-Edo peoples from the savannah region into the forested areas now occupied by Esan and Benin. Iron smelting sites are being discovered closer and closer to the Esan Plateau; the latest, dated to 850-1350 A.D., is located just to the north of Edo country (Obayerni, personal communication to Darling 1984: 65; cf. Connah 1975: 248). Anozie (1990: 41) suggests that archaeological 12 The organization of the brass casters' guild may date from the time of Ewuare, although the late Akenzua II suggested that this occurred during the reign of Esigie in the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century (Dark 1973: 4 7) explorations in Esan and the Northern Edo area may yet yield evidence of prehistoric iron smelting within the Edo area. Although the discovery of stone age tools, including celts which are called ughavan in Benin (Darling 1984: 15) and ughamban in Ishan, indicates that there was human habitation in the forests prior to the introduction of iron technology, extensive clearing of land and intensive cultivation could only have been accomplished with iron tools. Indeed, the absence of stone for tool-making in the forests of Edoland (Darling 1984: 15} would no longer have been a deterrent to settlement by savannah migrants.

Benin oral traditions recorded by Egharevba (1968: 1) state that Ere, an Ogiso era king and culture hero, introduced the iron ada and eben swords during his reign. Thus, iron and kingship is closely associated in Benin. Esan oral histories highlight the importance of the blacksmith. For example, Okojie ([1960]: 217-218) recounts the story of three fugitive brothers who stopped in Uromi during their flight from Ewohimi, where they had assassinated the Onojie. When they found their hosts scraping yams with flat sticks, the eldest brother, a skilled blacksmith, set up a forge and made knives (oghale),  machetes (opia) , women's knives (elo) and hoes (egue) The astonished villagers gave him wives and begged him to stay, and the Onojie offered him the title of Oniha. The blacksmith demurred, contenting himself with the riches earned through his craft, while his two brothers were invested with the Oniha and Isodole titles. Upon his death he was deified and is worshipped to this day; the current priest of his shrine relates a similar version of this story (Okhualegbe Okoebor, Uromi, 1980).

This story cannot be taken literally as an account of  the origin of ironworking in Uromi. Iron tools and weapon must have been instrumental in the initial settlement of Ishan, and could not have been unknown in Uromi, especially after the institution of the Onojie title in the mid – fifteenth century. Moreover, the full version of the story is riddled with inconsistencies; the Onojie possesses an iron ebenlen sword at the time of the blacksmith's arrival, for example, and the villagers raid shrines to the god of iron, Idigun, for scrap iron to be reworked into useful items (Okojie [1960]: 217-218). The story can possibly be interepreted to mean that ironworking lapsed in Uromi, which was eager to reestablish the craft when the opportunity arose. More generally, the story demonstrates that ironworking is so crucial to the survival of a community, that a blacksmith would be welcomed despite his criminal past, and offered a title second only to the Onojie to  induce him to settle.

Ironworking is practiced widely in Ishan today (Fig. 22), and many quarters and villages bear names, such as Idumigun, proclaiming their hereditary or family-linked craft. Some ironworking communities have become quite famous; for example, the kingdom of Igueben, whose Onojie has the unique title of Okaigun ("leader of blacksmiths") in recognition of the kingdom's ironworking prowess, is believed by some to have supplied the Obas of Benin with ada and eben swords (Bradbury 1957: 63, probably following Scallon (see Bradbury IS 189)).13 Although Esan now meets local needs for iron implements, it may once have imported iron objects from the Igbos of Awka through trade across the Niger (Okojie [1960]: 30).

In the absence of smelting, blacksmiths today work from pieces of iron (ematon) purchased in the markets. The typical forge consists of an airy shed which allows the heat of the open fire fed by hand-operated bellows (ekhie) to dissipate. The blacksmith's tools are similar in name and function to those of Benin. Anvils (ubuomo-ezele or idigun) define the various work stations, where the blacksmith shapes useful objects with his hammers (umomo and ava), tongs (akhuara), chisels (agben), and punches and awls (oha) (Odenore Iyoriobhe, blacksmith, Uromi, 21 August 1980).

Although nowadays commercial substitutes for many items once 13 Okojie ([1960]: 325-6) disputes this, asserting that both ada and eben swords were made by craftsmen in Benin, where they were not only used locally by the Oba and chiefs, but also sent to Esan as a symbol of recognition of the installation of an Onojie. Okojie further suggests that an Oba needing the services of any smith living in Esan, would be likely to call the specialist to the capital rather than placing long distance orders. made by blacksmiths are available in the markets, and other objects, like oil lamps (orukpa), are no longer needed, blacksmiths still produce a variety of useful implements. These include agricultural tools, domestic utensils, weapons, state swords, door locks, and a variety of bells and gongs. Blacksmiths also make religious equipment, such as protective egba circlets and the osunijojo staffs of the medicine priests. The blacksmith (Ogun) is a priest in his own right, officiating at the shrine of Idigun, the god of iron, whose worship forms one of the most important cults in Esan. Oaths of a serious nature are administed by the Ogun at the shrine of Idigun, who controls the iron implements used daily by all members of Esan culture.

Pottery is associated with the earliest earth work building cultures on the Esan Plateau, where surface collections of sherds reveal a variety of shapes and decoration techniques (Darling 1984, pt.ii). Today pottery (akhe-umambin), a woman's art, is practiced in just a few remote Esan villages, but it may always have been the case that specialist villages with access to clay supplied non producing communities with pots. In Benin, too, a small number of villages produce utilitarian pottery, and even fewer specialize in both utilitarian and decorative ceremonial pots (Dark 1973: 62; Ben-Amos 1973: 30). Pottery seems to have been a common trade item among Esan villages and their neighbors. Northern Edo pottery, for example, is still widely available in Esan markets today.

There is, however, very little demand for domestic pottery (Fig. 23) nowadays. More durable enamelware and metal pots have largely replaced clay pottery as water vessels, food storage containers and cooking and serving implements. Today most new pots are purchased for use in shrines, where they hold ritual objects or water for blessing, as well as decorate the sacred space. In Esan, unlike Benin, shrine pottery is not distinguished from ordinary utilitarian ware. Both are coiled, smoothed, and decorated with simple designs incised with a fingernail or knife, or impressed with twisted string or carved roulettes. In addition to domestic and shrine pottery, Esan potters produced clay pipe bowls, which are also simply adorned with incised geometric patterns or relief bosses. To my knowledge, there is no figurative pottery or terra cotta made in Esan.

Earthen Sculpture

Of more sculptural interest are unbaked earthen figures of humans and animals, molded by both men and women, and produced throughout Esan. Earthen sculptures are created for three purposes in Esan: to beautify shrines and serve as a focus of veneration of certain deities; for personal or familial welfare in the context of the azelu cult; and to decorate the compounds of wealthy men, adding to their prestige (Figs. 24-27). Only the first of these practices is traditional in Ishan; the azelu cult with its related figures was introduced recently from Anegbete in the Northern Edo area, while the secular, prestige-linked usage is a contemporary innovation which is still limited to a few locations. Some stylistic and iconographic relationships exist, however, among these types.

The pliable nature of mud itself is responsible for the naturally smooth and fluid quality of the bodies and limbs of the earthen sculptures. On the other hand, mud is not a strong medium, so the shapes of the Ishan figures, most of which do not incorporate armatures of any kind, tend to be bulky and self-contained (Fig. 24). The arms of figures hug the body, and legs are often fused together in standing figures, or attached to their seats in seated images. The nature of the medium fluid when wet, hard and crumbly when dry -- also accounts for the absence of elaborate surface decoration in Ishan mud sculpture. Repeated renewal with fresh applications of mud also tends to efface surface details. The typical surface treatment of traditional mud sculpture is the same as for architecture, consisting of a clay wash which produces a shiny appearance. More recently, sculptors have employed European paints, and one creative artist, Owobu Okouromi of Ohe village in Irrua, uses carved stamps to produce patterns and textures. Owobu's innovation may, however, be a reapplication of the older practice of using carved rollers to decorate pottery.

There is a great deal of variety in the degree of skill exhibited in the mud figures. The shrine figures are usually modelled by the priests or priestesses, who are not artists but draw their inspiration from the deity they serve. ls Most of the figures are naked, unadorned, seated on the ground with the knees pulled up, with simplified facial features and ears which are often positioned like two halves of a cup on either side of the face (Fig. 24). Occasionally a priest-sculptor from an established shrine within Ishan or elsewhere will be called upon to mold figures for a new shrine. This practice seems more concerned with the legitimate transfer of power to a new shrine, however, than with a desire for expert craftsmanship. If the community cannot afford an experienced priest-artist, the minimum requirement for the installation of new shrine figures involves the incorporation of a bit of earth from an established shrine.

14. The famous artist Idah of Benin City carved stamps for use in decorating cement blocks for the Holy Aruosa Church (Dark 1973: 62). The church was under construction at the time of Dark's publication.

15. This is also typical of earthen shrine figures in Benin (Beier 1968: 46, 53; Dark 1973: 62) and in the Isoko (Southern Edo) area (Peek 1976: 38-9).

Both the recruitment of priest-sculptors and the imitation of sculpture in established shrines has fostered the absorption of forms from elsewhere and their diffusion within Esan. For example, some Esan shrines (Fig. 25) contain figures molded by Binis or inspired by Benin mud sculpture, complete with hierarchic arrangements of figures and depictions of beaded crowns and collars which typify Bini representations of the Oba (and the deity Olokun), but are otherwise lacking in Esan art. These elements of Benin court art have been grafted onto generally simpler village art found not only in Esan but in the Bini villages (Dark 1973: 61-62) and among the Isoko where sacred mud sculptures also represent a variety of supernaturals, are generally simple, and have little "stylistic consistency" (Peek 1976:38).

In comparing Isoko and Igbo mud sculpture, Philip Peek (1976: 34) postulates a "proto-culture" which gave rise to the Edo and Igbo peoples. In fact, earthen sculpture is widespread throughout southern Nigeria and as far afield as Ghana and Cameroon (Beier 1968; Cole 1975: 117) and may be a significant indicator of an underlying cultural relationship among many groups, including the Fon, Yoruba, Edo, Igbo, and Igala peoples. Although mud sculpture throughout this area is characteristically simple work produced by amateurs, occasionally it has grown into an elaborate art form.

The principal efflorescence’s of mud sculpture are the large and complex mbari structures of the Owerri Igbo area (Cole 1982), and the Ake and Olokun shrines of the Bini people (Beier 1968; Ben-Amos 1973).

16. These grand assemblages of hierarchically arranged figures of deities and their supporters seem to have provided a model for earthen art throughout the Edo area and among the western Igbos 150 (Anonymous/Beier 1956: 294-5; Beier 1968: 60). Nevertheless, small shrines containing rudimentary, unadorned earthen figures still abound on both sides of the Niger River.

In Esan, both simple and elaborate earthen sculptures appear in shrines. These shrines may be dedicated to notable deities worshiped throughout Esan – including Olokun, Ogun and Osun or local divinities such as Odu in Ewohimi, or Ekhirimon in Ebelle (Fig. 25). Although the diffusion of the cult of Olokun from Benin 17 was probably responsible for the introduction of hierarchic imagery in
Esan mud sculpture, other Esan deities, both male and
16 Following G.I. Jones and R.E. Bradbury, Herbert M. Cole (1975: 117-119) believes that elaborate mud sculptures among the Edo and Western Igbo peoples was influenced by the mbari tradition of the Owerri Igbos. It is equally possible, however, that the hierarchic poses found in the principal groupings of mbari figures are derived from Edo court art. That is to say, there were probably mutual influences between the two peoples in the development of their mud sculpture traditions.

17 The cult of Olokun is believed to have originated in the village of Urhonigbe southeast of Benin City (Beier 1968: 59), together with its associated mud sculptures and the practice of portraying the deity as the Oba of Benin with numerous wives and followers in attendance.
female, may be found in the elevated central position (Fig.25). Female images also appear among the supporters of the major deities, as well as in male/female pairs where fertility and lineage continuity are implied. In fact, the mud from which these figures are molded is associated with creativity, reenacting the molding of human beings in the initial creation. This is also true in Benin, where Paula Ben-Amos (1973: 30) notes that mud is a sacred substance representing the cycle of life and death and a luminal material halfway between earth and water which is, therefore, an appropriate medium for communication between the natural and supernatural worlds. Although some spheres of artistic production such as carving and metal working are exclusively masculine, mud is a medium which is appropriate for women as well as men (cf. Aronson 1984: 119). The role of women in earthen sculpture, however, is primarily associated with the water deity Olokun, over whose shrines a female priestess-artist may preside.
Azelu Figures
The recently introduced azelu cult also utilizes earthen shrine sculpture. Although it was not a focus of my research, I found azelu shrines in Ekpon, Ewohimi, Ekpoma,
18. Although exact dates for the introduction of azelu were not available, some shrine owners suggesed that it began around 1940 (e.g., Okoeguae, Udo, 6 December 1980) but no one dated its coming earlier than the time of his father.

Irrua, Uromi and Udo. The shrine owners stated that azelu, also called azeny or aizenu, originated in Anegbete in the Northern Edo area, where prospective worshipers must go to receive religious education and the paraphernalia necessary to establish a new shrine. The ultimate origins of the cult, however, may be much farther afield. Cults with similar names but disparate functions can be found among the Idoma (anjenu), Igala (alijenu or ajenu), Yoruba (anjanun) and Jukun (alianu) peoples (Kasfir 1982: 47-48), as well as in Nupe country (aljenu) (Nadel 1954: 26; Forde 1955: 45). All of these have probably derive, directly or indirectly, from non-Muslim Hausa aljanu traditions (Nadel 1954: 209) whose origins are the minor spirits of Arabic culture called diinn (Kasfir 1982 50). Esan has in turn become a conduit in the transmission of the azelu cult to Benin (Bradbury BS 641), where it functions as an anti-witchcraft organization.

In Esan azelu is a cult of personal and familial welfare and protection, particularly, but not exclusively, against the depredations of witches (Sunday Usuangbon, Ewohimi, 4 July 1980). A typical feature of the shrines is a collection of canes or thorny sticks, sometimes placed above a doorway, with which the azelu spirit punishes evildoers.

Although all of the Esan azelu shrines began as family shrines, some have attracted adherents from the community at large, forming small cult groups with the householder-owner as priest (e.g., Sunday Usuangbon, Ewohimi, 4 July 1980).

Azelu shrines can be found in the homes of both commoners and nobles, but the most elaborate shrines are not necessarily those of the nobility. One of the fanciest was in the home of the Irrua carver and mud sculptor Owobu Okouromi, who modelled the mud figures himself (Fig. 26).

Most, but not all, of the azelu shrines are decorated with earthen sculptures, which range from simple crouching figures to elaborate figural groups with the centralized azelu spirit represented as a king.l9 Some of the figures were molded by priest-artists from Benin, while others were modelled by a priest from Anegbete (Anthony Ineloa, Uromi, August 1980; Mr. Okoeguale, Udo, December 1980). Still others have been created locally, either by amateurs or professional artists like Okouromi of Irrua. In addition to the main azelu figure, a shrine may contain a variety of figures representing his chiefs, wives and servants. The ensemble may include specific characters such as the pregnant wife, the clerk, or the bodyguard. In some examples, particularly those by Okouromi, the figures are lively and incorporate modern details such as sunglasses, wristwatches, neckties and bras (Fig. 26). Animal figures are rare, and merely represent sacrifices which have been performed for the azelu spirit.
19. Most of the kingship imagery depicted in azelu igures is derived from Benin prototypes, but the central figures in several shrines wear actual or molded feathered headdresses typical of Igbo leaders, suggesting the development of a composite Bini-Igbo image of kingship.  

Secular Mud Sculpture and Related Cement Sculpture Contemporary

Esan mud sculpture has been used for secular as well as religious purposes. For example, Owobu Okouromi has molded figural portaits to adorn and add prestige to his own compound and those of chiefs in his native Irrua and nearby Uromi (Fig. 27). These figures aim at a realism in the depiction of their subjects which is generally absent in religious mud sculpture. Naturalism also characterizes the images in related cement sculpture. Cement is a completely modern material, the very cost of which confers prestige upon the owner of sculpture or architecture constructed in this medium. The first cement figures in Esan were apparently commissioned by well-to-do Christianized families in the northern kingdoms, and were designed to decorate the paternal gravesite (Fig. 28).

This usage may derive from Northern Edo prototypes, but the ultimate source of both Esan and Northern Edo cement  funerary sculpture is not clear. The famous Bini artist Idah worked in cement as well as more traditional materials (Dark 1973: 62), and may have provided a model for Esan and Northern Edo cement sculpture. Esan artists may also have been exposed to the naturalistic cement busts and figures which serve as funerary markers in Ibibio country across the Niger. Esan cement sculptures are also used to ornament the architecture of wealthy men. Architecture and  architectural ornament will be addressed in a separate chapter.
Esan Arts Conclusions

Some Esan arts, such as pottery and ironworking, are of great antiquity; as we have seen, potsherds were found in the ruins of the early iyala settlements, and ironworking was probably instrumental in the migrations from the savannah grasslands to the forested. Esan Plateau. Although wood carving may have existed in the iyala building era, no early objects in this perishable material survive.

Following the conquest of Esan by Benin in the mid fifteenth century, items of regalia in brass and coral were bestowed upon the Enijie as symbols of their dual role as leaders in their own communities and tributaries within the Benin Empire. The distribution of the precious brass and coral was controlled from the capital, however, and no brass working or bead making industries developed in Esan.

Evidence for the practice of other arts -- such as weaving, leatherworking or carving is more recent, dating to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today both men and women produce art objects in Esan. Men smith iron, carve wood, work leather and construct buildings. Women weave cloth and mats, mold pots, and enliven architecture with painted designs. Both men and women decorate their bodies, Reproduced and mold earthen figures. Some of the resulting art forms are similar to those of Benin, but many show the results of interaction with other neighboring groups. Precipitous change in Esan culture as well as in the arts has occurred since the colonial era, and the cost of modernity has sometimes included the abandonment of certain art forms such as body scarification. The recent introduction of industrial products like steel goods, enamelware, plastics and machine-woven cloth has also interfered with the production of Esan ironwork, pottery and textiles. On the other hand, the continued absorption and Esanization of new materials (e.g., milled cotton threads, paint, cement) and  concepts like azelu attest to the vitality of the artistic spirit in Esan.

Figure Seated Female With Kola Nut Vessel, 19th–20th century - Met Museum New York City


Wood sculpture is of particular importance in the study of Esan art and will be the focus of this work. Extant wood sculptures, dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are numerous and varied and provide insights pertaining to Esan culture, its worldview, its relationship with Benin, and its contacts with other peoples. This chapter will discuss the role of the carver; the organization and possible origins of one hereditary carving guild; the diagnostic features of Esan sculpture, and evidence for dating it.

Wood carvers (okanemhin or onwena)l once had an important role to fulfill in traditional Esan society. They produced a large assortment of objects necessary for daily life, many of them ornamental as well as practical. House-building, for example, demanded the services of carvers, who made the paddles (obhebhe) for working the earth used in building a house, and carved its beams and lintels (uwahan and oworo), doors and shutters (akhu or od), and verandah posts (ore). They furnished the house

1.      Singular forms of Esan words are used throughout this chapter. A glossary (Appendix B) gives plural forms where appropriate.

with stools (ijoko), chairs (aga), and storage boxes(ekpeti). They provided the householders with troughs for making palm oil (oko), as well as the mortars (also called oko) and pestles (ulumoko), flat mortars (uro) and hand pestles (ulumobo), serving dishes (uwengbe), and spoons (uwenhen) for the production and serving of food. They carved the special covered dishes, some of them figurative (uriebhele), for the hospitable presentation of kolanuts.
They also produced washing vessels (Ukpabo), combs (uyayeto), and mirror cases (uqhegbe) for personal grooming, and game boards (olise) for recreation.

Carvers also made a variety of tools for the tilling of the land, and weapons for hunting and warfare; these included bows (uhen) and arrows (ufenmben), crossbows (akpede), and the shafts and hafts for spears, swords, hoes, and knives. They also produced tools for the weaver, including the block (okpekpe) used to de-seed the cotton, the bow (usagiolu) used to fluff it, and the board (okpigbo) used to wash the finished thread, as well as the beaters (eben-ido),  shuttles (okpa) and other instruments used at the loom.

Ceremonial life was also enhanced by carvers, who produced musical instruments such as drums (ukhuemhin), xylophones (ukhuerhan), harps (Afan), horns (akala), and finger pianos (asonogun). They carved the okpo staff as a symbol of elderhoodl and the agbala stool for kings and chiefs. They made objects for the veneration of ancestors: ukhure staffs; ram, antelope and human memorial heads; images of cocks; human figures, and the masks (okpodu) used to represence their forebears during community ceremonials.

They produced other religious objects such as the intermediary figures (iqhole) which helped diviners communicate with the supernatural world, and their special horns (okolo) and drums (okede). They made sculptures for the veneration of the hand (ikegobo), and carved shrine offerings including small figurines (omorban) and oversized skeuomorphs of swords and spears.

Strictly utilitarian items, such as kitchen stools or shovels, would rarely be decorated, but the deft hand of the carver could transfor.m a practical object like a door or house post into an impressive illustration of the owner's wealth, power and prestige. Any object which was frequently in the public eye, like a ceremonial serving dish or kolanut box, could be decorated with images that underscored the owner's claims to status and authority.

Naturally, a decorated object took more time, thought and skill to produce than a plain one and was consequently more costly. Ornamental carvings were therefore the perquisites of the wealthy and powerful, and are preserved today in the homes of hereditary kings, chiefs, and important priests.

Although sculptures might become exclusive simply because of their cost, some were limited by type or imagery to certain classes of Esan society. For example, an untitled man, however wealthy, would not be permitted to own a courtly agbala stool, nor could he commission a depiction of himself or his forebears holding the ada and eben swords of office.

Today Esan carvers specialize in different types of objects -- such as drums, masks or household utensils – and this might always have been the case (Fig. 30). Moreover, some carvers probably produced only undecorated utilitarian objects, while others carved highly ornamented practical items as well as sculptures whose primary purpose was to decorate the public areas of elite Ishan homes. Finally, judging from the extant sculptures preserved in Esan communities, some areas of Esan are more noteworthy than others for decorative sculptures. For example, Uromi was apparently the center of a carving tradition which included several other kingdoms in the plateau region of northern Esan. Large figurated houseposts, doors and other sculptures are preserved in many Uromi villages as well as in the royal precinct. Because carvers in Uromi were so highly productive, their history and organization deserve special consideration.
The Uromi Carving Guild

Uromi carvers were traditionally organized into a hereditary guild patronized primarily by the Onojie. The  oral history of this guild, which is found nowhere else in Reproduced Esan, states that an early Onojie of Uromi sent to Benin for carvers who could make doors, lintels, beams, wooden paddles and other things necessary in constructing a house. The Oba of Benin sent three carvers to the Onoj ie, who quartered them at Ukoni village. One was killed by a leopard in the bush, but the other two survived and, having been treated very well at Ukoni, settled there and trained local men to carve (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, 3 September 1980). The descendants of the original Bini and Esan carvers are today known as Imiena, “sons of carvers”,  who have their own chiefs, including the Iyama of Ukoni (Fig. 13) and the Esele of Egbele (Fig. 10), and whose religious activities center upon the worship and propitiation of the spirit of their carving tools, known collectively as Ediena.

The Imiena expanded to other Uromi communities over time,· and can be found in eight quarters of villages today. The original carving quarter at Ukoni village, known as Idumerhan (“community of trees"), was eventually eclipsed by the carvers who settled in Isua quarter of Arue village.

The latter became the principal carvers for the Onojie, and had an important role in the annual Ukorhan festival, during which the Imiena carve a variety of objects for the king and his household (Fig. 31). Ukorhan was instituted as a state festival by Onojie Okoro, who reigned from 1873 to 1900.

The carvers of Isua had a falling out with Okoro's successor Okojie I, probably during the stormy early part of his reign from 1901 until 1918,2 and refused to participate in  Ukorhan. Although Isua eventually patched up its differences with the Onojie, the temporary rift caused the eight Imiena communities to divide into two branches which now participate separately in the Ukorban festival (Chief A.G.Idiahi, Uromi, 3 September 1980. The carvers of Idumerhan in Ukoni, Idumesele in Egbele, Okhenlen in Ubierumu and Idumu-Uwangue in Efandion constitute one division whose carvings for Ukorban are expressly for the Onojie and his wives. The other branch of the Imiena live in the quarters of Umonkhomon in Efandion, Idumu-Ihama in Ubierumu, and Isua and Uzenema in Arue, and their Ukorhan carvings are traditionally distributed among members of the royal family other than the Onojie and his wives. Within each division, the four villages carve for Ukorban in rotation, and representatives of each division go to the palace to present their carved objects at the end of the festival (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, 3 September 1980).

Traditionally, their gift should include fourteen objects, a significant number in Esan culture. Imiena members of Isua quarter claimed (Abayior, Uromi, 21 July
1980) that these objects included decorated game boards and houseposts in addition to plain household items, but Chief
2 Okojie I, also known as Ogbidi, began his reign in 1901 but was exiled by the British in 1918. He was permitted to reclaim the throne in 1931 and reigned peacefully until 1944 (Okojie [1960]: 228-229).

Idiahi of Idumerhan (Uromi, 3 September 1980) stated that although that may once have been the case, nowadays the items carved include only hand mortars and pestles, washing vessels and flat dishes. Indeed, at the Ukorhan festival in
1980, only undecorated objects of this sort were carved.

The original name of this festival, which is of obvious benefit to the Onojie, was oga. meaning “homage” or “service.” According to Chief Idiahi (Uromi, 3 September 1980), the carvers spent the three days of the festival secreted in the bush, and if anyone asked what had become of them, he was told they had gone to Ukorhan, that is, to the top of the tree, which eventually became the name of the festival. The mystery in the name Ukorhan is still alive,  especially for children (Joseph Akhimienmhonan, Uromi, 3 September 1980), but nowadays the participating carvers gather together to carve in the village, where they are supervised by the elder men (Fig. 31).

The Ukorhan festival takes place each year prior to the New Yam Festival (Ibuan); in 1980 it was held in early September. During the three days of Ukorhan, the quarterwhose turn it is to carve hosts the other three quarters in its division for feasting and merry making. Although there is much lively criticism of each other's work during the group carving sessions, it is absolutely forbidden for members of the Imiena to argue or fight during the ceremony.

This enforced harmony includes all the Imiena of both divisions. Imiena members also gather during Ukorhan to worship at a communal shrine to Sdiena whose chief priest (Ohenlgn-Ediena) is appointed by the Onojie.

Each village also has its own Ediena priest, and each member of Imiena maintains an Ediena shrine in his own home, whether or not he is actively carving. The basis of the personal Ediena shrine is a flat mortar (uro) filled with the inherited carving tools of the family, as well as any tools in active use. Native chalks (ere) and sacrificial matter may also be included. The favored sacrifice for Ediena is the snail (ure), an animal with no bone or blood, whose juice is colorless and cool. However, when the Ediena tools are being used to curse unconfessed evildoers, it is appropriate to provide a blood sacrifice such as a dog (which is also highly regarded by Idigun, the deity associated with iron) or a cock.

The primary carvers tool is the adze (Fig. 32), the blade (unun, lit. mouth) of which is the ediena proper. The entire adze is called asojia in Uromi and elsewhere, but some Esan groups, such as Egoro and Ewohimi, use the term agha, which is identical to the Bini word (Bradbury BS 272).
Bench Fragment Male Figure,19th–20th century-
 Met Museum, new York City
Another term common to both Esan and Bini is agben which refers to a chisel in Benin (Bradbury BS 272), and either a curved chisel, as in Egoro (S. Omobhude, 17 September 1980), or a curved knife blade used in planing wood, as in Uromi (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, 12 October 1980). Other tools used by Esan carvers include the axe ( uze or ughamhan) for felling a tree and separating wood from it, the machete, opia for rough shaping an object, and knives (oghale) for cutting fine details.

The carvers haft these tools themselves, but the iron elements are produced by a blacksmith according to the directions of the carver. According to Chief Idiahi (Uromi, 3 September 1980), in Uromi the new tools mean nothing to the blacksmith, but when the carver places them with the ancient tools in his Ediena shrine and recites certain prayers, they become imbued with power. Once a carving tool is activated, it becomes a representation of Edigna and will never be discarded, no matter how damaged or rusted it may become. It is for this reason that fighting is forbidden, not only during Ukorhan, but also by a person engaged in carving at any other time. If the carver should become angry enough to strike his adversary with the adze, he would be using what has become a sacred object as a tool of destruction instead of creativity. To do so would be to invite the retribution of Ediana for this sacrilege, resulting in serious illness and perhaps the death of the offender. Ediena may not be the only supernatural (ebo) invoked by an Uromi carver. An Isua carver, Egenebale Blessed Odia, explained (Uromi, 17 July 1980) that he must appeal to a local deity of his quarter, whose shrine is in the bush, before felling any tree (gborban  to kill a tree).

One of the principal features of any wood which concerns the carver is its hardness (ukakambin), which he matches with the use of the object to be carved. For durability and resistance to white ants, for example, the iroko tree (unoko) is superior, but to make the handle of the axe used to fell the iroko, the carver will choose the harder wood of the orhan-ohiele (dicanuts tree). Likewise, the orhan-ume (camwood or Pterocarpus osun (Bradbury BS 205)) is a redwood considered to be harder than iroko, and is preferred for carving the native shovel (obhebhe) and  other wooden tools. Some woods are considered to be appropriate for carpentry but not for carving, and soft woods are chosen for game boards and other objects which do not have to be strong or durable.

Nowadays carvers must appeal to ministries of the federal, state or local government which, in an attempt to protect the shrinking forests of Nigeria, have strictly prohibited the cutting of certain large trees, even on private property, without a license. Laws concerning Ishan's forests are aimed at protecting them against exploitation by large-scale logging industries, but these laws also affect the individual carver whose work may require that he fell only a single tree of any given type in ten or more years. The situation is such that for the Ukorhan festival in 1979, the carvers of Ukoni, unable to procure a license to fell a tree, were forced to buy wood in order to meet their festival obligations (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, 3 September).

The Origins of the Uromi Carvers
Figure Ram's Head and Bird 19th
20th century- Met Museum New York City
Historical traditions claiming that carvers from Benin were the founders of carving quarters are preserved in a number of Imiena communities in addition to Idumerhan in Ukoni. For example, Idumu-Ihama of Ubierumu village is also known as Idumu-Insaba, named after their ancestor Insaba, "a carpenter from Benin (Butcher 1935b: 25). Likewise, Umonkhomon quarter of Efandion village claims to have been founded by a carpenter from Benin by the name of Isele (Butcher 1935b: 27). The carpenter-founder of Egbemiena quarter of Unuwazi is also named Isele, although he is said to have come from Irrua within Esan (Butcher 1935b: 15).

Egbemiena (family of carvers) has essentially the same meaning as Imiena (sons of carvers), but the former is not included in the group that celebrates Uko rhan together. Nevertheless, the commonality of ancestors named Isele, as well as the similarity of the terms Egbemiena and Imiena, suggest a relationship between these carving communities. The related name Esele is also preserved in Egbele village in the name of the carvers' quarter, Idumesele (Idumu- Esele), and in the title, Esele, of its Imiena chief.

Repeated references to the name Isele or Esele and the theme of carvers emigrating from Benin indicate coherence in the oral histories of the Uromi carving groups, and prompt a search for possible Benin sources for the Imiena carving tradition.

The organization of carvers in Uromi is similar to that of Benin, where carvers are members of an established guild under the aegis of the Oba. The Iqbesamwan are the official royal carvers in Benin, whose traditional quarters are near the Oba's palace, and whose work has always been strictly regulated by the court. Another group of woodworkers, known as Onwina, are carpenters who are subdivided into groups with different specialties, and are scattered in villages on the outskirts of Benin and beyond (Bradbury BS 204/2). One group, the Onwina n'Irbue, assists the Iqbesamwan by cutting down and dressing trees (Bradbury BS 260.2). Other groups include the Onwina n'Ugbo or drum-making specialists and the Onwina n'Uzebu who are responsible for carving household objects and architectural elements (Bradbury BS 272).   

According to a member of the Onwina n'Uzebu group of carpenters interviewed by Bradbury in 1959 (Bradbury BS 272.2), they could be sent to a village at some distance from Benin and remain there for months to fell trees and transform them into the objects required by the Oba. While they worked, their needs were provided by the village. This contrasts sharply with what was required of the Iqbesamwan; according to the Ine n’Iqbesamwan (Bradbury BS 260.2), not only did the Iqbesamwan never cut down trees themselves, but after the Onwina felled a tree for them and dressed it to  their specifications, it would be transported to Benin for carving. 

It is likely that these distinctive work patterns existed in the past. First of all, the Oba would be understandably reluctant to allow his skilled Iqbesamwan carvers to stay away from the palace for any length of time.

Secondly, the prerogatives of the high-ranking Iqbesamwan seem to have included the comfort of carving in their home town. For these reasons, and the fact that the Onojie in the Idumerhan account of Imiena history specifically requested specialists in carving house elements, the likelihood is that if craftsmen were sent by the Oba to the  Onojie of Uromi, they were members of the Onwina and not the Iqbesamwan· Information to support this suggestion was found in Uzenema quarter, where Imiena members spoke of a founding father called Oina who had been a carver, and whose descendants collected his tools upon his death and used them to venerate him (Andrew Iyore, Uromi, 21 July 1980). The name Oina is unusual in Esan, and is pronounced about the same as the Bini Onwina, the probable source of the name.

Elsewhere in Esan, the cognate form of Onwina occurs in the term & Onwena or Owiena referring to carvers (and scarifiers). This is the case in Ujiogba, for example, where the ewawa divination kit of Ehiabhili Ijewere (Ujiogba, 30 November 1980) includes an object called edion – onwena or ancestors of the carvers. Although it could not be confirmed in the field, it is tempting to interpret Uromi's Ediena as a contraction of edign-onwena or its variant edion-owiena. This may be compared with the Benin concept of the Edion Iqbesamwan or collective ancestors of the royal carvers who, like Uromi's Ediena, forbid fighting while carving, and have the power to trouble any members of the guild who transgress this rule, no matter how far from
home they may be (Bradbury, BS 260.3).

Another cognate of the word Onwina exists among the Ika Igbo peoples on the southern border of Esan. At Onicha – Ugbo, for example, the term for carver is onwene. Women belonging to this social class are specialists in circumcision and scarification, while the men are expert carvers (Bradbury BS 656/2). Onwene is also the term for a carver at the Ika town Ubuluku. The local history states that a man called Ije established carving there, creating wooden figures and other objects for the Obi (traditional ruler). Those of his descendants who could still carve when Bradbury visited in 1961 were responsible for building and repairing a local shrine which was always constructed of iroko wood (Bradbury BS 653). These descriptions of Ika
When Imiena members were asked if Ediena might be related to ancestors, they stated that it was not (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, 1980) and, rather, that it was a spirit ebo (Andrew Iyore, Uromi, 1980).
Onwene activities link them with the onwena of Esan and the Onwina of Benin. Moreover, the name of the founder-carver, Ije, is Edo and could be either Bini or Esan. In either case, the itinerant carver Ije was enticed to settle in Ubuluku where, the narratives relate, the Obi married a daughter to him (Bradbury BS 653).

Although one might suspect that the oral tradition linking the carvers of Uromi to Benin was fabricated in order to participate in an illustrious carving heritage, the linguistic and historical evidence supports the claims that carving communities of Uromi originally acquired their skills from Benin Onwina carpenters, who may also have settled in Ika Igbo territory on the !shan borderland. In Benin, the Onwina were specialists in felling trees, carving house elements and basic utilitarian objects, and preparing the wood for objects which would be later carved and decorated by the Igbesamwan- The latter court sculptors carved royal and chiefly subjects in a certain refined style. This was not permitted to the Onwina in Benin, who in any case might not have had the skill or training to reproduce the court style. Onwina emigrees could, therefore, escape the social and artistic limitations imposed upon them in Benin, and their Uromi trainees and their descendants would be free to adapt their new skills to the development of new carving forms and images.

It is necessary to consider the possible impact on Ishan sculpture of yet another class of Benin carvers, the Omada or centuries-old organization of royal pages and sword bearers (Egharevba 1968: 32, 40), who often took up carving in their spare time. Oral testimony suggests that members of the Omada were trained as carvers at least as early as the 1848-1887 reign of Oba Adolo, and their carving was strongly encouraged in the 1914-1933 reign of Oba Eweka II (Ben-Amos 1975: 183). This mid-nineteenth through earlytwentieth century period overlaps the heyday of Esan carving. Lacking the hereditary social status or ritual sanctions of the Igbesanwan guild, Omada members were free to carve non-traditional subjects and to experiment with style (Ben-Amos 1975: 186; Hess 1983: 41). In contrast to official Benin art, Omada works feature asymmetrical compositions including both frontal and profile figures, often with elongated bodies and lively poses.

The Omada were permitted to carve decorative, secular objects only, in contrast to the culturally significant" works produced by the Igbesamwan (Ben-Amos 1975: 185). Nevertheless, demand for these innovative sculptures by the noble classes became a source of wealth for skilled Omada carvers (Ben-Amos 1975: 183). Objects carved in Omada style including decorative wall plaques, storage boxes, tabletops and benches (Figs. 33, 34) are preserved in some Esan courtly and chiefly compounds. Esan elites may have been among those who commissioned Omada carvings, or they may have received them as gifts from the Oba or chiefs of Benin. It is also possible that some objects which resemble Benin Omada work were made by Esan youths who were trained as Omada at the Benin court (cf. Ughulu 1950: 39), learning their carving techniques and style. Omada style might also have been initiated by precocious Esan carvers without benefit of training in Benin. The owners of modern objects in Omada style (Fig. 33) claimed that they were carved by local Esan carvers (e.g., Chief Josiah Itua, Edohen of Opoji, 12 September 1980).

There are very few Omada-style sculptures in Esan, however, and none is of political or religious significance. They are all elaborate relief tableaux illustrating numerous figures including regalia-laden Obas, chiefs, courtiers, and supernatural beings. These subjects are familiar to Benin but, as we shall see, they are alien to traditional Ishan art. It seems clear, therefore, that Omada carving has had no impact, either in style or subject matter, on the development of Ishan sculpture. Furthermore, the few sculptures in Omada style which are preserved in Ishan are not associated with local histories recording the establishment of a carving tradition. No Omada carvings, moreover, have been found in Uromi, where the historical depth and social significance of the Imiena carving tradition may have precluded an active presence of the peripheral Omada group .
Diagnostic Features of Esan Sculpture
Architectural Element Male
Figure 19th20th century

Esan art looks like neither the classic Benin carving by the Iqbesamwan guild, nor carving by the Omada court amateurs and, as we have already noted, the Onwina in Benin are carpenters rather than carvers. If the Benin Onwina are the ancestral originators of the Uromi carving tradition, they, like the villagers among whom they settled, were experimenting with new sculptural forms. For example, the most numerous and symbolically important elite art objects on the Esan Plateau are figurated house posts and doors carved with relief images, neither of which are significant art forms in Benin.

It is difficult to speak of an Esan carving style as there is considerable variation in the formal features of wood sculpture. Variability is most pronounced in the carvings produced for commoner use, including elders' staffs ( okpo Figs. 13, 163), ancestral staffs (ukhure, Fig. 160), images for the spirit of the hands (ikegobo, Figs. 182-188), diviners' figures (iqhole, Figs. 195-199), dolls (omorban, Figs. 200-205), masks (okpodu, Figs. 231-240), and a variety of personal and household objects like combs and serving dishes (Fig. 111). These objects, fulfilling social and

It is possible that decorative wooden house posts and doors were once made in Benin, but gave way to the relief plaques cast in brass, a precious and durable material associated with the extraordinary power of the king.

religious needs, are typically simple works carved by nonspecialists. Commoner sculpture, moreover, is generally unconcerned with the affairs or symbols of the state. They do not strive, therefore, either to establish linkages with, or proclaim independence from Benin. Rather, commoner art forms exhibit relationships with a variety of neighboring art traditions; this is particularly so in the case of

In contrast, sculpture produced for royal and chiefly patrons is primarily political art, although it may also serve public religious functions. Elite art includes courtly stools (agbala, Figs. 112-139); elaborate architectural elements including posts (ore, Figs. 61-102) and doors (akhu or ode. Figs. 40-42, 44-60); objects for the shrines of royal and noble ancestors such as memorial heads (Figs. 167-169, 172-180), figures of fowl (Fig. 181), and elaborated versions of the ukhure staff (Figs. 155-157); and decorated furnishings including kolanut containers (uriebhele, Figs. 142-147) and storage boxes (ekpeti, Fig. 110)

Although there are differences from kingdom to kingdom, and particularly between northern and southern Esan sculpture, there is a certain degree of formal coherence in the elite sculpture of any given locality. This may reflect a need to codify the forms and images which were appropriate for leaders. These elements illustrate, in particular, the status and power of the Onojie in ways that draw on the prestige associated with Benin while forging an identity which is independent from Benin.

The diagnostic features of three-dimensional figural sculpture can be discerned from an analysis of figurated house posts which are quite numerous. The house post tradition centers on Uromi and includes Ubiaja, Irrua, Ugbegun, and Udo; in toto, over one hundred carved posts are still preserved in these northern kingdoms and another dozen or so have surfaced in foreign collections. While no three dimensional house posts could be found in place in southern Esan, a number of large-scale architectural figures adorn the shrines of nobles in Emu, Ohordua and Ewohimi.

Large southern figures are depicted naked with their hands at their sides, sometimes resting them on the heads of smaller figures {Fig. 99). In the north, male figures wear wrappers while females usually wear waist beads, and the positions of their arms varies according to the symbolic objects {sword, whistle, pipe, child) they carry {e.g., Figs. 64-75). In both northern and southern three dimensional sculpture (e.g., Figs. 95, 100) the figures consist of a spherical head; little or no neck; a long cylindrical torso which ends in a full and rounded belly; correspondingly long and typically thin arms; and relatively short, blocky legs which often join a base without benefit of feet. The face is flat or slightly concave, with a heavy overhanging brow from which a flat rectangular or triangular nose extends downward; occasionally the face is heartshaped, particularly in southern figures. Round or oval eyes project forward an inch or more just below the brow line. At the base of the jutting jaw, the mouth may be tightly pursed, straight-lipped, or slightly open. Ears are rare, but when they do appear, they are small semi-circular elements behind the eyes. The faces occasionally bear incised marks around the eyes (Fig. 74), and the bodies are typically covered with finely incised decorative elements, particularly in the north (Fig. 70).

Esan relief sculpture shares a number of formal features with three-dimensional figures. Large courtly relief sculptures, including plank posts and doors, are also
widely distributed in Esan. The preference for unclothed figures with arms at the sides still characterizes southern reliefs (Fig. 102), while northern figures are typically depicted clothed and more actively posed (e.g., Fig. 49). At times, the legs angle outward from the body at the hip, and downward at the knee, while the arms are correspondingly arranged outward and upward (Fig. 42). More generally, the correspondences between relief sculptures and figures in the round include long torsos and short legs, heavy brow lines (or heart shaped faces), flat geometric noses, and incised patterns on the bodies of the figures as well as on their clothing and the objects they hold.

Occasionally the figures in Esan reliefs are outlined with a series of parallel incisions (Figs. 42, 44), a technique which is most common in agbala courtly stools (Figs. 124-131). Sometimes the incised lines appear on the sloping edges of the body itself and sometimes on the similarly sloping walls of the excavated area surrounding the figure. This decorative technique can be tentatively localized to the northern Esan area, where examples still exist in Uromi and Onogholo, and where Northcote Thomas photographed doors with this device at Ubiaja, and Maurice Cockin collected a stool, probably also in Ubiaja. These standard features of Esan reliefs and sculpture in the round, as well as certain deviant forms, will be observed in the following chapters which focus on clusters of related art objects: architectural elements and courtly furnishings, including agbala stools and kola boxes; ancestral shrine sculptures including ukbure staffs, memorial heads, and figures of fowl; images for the veneration of the hand and divination figures; and masquerades. One consideration which it may not be possible to reconstruct with the available field data is whether some formal differences may be attributed to different periods of time within a single carving area.

Architectural Element
Three Figures,
19th–20th century
Dating Esan Sculpture

The coming of Benin carvers to Uromi is placed in the reign of Ayorhe (Chief A.G. Idiahi, correspondence 28 November 1983), who appears in various kinglists as the fourth, fifth, or sixth .O nojie (Ughulu 1950: 38-40; Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, 3 September 1980 and correspondence, 28 November 1983). This early position in the Uromi dynasty would place Ayorhe in the sixteenth or seventeenth century.

However, most of the wood sculptures which survive in Uromi, as well as the other Esan kingdoms, appear to date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This dating is suggested, first of all, by the typical perishability rate for wood sculpture in tropical rainforests; many Esan sculptures have indeed suffered from weathering and insect damage, and some are mere fragments.

In addition, oral testimonies help to date a variety of sculptures, particularly those belonging to noble families. For example, oral histories preserved at the Uromi palace permit the dating of twenty-nine figurated house posts to the reigns of Okoro, who came to the throne in 1873 and was killed by the British in 1900, and his son Okojie I. In an effort to quell resistance in Uromi, the British stormed the Onojie's palace in 1900, destroying parts of it. Surviving structures are said to date from 1876, in the early part of Okoro's reign (H.H. Stephen 0. Edenojie I, Onojie of Uromi, 29 April 1980). When Okojie assumed the throne in 1901, he rebuilt the palace and installed the posts now found there.

While some posts were new, others may have been reinstalled from the surviving 1876 structures built by Okoro. The new palace posts date from the early part of Okojie's reign (1901-1918}, when he commanded great awe and demanded services and other forms of tribute from his subjects (Okojie [1960]: 228-229). Moreover, both Okoro and Okojie are mentioned in stories concerning the Ukorhan festival,) and clearly had close relationships with the carving communities of Uromi during their reigns.

Elsewhere in Uromi, some owners of figurated posts readily dated them to the reign of Okoro (e.g., Chief Omhelimhen Egbe, Uromi, 8 May 1980) or Okojie (e.g., Emiator Egbiremhonlen, Uromi, 15 July 1980). Others merely dated the posts to the era of their fathers or grandfathers, but judging the age of the owner and figuring a generation or two back would also place them in Okoro or Okojie's reign. A few houseposts were dated earlier; for example, severely eroded examples in Ewoyi village were said to have been gifts from Onojie Ikhimin, the father of Okoro, to his  second son, whose direct descendant owns them today (Akhibe, Uromi, 17 June 1980). In addition, Chief Omhelimhen Egbe of Eror village claimed that a heavily damaged house post was carved by his forebear seven generations removed. Even if this dating seems questionable, the post predates, and is considered to be the mother of, a group of better preserved sculptures which were carved during the reign of Okoro as replacements for older, rotted house posts (Chief Omhelimhen Egbe, Uromi, 8 May 1980).

Similar oral documentation exists for sculptures other than house posts, and for Ishan kingdoms other than Uromi.

The name and generation of the person who had carved or commissioned a sculpture are often remembered because the object became the focus of ancestral veneration upon his death (e.g., Egbogun Utama, Uromi, 15 July 1980). Even when, as is often the case, an owner can say no more about the age of his sculpture than that it was carved before his time, or he grew up to meet it, this information can establish a base time period before which the object must
have been carved.

Some external corroborating evidence for the dating of Ishan sculpture comes from early colonial sources. For example, in the kingdom of Ubiaja, Northcote Thomas photographed many large verandah posts in the palace (N.W. Thomas Photographs, Cambridge University, n.d.: nos. 994, 1000, 1002, 1003, 1003b, 1007) at the turn of the century.

These posts are complete, in contrast to Esan posts one may see in the field today, many of which are missing considerable portions of their lower extremities. In other words, the Ubiaja house posts were recently carved when Thomas photographed them, which must have been shortly before they were destroyed by fire in 1902 (H.H. Abumhenre Ebhojie II, Onojie of Ubiaja, 11 December 1980).

These posts were never replaced. Maurice Cockin, a colonial officer stationed briefly at Ubiaja (1912), collected a small number of Ishan sculptures,s including a courtly stool, figurated kolanut bowls, and masks, all in excellent condition and probably recently carved. On the other hand, Thomas photographed a carved door which had apparently been reassembled with one of its three carved panels upside down (Fig. 42). This door must have been old enough to have needed repair, and those who repaired it seem to have been unfamiliar with the imagery, suggesting that it had been carved before their time.

It is probably not possible to gauge the antiquity of the sculptural tradition in Esan, but most extant Esan art dates from the second half of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Although some sculptures may be slightly older, few are more recent; large-scale traditional Esan sculpture has not been carved for many decades. Like the Imiena who today carve unadorned utilitarian objects for the Ukorhan festival, very few Esan carvers anywhere will  attempt to carve sculptures which are figurated or elaborated with images. When they do, the results are invariably crude (Fig. 245). One self-taught carver in Uromi has attempted with moderate success to imitate traditional Esan sculpture {Fig. 246). He cannot find the patronage, however, to continue developing his carving Skills (Ebholomhen Ayemere, Uromi, 28 July 1980).

I am grateful to Jean M. Borgatti who generously shared with me photographs of the Esan objects collected by Cockin and now in the collection of his daughter Celia Barclay in London.

The diminished power of traditional rulers and chiefs under the colonial and national governments, coupled with the influx of cheap imported replacements for handcrafted goods and the substitution of new yardsticks
- which to measure wealth and prestige, have caused a severe drop in patronage of the Esan craftsman, as it has throughout Africa. Most of the demand for traditional carvings today is from commoner elders and religious specialists, but these works have always been relatively unelaborated. Other than these, most recent carvings made in !shan reflect a new, non-traditional style (Figs. 247) which might be called "Southern Nigerian Roadside, which has found patronage among the nouveau riche as well as the traditional political and religious leaders. The new carvings do illustrate, however, the continuing process of absorbing and modifying influences from successful external art traditions.

We ever grateful to Prof. Carol A Lorenz, for her work on Esan Art. We will build on your legacy sincerely.

Further reading on Esan Art:

Esan Carving Traditions, Ubiaja

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