By Carol Ann Lorenz

Introduction Figurated houseposts (or) which support the verandas of public courtyards literally surround visitors to Ishan palaces or chiefly compounds with visual statements of the owner's legitimacy and authority. To the Ishan people, such an environment is magnificent and awe-inspiring. Because large figural sculptures are rare except in courtly contexts, they impress onlookers with the grandeur of the noble residence. Their iconography, moreover, like that of the relief carved doors, may inspire fear as well as admiration. In addition, because such figures are no longer carved, they are often associated with miraculous abilities attributed to the ancients. Impressive architectural sculpture not only reflects the wealth and power of a man, but can invest him with greatness. For example, a past Onojie of Uromi decorated his palace with sculptural. houseposts despite the objections of the 9ba of Benin; this challenge to the 9ba's authority magnified his power and prestige in the community (H.H. Stephen O. Edenojie I, Onojie of Uromi, 29 April 1980). Carved houseposts have been discovered in five kingdoms on the plateau in northern Ishan by far the largest.

1.  The Benin Museum took note of three at Egoro in 1972, but these could not be traced in 1980. number of posts recorded in the field was located in Uromi, where seventy-five still remain, twenty-nine of them in the palace of the nojie and the remainder distributed among the villages. The large number of courtly sculptures in Uromi is probably owing to the presence of the well-organized Imiena carving guild. Thirteen posts remain in other northern Ishan kingdoms. In addition, at least fifteen decorated houseposts were destroyed by fire at Ubiaja, but photographs taken by N.W. Thomas (Cambridge University, Neg. Nos. 994a, 1000, 1002-1003b, 1007) prior to their destruction permit us to include them in this analysis. Most of the northern Ishan houseposts consist of figures in the round, but some are plank posts with relief figures; both types of decorated posts are called or in contrast to ordinary houseposts for which the generic name is ọkpọ. 

In southern Ishan, two flat posts, and a small number of other large architectural sculptures called izemhinze occur in the contiguous southern kingdoms of Ewohimi, Ohordua and Emu. As in the north, these sculpture are preserved mostly in the palaces of the Enijie, but occasionally at the houses of important chiefs or distinguished priests who are descended from the royal family. A small number of Ishan posts have made their way into public and private collections; although they lack

 1.    The term ọkpọ also refers to the walking sticks of elder men.

provenience data, some of these may be localized to Uromi in the north, and others to the southern kingdoms, on the basis of certain typical features.

For every post located in Ishan, numerous others were said to have been destroyed by fire or insects or, more rarely, sold or stolen away. Very few large sets of houseposts survive in Ishan; most posts are preserved in groups of two or three, or single examples of an array that once was. The houseposts which do survive are in varying states of preservation, from mere stumps to full figures with minimal damage. Not all of the surviving houseposts, however, are in use as such. Although some have been reused as posts in new buildings, others simply stand outside a horne as an indication of the owner's status. Some posts have been incorporated into shrines as relics of the past; wherever they stand, many posts serve as the focus of veneration of ancestors or certain deities.

Like relief doors, the tradition of figural houseposts is shared by several neighboring groups in southern Nigeria. Although the Nupe create decorative houseposts, they are generally non-representational, consisting instead of combinations of geometric forms. One form found in both Nupe and Ishan posts is a twist (Stevens 1966: 23), which may be seen in four fragmentary posts in Uromi villages (Fig. 61). However, the closest relationship to the Ishan spiral form may be found in Benin, where twisted earthen pillars adorn a shrine in the
ba's palace (Bradbury BS 207/2). In Benin, very few figural houseposts survive today, and those are in such poor condition that their subject matter is undecipherable (Ben-Amos 1991: 77). The figurated housepost tradition may, however, have been an ancient one in Benin. A Dutch account published in the early eighteenth century (van Nyendael, cited in Talbot 1926 I: 167-168) describes both planks and human figures which provided support for galleries in the ba's palace. The Frenchman J.F. Landolphe published an account of his late eighteenth century visit to Benin, in which he also described a courtyard with pillars carved in the form of "great men in their ceremonial dress" (quoted in Roth 1903: 44). Although it is worth noting that Benin had carved houseposts at an early date, there is, unfortunately, insufficient material for comparison with Ishan posts.

More numerous and better preserved are Yoruba figurated houseposts associated with palaces and shrines. Both Ishan and Yoruba posts typically represent figures associated with the court in a monumental fashion. William Fagg suggests that certain posts among the eastern Yorubas at Idanre (1981: 112-113) and at Owo (1962: 90) have been executed in an "alien style" which appears to have much in common with Ishan post carving. Fagg goes so far as to suggest (1962: 90) that the Idanre posts might have been carved by Ishan prisoners of war during a period of upheaval in the late 1800s, prior to the Pax Britannica. While the Idanre posts (1962: Figs. 1, 2) may be atypical among Yoruba posts, they are also atypical of Ishan carving. In particular, the large bulbous eyes and fleshy three-dimensional noses of the Idanre figures do not conform to Ishan figural norms. If Ishan carvers produced these sculptures for eastern Yoruba patrons or masters, they did not reproduce typically Ishan features.

Diagnostic Features of Northern Ishan Houseposts

The twenty-seven surviving three-dimensional houseposts at the nojie's palace in Uromi (Figs. 62, 63)3 make an excellent group for beginning a basic formal analysis of northern Ishan post figures. The posts are relatively wellpreserved, although some suffer from erosion or insect damage which has affected the lower extremities to varying degrees. Above the heads of the monoxylous figures are carved extensions of various heights which carry the posts to the ceiling of the veranda (Fig. 64). Although there are small differences in the group, attributable to different hands and perhaps to different eras, it is possible to identify distinctive northern Ishan figural elements.

The posts are composed of a series of sculptural features, as in Fig. 64. From top to bottom, these are: a

2.    Two additional palace posts are relief planks.

narrow cylindrical projection designed to be anchored into the verandah ceiling;4 a flat board-like extension which is cut straight across the top where it meets the projecting cylinder, but which tapers at the bottom; a thick cylindrical section between the board and the figure; a spherical head; a long cylindrical torso which ends in a full and rounded belly; a large curved cylindrical element representing the gathering of a cloth wrapper at the waist in the style of male dress called ubunuku; the skirt of the wrapper; legs; and a cylindrical base. There are some slight deviations from this configuration; for example, a small number of figures lack the cylindrical unit above their heads (Fig. 65). These include the female figure in the group (Fig. 66) which also naturally lacks the male ubunuku wrapper, being depicted naked instead. Two figures carrying box-stools (kpokin) on their heads (Fig. 67) also lack the cylinder, which is visually replaced by the box stool.

Among the figural elements, the head is usually round, with flat or slightly concave faces. Usually there is a heavy brow line which from the front looks rather like a cap, but the line is not carried through to the back of the head. A nose, which is flat on its forward plane and

3.    In lieu of an integral projection, a separate rectangular spacer is sometimes added to build the top of the post to the desired height.

rectangular or triangular in shape, extends downward from the brow line. To either side of the nose and close to the brow line, round or divided oval eyes project forward an inch or more. The jaw juts forward, sometimes farther than the brow line, and at the bottom of the jaw the mouth consists of a linear incision, a rectangular excavation, or a wedge removed to suggest an open mouth. Sometimes teeth are indicated by small parallel incisions or triangular excavations in the mouth area. Usually there are no sculptured ears, but when they do appear, they are usually small semi-circular elements behind the eyes. Sometimes the brow line is carried down and around in a curve at the side of the head, which from the front suggests the appearance of ears. A small number of palace posts have more three dimensional faces (Figs. 68, 69), in which the cheeks are more volumetric.

The head is often joined directly to the torso, without much (or sometimes any) suggestion of a neck. The torso is cylindrical in form, but tends to bulge at the lower end, both to the sides and to the front at the navel. The back does not bulge out, so it can be assumed that the roundness in front is meant to suggest anatomical fullness. In some of the figures, the navel is truncated so that there is the appearance of a flat disk of about four inches’ diameter at the front of the figure. Contrastingly thin arms are carved close to the body, with the upper arms at the sides of the torso. A sharp bend of the elbow brings the forearms and whatever the figure may be holding directly in front of the body. In the case of sword bearer figures, however, one arm crosses in front of the body to hold the sword at one side, and the arms of a prisoner image bend behind his back rather than forward. The only exceptions to the norm of the arms being held directly against the body can be found in the figures of box-stool bearers whose arms are raised and necessarily separated from the body and the figure of a drummer whose arms curve out and away from the torso before bending at the elbow to rest on the head of the drum.

The length of the torso differs from one figure to another, and this is also true of the length of the arms in proportion to that of the torso. In some cases, the elbows reach almost to the bulge of the wrapper, whereas in other figures the upper arms are quite short. The arms are also not necessarily in proportion to each other on a single figure. Perhaps the greatest disparity in arm length appears in the figure of a man with a gun, in which the left upper arm is more than twice the length of the right! The thickness and diameter of the bulge of the wrapper is also variable in the palace figures, as is the length of the wrapper itself. In some cases, the wrapper can be the length of the torso, and in others half its length. In general, however, the wrapper is shaped like a bell, below which two legs descend.

The legs are usually short in proportion to the body. They are separated from one another, and flat on their inside planes. They bulge out to all other sides, but not in the fluid manner of the torso. Rather they make a sharp turn at the midpoint, suggesting a knee, and narrow again towards the junction with the base, appearing almost diamond shaped from the side. None of the figures with surviving legs and bases have any feet; the legs merely join the base, or else they join each other at the bottom before joining the base. In small subsidiary images in figural groups (Figs. 68, 69), however, feet and toes are depicted.

The figures wear very few ornaments. Several figures have single bracelets depicted in relief on their wrists. Two sword bearers, have relief necklaces with a protective medicine gourd (ukokole) at the center. Two other figures, the drummer (Fig. 72) and a figure honoring the sixteenth-century Onojie Agba (Figs. 68, 69) wear a plain relief necklace. The Agba figure also has incised lines around the wrists which suggest bracelets. Other figures have incised lines around the neck, arms and wrists which might represent jewelry. The better preserved figures show a great deal of incised decoration on the head, face, torso, arms, and sometimes on the wrappers as well as on the swords and other things they hold. These designs are usually areas of crosshatching within ovals, circles, lozenges and other shapes. Ladder patterns and series of short incised lines are also common. Some of these patterns, including leaf-like shapes on the forehead and rectangular marks at the outside corners of the eyes (Fig. 74), probably represent Ishan ethnic marks. One figure (as well as an ujie character depicted in relief) have bladelike iskle tattoo patterns on their torsos (Figs. 75, 76) which appear to be simplified isekele tattoos. Several sword bearers have a crosshatched circle in the center of their chests (Fig. 70), which may possibly represent a form of protective gba. Most of the incised patterns on the housepost figures, however, are probably not meant to depict actual scarification, tattooing or body painting designs. There is no uniformity to the patterns on the figures, and the same sorts of designs appear on their clothing and the objects they hold, as well as on a wide variety of other Ishan carvings, both figural and non-representational. Rather, the designs seem to be the ubiquitous and typical means by which northern Ishan carvers decorated and gave interest to the surface of their sculptures.

Only one palace post deviates from the figural canon described above. The lone female figure (Fig. 66) is quite crudely carved with a single breast, a large prognathic mouth, and slits rather than protruding eyes. Throughout Uromi, figural houseposts are generally similar to the typical palace posts, although at least two examples preserved in the villages resemble the crude female palace post, and a few others exhibit unusual features such as a flattened top of the head (Fig. 81). The formal similarity of post figures throughout Uromi suggests that Imiena guild carvers were patronized by chiefs and priests as well as by the royal palace, and/or that Enijie granted posts as gifts to notable others. In one village of Uromi, for example, houseposts are owned by the descendant of the second son of the mid-nineteenth century nojie Ikhimi, who gave his son the posts and a grant of land (Akhibe, Uromi, 17 June 1980). Some owners of houseposts claimed that their forebears were the actual carvers of the posts (e.g., Emiator Egbiremhonlen, Uromi, 15 July 1980).

Elsewhere in northern Ishan, post figures may vary in details while conforming in basic form to the Uromi posts Those closest to the Uromi tradition may be found in Irrua, where two well-preserved figures (Figs. 84, 85) resemble the Uromi palace variants which have more three-dimensional facial features. In Ugbegun, four post figures (Figs. 86, 87, 89) resemble Uromi examples in their flat faces, but have cowrie shaped eyes set in large concave circles, and noses which are flat but have flaring nostrils. The Ugbegun torsos are pinched rather than full at the waist, with space between the arms and the body. The ornaments of a male and

4.    Single posts preserved at Udo and Ohordua are relief planks and are therefore not considered here.

female pair (Figs. 86, 87) include relief necklaces and incised armlets as in Uromi post figures, but also unusual beaded crossed baldricks and a headband for the male figure, and waist beads for the female figure. This pair also bears Ishan ikho marks consisting of a series of parallel vertical lines on the cheeks; the male figure, however, also has a rectangular mark at the outer corners of his eyes, as in Uromi posts. Finally, the projections above the figures are cylindrical rather than flat.

The fifteen Ubiaja houseposts photographed by N.W. Thomas form the most heterogenous group (Figs. 90-94). Among them are the only known Ishan post figures in a seated or kneeling posture, in addition to the typical standing figure. The kneeling figures, moreover, are positioned one over the other with a platform between them (Fig. 92, left); this configuration is unique in extant Ishan posts, although it is common in Yorubaland. The Ubiaja posts have flat plank extensions at the top, but lack the cylindrical element found in Uromi. As in Uromi, female figures are depicted naked while, with the exception of one naked male figure, men wear the ubunuku wrapper gathered at the waist. Although some Ubiaja figures have bulging bellies as in Uromi, others are more barrel-chested. The legs of many Ubiaja figures differ from Uromi examples, having roughly zigzag shapes, and possessing blocky feet, which are totally absent at Uromi. Some Ubiaja figures have flat faces with a horizontal browline, but others have concave heart-shaped or circular faces (Figs. 92 right, 94). Although only one photograph has enough detail to show incised patterns on the body (Fig. 94), the Thomas photographs clearly show that many of the figures are covered with painted decorations. Today, extant three-dimensional Ishan figures are usually whitewashed or, more rarely, blackened with charcoal; painted patterns may have been an innovation of Ubiaja, or perhaps they were typical in the early twentieth century, when the Thomas photos were taken.

A single Uromi figure, belonging to the shrine of a deified royal ancestor, has painted designs, consisting of simple red and blue dots on a white background (Fig. 83). The figure is crudely carved, with a vestigial but nonfunctional plank extension at the top. In fact, the entire figure is flat, barely emerging from a basic plank form. This flat figure is unique in northern Ishan, and may represent a relatively recent anomaly there. However, as we shall see, flatter figures are characteristic of southern Ishan figural sculpture.

Northern Ishan Housepost Iconography

Beginning again with the twenty-nine Uromi palace posts, it is possible to determine the principal themes in northern Ishan post imagery. At the entrance to the first courtyard at the palace at Uromi, nine figures support the roof overhanging a veranda, seven to the left of the entranceway (Fig. 62), and two to the right. A tenth figure rests against the wall. The post figures face the large public plaza in front of the palace which is called ghodagba (ghodo agba) or courtyard of Agba (H.H. Stephen O. Edenojie I, Onojie of Uromi, 29 April 1980)6. Agba was the beloved sixteenth century Onojie who fought fiercely for independence from Benin; he and his adversary Oba Ozolua. both lost their lives in the struggle (Okojie [1960]: 221- 224). Agba has since been deified, and his public shrine is within the palace plaza. The ghodagba posts have been set into a relatively recent cement floor, but former erosion has damaged the lower ends. The best preserved still have wrappers and fragmentary legs, but others end at the bulge of the wrapper or at the navel. In an interior courtyard, called Ogbeneza (Fig. 63), a large figure honoring Agba is featured prominently (Figs. 68, 69) in front of a wall compartment which serves as his palace shrine. Post figures stand before other recessed shrines, including those for Osun and Olokun. A larger proportion of the nineteen interior posts are well preserved; nearly half retain their legs and fragments of their bases.

5.    The late Onojie of Uromi associated the term agba in eghodo agba with the sixteenth-century rebel Agba, but at the palace in Benin, a courtyard called by the same name (ghodo agba) refers to the Agba stool upon which the Qba sits when meeting with certain chiefs (Bradbury BS 206). It appears that in Uromi, the original meaning has been altered.

Unfortunately, no conclusions can be drawn from the juxtaposition of posts, because they have been removed and reinstalled, probably several times. For example, older posts were said to have been reinstalled during the rebuilding of the palace soon after Onojie Okojie's accession to the throne in 1901 (H.H. Stephen O. Edenojie I, Onojie of Uromi, 29 April 1980). Moreover, the location of many posts photographed by Bradbury? in 1959 had changed by the time of my research in 1980, although the total number of posts remained the same.

Many images found in relief doors are reproduced in monumental figural form in the Uromi veranda posts. By far the largest number of palace posts, as well as other northern Ishan posts, depicts swordbearers (Effiada). Some swordbearers carry the bn (Fig. 70), the state sword which indicates the Onojie's right to rule. This sword and its attendant rights are delegated by the Oba of Benin to the Onojie, who in turn delegates it to chiefs who govern the villages on his behalf. Other swordbearers hold the ada sword (Fig. 65) symbolizing the Onojie's right to take human life within his kingdom. The ada bearers suggest the Onojie's status as the ultimate judge and upholder of Ishan law and custom.

6. Bradbury's photographs and chapbooks are held by Mrs. Rosalyn Bradbury at the University of Birmingham, England. The Uromi posts are on Film 12, numbers 8-20, and on Film 13, numbers 1-21.

A single figure of a prisoner with his arms tied behind his back (Fig. 71) is conceptually related to the ada bearer. He may represent a criminal awaiting the Onojie's justice, or perhaps a candidate for human sacrifice, which formerly accompanied the burials of the Onojie and certain great chiefs. Still other figures hold swords which may be variants of the Ada and bn forms, or might represent combat weapons (Fig. 79), suggesting the military power upon which the security of the throne was often based. All together, fully half of the palace post figures carry state swords or weapons of some sort, including one holding a gun (osisi,).

Three interior posts illustrate the piggyback ujie image (Figs. 76, 77), two of them executed in the round, while the third appears in relief en a plank post. The ujie group also appears in an Uromi village as well as in Irrua and Ubiaja. As we have seen, this image is richly meaningful. As a scene of warfare, it reinforces the theme of military strength, while as an image of a royal burial it amplifies the idea of legitimate leadership and adds the dimension of continuity of hereditary of the royal lineage. The lone female figure also participates in the theme of familial continuity. She is depicted naked, with her hands converging at and displaying the genitals.

The palace posts depict a variety of court personages which are represented in relief doors as well as in posts located elsewhere in Uromi. For example, three posts depict figures holding ukhur ancestral staffs (Fig. 75), and a fourth figure holds the Onojie's protective ukhur (or possibly a medicine gourd) and a fan which, like the flywhisk held by one of the ujie figures, is a symbol of status for elders, chiefs, and the Enijie. Tribute box bearers and musicians/heralds (drummers, whistle blowers) also appear in the Uromi palace group. The elder is also present, smoking the long obodo pipe.

Figural Groups in Northern Ishan Housepost Imagery

Court functionaries and an elder are also depicted in miniature in the large figural group honoring Agba in the interior courtyard (Figs. 68, 69). The principal figure holds an bn state sword in his right hand, while with his left he grips the hand of a small pipe-smoking figure who is seated on top of his wrapper (Fig. 68). Perched on the right side of the wrapper is a man with a whistle, while another holds a fan at the front (Fig. 69). In a second post group (Fig. 78), a miniature fan-bearer is held by the hand as he stands next to the principal figure, who carries an bn sword in his right hand. In each case, the genitals of the small figures are displayed below short wrappers or the ubunuku bulge.

While unusual, the palace sculptures depicting small figures held or supported by large ones are not unique in northern Ishan sculpture. A male and female pair, for example, made their way into the collection of the late Roger de la Burde. The female figure (Fig. 95), naked except for a necklace and strand of waist beads, holds the hand of a small standing male figure with displayed genitals. In the second group (Fig. 96), a small naked male figure sits on the hip of a whistle-blower. Neither of the small figures is engaged in any activity. This is also true of miniature figures which appear in the male/female pair at the palace in Ugbegun kingdom. The male figure, representing a king (H.H. Azikagbon II, Onojie of Ugbegun, 16 September 1980), holds a small female figure upside down by one of her legs, while a male figure hangs suspended from the king's other arm (Figs. 86, 88) The miniature female figure is depicted with her face towards the king's torso, but is recognizable as female by the waist beads she wears. The small male figure hangs face out, with its genitals displayed. The female post figure, presumably the king's wife, holds what appears to be a staff in her left hand, suggesting that she occupies a position of authority. With her right hand, she holds a small androgynous standing figure which suckles her breast (Fig. 87), while a displayed male figure stands in front of the base and holds onto her legs.

Interesting questions arise regarding the meaning of these groups. Perhaps the basic issue concerns whether the small figures represent children, which might seem possible if one had only seen those with empty hands, and particularly when they are joined to a large female figure. But in the two palace groups, the small figures are engaged in non-infantile activities such as smoking a pipe, blowing a whistle, or bearing a fan which suggests that they represent adult men and even elders. This throws into doubt the identification of at least some of the other small figures as children.

Another question which arises is whether the images display hierarchic proportion, in which persons of significance are shown larger than those of inferior status. This device is found elsewhere in West Africa, particularly in the art of Ishan's immediate neighbors in Benin and Yorubaland, but it is rare in Ishan. We have seen only one clear Ishan example of hierarchic proportion in relief, and none in northern Ishan sculptures in the round other than those now under consideration. Indeed, the concept of hierarchic proportion is out of character with typical Ishan figural sculpture, which is remarkably free of status indicators such as extensive jewelry or rich costume. This is in sharp contrast to Benin sculpture, where elaborate dress is common, and hierarchic arrangements often include many different sizes of figures corresponding to gradations in their rank. The Ishan examples are closer to the Yoruba use of the hierarchic principle, in which an important character is shown very much larger than subsidiary figures, which tend to be all about the same small size (e.g., Abiodun et al. 1991: Figs. 57, 58; Fagg and Pemberton 1982: Pl.10).

Yoruba veranda posts and other sculptures also include small figures of whistle-blowing heralds which stand or sit on a base, alone (Sotheby's New York 1989: Lot 41) or among other musicians and members of the entourage of a large figure (Abiodun et al. 1991: Figs. 57, 58). Counterparts for small figures being held upside down by the leg may also be found, although rarely, among the corpus of Yoruba sculpture. Thompson (1971: Ch6/6, Ills. 2, 3) illustrates two images of a mother saluting the earth by holding her child upside down; they appear in a housepost and in a relief on a drum, both of which are associated with the society of titled earth worshipers known variously as Ogboni or osugbo. Thompson (1971: Ch6/2} states that exposure of the child's feet reveals "the point of view of the earth," and he discusses this image in the context of other inversions common to Ogboni thought and symbolism. Two additional Ogboni society figures (Drewal 1992: Figs. 9-22,

7.    The Yoruba whistle-blower and pipe smoker often symbolize Esu, the trickster deity in Yoruba religion. Esu is not important in Ishan, but the Ishan images of the smoker and whistler may be related to these common Yoruba images.

9-23) illustrate a man holding another upside down by the legs and devouring his feet. Drewal (1992: 206) interprets this curious image as a metaphor for execution, which is among "the primary judicial functions" of the Ogboni society.

In Ishan, the meaning of these images remains a matter for speculation. Whether the figure held upside down by the Ugbegun king has any significance relating to the earth, as in Yoruba Ogboni art, is questionable. In Ishan (Omonzejele, Chief Elo, Uromi, 30 April 1980), as in Benin (Ben-Amos 1984: 72-3), the point of the bn sword is oriented toward the earth in connection with the worship of ancestors, whose abode is within the earth. There is a strong association in Ishan, as elsewhere in Africa, between ancestors, the earth deity, and human as well as agricultural fertility. In the absence of specific cultural data from Ishan, however, any connection between the upside down figure and the earth remains inconclusive.

In the Uromi palace posts, court artists seem to have depicted the "little men" in Ishan society literally as figures far smaller in stature than those who represent the power of the Onojie. This viewpoint, however, is inconsistent in Uromi sculpture. The whistle-playing herald, for example, appears as a miniature figure in the Agba group, but also occurs as a principal figure in another figural group, in which a small figure sits on his hip.

Similarly, the pipe-smoking elder, and the fan-bearer representing an elder or chief, are personages with status in Ishan society, and are depicted as full-sized post figures as well as adjuncts to the Agba group. In these figural groups, the unusual depiction of hierarchy through size differentiation may have been borrowed from neighboring Benin or Yoruba art traditions.

The groups in which female figures are the principal images are ambiguous and, as in much of Ishan sculpture, were probably designed to express multiple meanings. At one level, images of women suckling a small figure or holding its hand may safely be interpreted as a mother nurturing or protecting her child. She represents the link between generations as her fertility is a blessing from the ancestors which ensures the continuation of the noble lineage. On another level, she herself represents an ancestral mother, to whom the living, perhaps symbolized by the small supplicatory and supported figures, may appeal for guidance or assistance. The female figures also represent important women. The Chief Ezomo of Uromi stated (Chief Ijele Iriogbe, Uromi, 21 August 1980) that female figures in the palace commemorated notable wives of the Onojie,9 and the Ugbegun female is paired with a king figure and carries her own staff of authority. These figural groups are 


8.    Although the Ezomo spoke of female figures in the plural, only one remains in the palace today.similar to Yoruba sculpture, where women are also represented as mothers and dignitaries at the same time; in houseposts and other sculptures they often hold infants while being attended by small figures representing adult retainers or representatives of "the larger social world" (Drewal et al. 1989: 19, Pl. 9 caption; cf. Pl. 226). Together, the Ugbegun king figure and his queen suggest control The figural groups from Uromi and Ugbegun are exceptional in northern Ishan sculpture, distinguished in particular by the unequal proportions of the figures. The mother and child image is also uncommon in extant northern Ishan sculpture, known only here and in a single veranda post photographed at Ubiaja (Fig. 90, far right). While the mother and child is eschewed by Ishan artists, it is common elsewhere in Africa; on the other hand, certain sculptural devices found in Ishan are rare or unique in African art generally. These include the odd placement of small figures on the hips, hanging from an arm, grasping the legs, clasped by the hand, or suspended upside down by larger figures. Such devices testify to the inventiveness of Ishan artists over the destinies of humankind, graphically depicting their power to support, ignore, or dispose of their dependents.


9.  A caryatid female figure illustrated in Drewal (1980: 48, Fig. 55) is carved in an unlocalized style which Drewal attributes to the "personal vision" of a "self-taught" Yoruba carver. Some features of this figure –

     Other Northern Ishan Housepost Imagery

Ugbegun artists also produced a housepost figure identified (H.H. Azikagbon II, Ugbegun, 16 September 1980) as a blacksmith (ogun), holding the tools of his trade in the manner of insignia of authority (Fig. 89, left). A single plank post in an Uromi village depicts another craftsman, a carver, in relief with adzes (asojia) above and below him (Fig. 82). The post belongs to the Chief Iyama of the Imiena guild and was carved by his grandfather, the first to hold the title during the reign of Okoro (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, 3 September 1980). A center for unusual images was the palace at Ubiaja, although the posts no longer exist. Among familiar images such as an ujie group,
kpokin box-bearer, naked female figure, and swordbearers, photographs by N.W. Thomas show a number of figures not seen elsewhere in Ishan houseposts. These include the only known seated figure, who is settled on a stool and holds a circular fan (Fig. 90, far left), and the only known kneeling figures, positioned one above the other with a platform between them (Fig. 92, left). At the top is a naked female figure; the lower figure cannot be identified with certainty but may also be female. Other singular

including the flat face, horizontal brow line, flat nose with nares, and eyes set in a concavity resemble the Ugbegun sub-style. The figure carries a child on her back, and a small figure of a whistle player emerges from her abdomen. This highly unusual imagery may indicate familiarity with Ishan sculpture.

subjects appearing among the Ubiaja posts are (Fig. 91, left to right) a naked male figure, a man holding a decapitated head, a warrior wearing protective ~ waist rings and carrying a spear, a figure with a pith helmet, a trumpeter (also in Fig. 93), and a man carrying a bird or fowl on a head tray (Fig. 92, right), probably representing an intended sacrifice. It may be that other examples of these subjects once existed, but no parallels for them are extant in northern Ishan today.

Other than the three-dimensional bird or fowl in the Ubiaja post, animals appear primarily in relief in northern Ishan posts. The image of a crocodile, king of its watery realm and symbol of aggression, occupies a plank post in the Uromi palace (Fig. 80) and another in an outlying village. A large snake wriggles down the length of an Uromi village plank post, while another (Fig. 77) appears in relief on the lower wrapper of a palace group, where it attacks another creature, contributing to the theme of aggression. On the panel above the head of an~ bearer (Fig. 65), the image of a horse appears in relief, symbolizing wealth, status and military prowess as it does in the relief doors. Erosion, stylization, and lack of local information render it impossible to identify two additional wrapper images, which might represent a frog and a bird.

Diagnostic Features of Southern Ishan Figural Sculpture

The housepost tradition is not strong in southern Nigeria; in fact, only two figures, from Ewohimi, possess plank extensions which indicate that they may have been used as houseposts. These figures (Fig. 97) have disk-like heads with small incised features, flat bodies with highly stylized legs, and arms resting on the hips. The figures, along with the undecipherable remains of relief panels, surround a shrine to Osun, the deity of medicine, and were inherited by the present owner. In the nearby kingdom of Ohordua, a large wooden panel with a rounded top serves as the focus of veneration for the forefathers of a hereditary chief. The panel, called izemhinze, has a relief image of a standing male figure (Fig. 98). Although no large threedimensional sculptures could be located in situ in Ohordua, the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos collected a large figure of a warrior (Accession No. 72.7.10), also called izembinze, which has the remains of a cylindrical projection above the head and might have functioned as a post.

Large figures in the round are also called izemhinze in the southern Ishan kingdom of Emu, which claims consanguinity with Ohordua through their founders, who are said to have been brothers (Okojie [1960]: 276-277). Several figures have been found in the ancestral shrines of titled men (Fig. 99). It is unclear, however, whether these sculptures were originally designed as shrine funrniture.

Throughout Ishan, old objects are commonly placed in shrines as relics of particular ancestors or of the past in general. On the other hand, it cannot be claimed with certainty that they once functioned as houseposts. None has anything more than a semi-conical or bell-shaped extension above the head which probably represents a cap or headdress; similar projections emerge from the heads of figures which could never have functioned as posts, including small sculptures (Fig. 99, left). On the other hand, collection data for two Emu figures in the Nigerian National Museum (Accession Nos. 62.17.20 and 73.7.8) state that one with a similar bellshaped extension had been a veranda post, while the other was carved to decorate a chief's house. Even if not houseposts, therefore, the Emu figures may once have been architectural ornaments.

Even when carved in the round, the large southern figures barely emerge from a two-dimensional plane. Both male and female figures are generally depicted naked. Their torsos are long and usually ovoid or rectangular. The typical posture is frontal and static, with the arms held stiffly at the sides of the body or touching the hips. At times the hands rest upon the heads of two small flanking figures (Figs. 99, 101, 102), and in at least one case, small human heads emerge from the shoulders (Fig. 99) .11 The faces are concave, but the size of the face in proportion to the head varies from figure to figure. In some figures, nearly the entire front of the head is concave (e.g., Fig. 99), while in other examples the concavity occupies only the lower half (Fig. 100). The oval eyes and flat triangular or rectangular noses executed in low relief resemble northern Ishan figures, but the straight-edged brow is absent here. Instead, the eyes appear at the top of the facial concavity, and an incised line representing the mouth appears at the bottom. The faces are often adorned with incisions representing Ishan ikho tattoos, including radiating lines at the corners of the eyes (abelamhen) and parallel lines under each eye (Figs. 100, 101), or Edo lines above the eyebrows (Figs. 98, 102). Occasionally the bodies also bear long, blade-like incised designs representing isekele and abihiaga torso tattoos (Fig. 99-100). Other decorative patterns may also be incised on the faces and bodies of the figures, but jewelry is generally lacking.

A number of figures typical of southern Ishan form have made their way to the United States. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fig. 102), for example, a high relief panel

The Ohordua example in the Nigerian National Museum is exceptional. It depicts a male figure with displayed genitals, a severed head in his left hand, an object now broken in his right hand, and a medicine gourd hanging from his neck.

with a curved top depicts a naked male resting one hand on a small figure or figural staff, and the other on a zigzag element which probably represents a stylized snake. In a second piece, at the Fowler Museum (UCLA), a male figure with a short wrapper is flanked by similar zigzag elements which clearly have the heads of snakes (Fig. 100). Above, forming an arch, a horned animal (probably an antelope or goat) is attacked by a leopard, which is recognizable by the conventionalized tail curving over its back. The effect is that of an openwork figural panel. - A similar panel (Fig. 101), with a leopard alone, belonged to the former Harry A. Franklin Gallery in Beverly Hills (African Arts 1970: 1, advertisement), which also owned at least one other large southern Ishan figure (Borgatti 1971, Fig. 34). Southern Ishan figures have also cropped up in the Old Curiosity Shop in Los Angeles (Borgatti 1971, Fig. 77) and in the William and Robert Arnett collection (Wittmer and Arnett 1978, Fig. 81).

Southern Ishan large-scale figural sculpture clearly differs in many ways from northern Ishan examples. Compositional and formal features of the southern Ishan figures from Emu, Ohordua and Ewohimi (as well as the anomalous flat figure from Uromi) have referents, however, in a group of sculptures at the palace at Agbor, an Ika Igbo town immediately to the south of Ishan territory. Flat figures, openwork figurated panels, and high relief figures on plankboards, all called opia in the Ika dialect, may be found there. Some hold their arms at the sides (Fig. 103), and others rest their hands on the heads of smaller figures (Fig. 104), as in the southern Ishan examples. Some are painted with colored dots on a light background, reminiscent of the flat Uromi figure (Figs. 103, 104).

In a short article, Ulli Beier illustrates eleven of these figures, which he characterizes as "unique" and "the most original art works of Agbor" (1963a: 25), in contrast to other Ika sculptures with clear connections to Benin or eastern Igbo art. However, in some ways the flat figures at Agbor are related to both Igbo and Benin sculpture, as well as to Ishan. For example, the hierarchic arrangemer.ts foth~d in some southern Ishan sculptures are mirrored, or even more developed (Beier 1963a: Pls. iii, viii) in the Agbor works. This may be explained by the proximity of both areas to Benin, where hierarchic proportion and composition are elaborately developed. The representation of coral beads or crossed baldricks in some Agbor figures may also be found in Benin. On the other hand, details of the Agbor sculptures are often executed in a chip carving technique which is typical of Igbo sculpture.

A number of the Agbor figures have short, plank extensions from the top of the head (Figs. 103, 105), but Beier saw them anchored to the ground around the perimeter of a new reception hall, rendering the upper extensions non- functional. He concluded (1963a: 25) that the figures once served as veranda posts, although palace officials disagreed with him. Beier states (1963a: 25) that some of the flat figures were very recent (one was only six years old at the time), and that this sculptural tradition was ongoing. In that case, the purpose for which the pieces had been made would not likely have gone out of memory in such a short period of time. In 1980, a palace representative (Chief Diagboya, Agbor, 16 December 1980) told me that large figures once decorated the public courtyard in the palace, and would be restored to that function when the new ruler came of age. He may have been referring to the flat figures seen by Beier, which had subsequently been removed to storage, or to figures in the round which were carved in a different style.

The three-dimensional Agbor sculptures, apparently the work of several hands, depict men and women (Figs. 106-109) standing on thick bases. The figures bear only minimal similarities to Ishan sculptures, such as the semi-conical elements which project from the heads of some, but share iconographic themes with both northern and southern Ishan posts. For example, one male figure (Fig. 106) rests his

The sculptures housed in the Agbor palace treasury are a stylistically eclectic lot. They include a number of small figures and plaques which have traditional functions such as an ikenga image, or serve as modern decorations, including figures of soldiers, a district officer, and the Obi (ruler) in full regalia.

hands on the heads of two small human images, a southern Ishan convention, but the small figures perch on his hips as in several northern Ishan figural groups. Another Agbor figure (Fig. 107) stands on the heads of two small figures, one of which is playing a trumpet, while the trumpet-player is the subject of a full-sized figure, along with other court functionaries such as a kolanut box-bearer. A prisoner is also depicted with his arms tied behind his back at the elbow (Fig. 108) as in the Uromi palace. It would appear that, in the very porous borderland region between the Ika and Ishan peoples, sculptures have been created which do not reproduce each other exactly, but share formal, iconographic, and functional similarities. Although they may or may not have been houseposts, the Agbor figures are architectural ornaments which distinguish the palace of the ruler, which was probably also true of most large southern Ishan figures.

Southern Ishan Figural Iconography

The iconographic themes in large southern Ishan figural sculpture are limited. Figures either hold their arms at their sides or in front of the body, or rest their hands on posts or small figures. In the absence of regalia or other meaningful accessories, the identities of such figures are elusive. Today, testimony by the owners often associates such figures with ancestors. A figure preserved in the royal ancestral shrine at the Emu palace, for example, was said to represent an early Onojie (Prince Peter Ojiealekhe, Emu, 16 October 1980). Similar figures from both Emu and Ohordua are associated with chiefly ancestors (Thomas Isidahome, Emu, 10 December 1980; Chief Johnson Osagie, Ohordua, 30 November 1980).

Figures resting their arms on the heads of smaller figures have also been identified as ancestors. A female figure (Fig. 99) is identified as a portrait of a specific ancestor, the great-grandmother Efua of the current owner (Stephen Omase, Emu, 16 October 1980), depicted with her hands on the heads of her children, and attended by a separate figure of a slave (igbon). Collection data for a similar male figure at the Nigerian National Museum (Accession No. 62.17.20) identifies it as an ancestral image, but information is lacking for this type of figure in United States collections. Where data exists, these sculptures are linked with royal or chiefly families, and may be understood as ancestors or progenitors of noble lineages depicted with their descendants. On the other hand, it is possible that, when the sculptures were carved at the turn of the century, the small figures were intended to represent those of lower status than the royal or chiefly character in a hierarchic arrangement similar to prevalent depictions of Obas or chiefs in Benin. The one instance where the small figures are identified as children may represent a recent reinterpretation of their meaning.

No groups, ukhure wielders, swordbearers or court functionaries are depicted in known southern Ishan architectural sculpture, which is in stark contrast to northern Ishan post imagery. A single southern figure from Ohordua which is now at the Nigerian National Museum (Accession No. 72.7.10), however, portrays a warrior holding a severed head in his left hand and the remains of an object, perhaps a weapon, in his right; the severed head motif appears elsewhere only in a northern housepost at Ubiaja and in a relief from an unknown northern location (Figs. 55, 91). The two openwork panels in American collections (Figs. 100, 101) depict leopards, which universally represent the power of the king. Snakes also appear, often very stylized, as supports in place of the small flanking figures (Figs. 100, 102); their meaning in this position is unknown. At this time, no other images have surfaced in southern Ishan architectural sculpture.


Among Ishan houseposts and other architectural figures, two distinctive sculptural traditions correspond to the northern Plateau region and the southern forests. Within these broad areas, regional variations may be identified. In the north, Uromi was clearly the center of a flourishing architectural carving tradition, which also seems to have provided actual posts or the inspiration for housepost forms to Irrua and Ubiaja. The palace at Ubiaja, however, was also an important housepost site in its own right, depicting unique subjects in a heterogenous manner. Information about the richness of the Ubiaja housepost tradition might have been lost except for the photographs of N.W. Thomas; one wonders how many other sets of houseposts succumbed to the ravages of climate, fire, and the white ant. A single housepost survived a fire at the palace at Udo, for example, and is now severely eroded. In Ugbegun, just four posts remain to testify to the distinctive sculptural vision which developed there.

The Ugbegun posts, of all the northern examples, provide the most compelling evidence for familiarity with Yoruba sculpture; mutual influences may well have been experienced by Yoruba carvers and those of Uromi and other northern Ishan kingdoms. Artistic sharing seems also to have been occurred between the southern Ishan kingdoms and the Ika Igbo artists immediately to the south, particularly in the kingdom of Agbor. The distinctive forms of Ishan houseposts, however, would not easily be confused with Yoruba or Igbo sculpture.

In northern Ishan, the houseposts were designed to surround those who entered the royal or chiefly courtyard with images of authority and power. The Onojie himself appears among the posts at Ugbegun and Ubiaja, while in Uromi, extant post images focus on the support of authority, rather than on the authority figure himself. Even in the ujie motif, which illustrates the replacement of a deceased titleholder by his virile heir, the Onojie is shown in a liminal state, burying his father but not yet ascending the throne. Instead, the Uromi houseposts represent swordbearers and other members of the courtly entourage; elders; adult men whose primary task was the protection of the kingdom as warriors (okalo) and policemen (inotu); and women representing partners in power and procreation.

Although Ishan society is hierarchical, the rank of characters represented in northern Ishan posts (and other forms of art, for that matter) is not distinguished through their dress or ornaments, which are minimal or absent in most figures. Perhaps the depiction of an Onojie in full coral regalia would appear too similar to the Oba of Benin, an anathema to the independence-seeking northern Ishan kingdoms. Instead, a different set of symbolic images was developed, focusing on the distinctive ujie motif, figures with ukbur; staffs, and mada swordbearers.

In the south, some but perhaps not all the large scale figural sculpture functioned as houseposts, although it is likely that all were once architectural ornaments. Their limited subject matter focuses on images of a royal or chiefly personage, now revered as an important ancestor. Even though identified as deceased titleholders, however, these figures are also unadorned, and many are depicted naked. The posture of some of these figures, however, with their hands resting on the heads of small flanking figures, may represent hierarchic distinctions in rank, as in the kingdom of Benin.

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