From the Archives : The Ogboni

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Members of the Ogboni Society near Onitsha, Nigeria

Photograph by Simon Ottenberg 1959-60
EEPA
2000-007-0973783/1959-1960
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Renowned anthropologist, Dr Simon Ottenberg,  took this photograph in the Afikpo region of southeastern Nigeria during his 1959-1960 research. The original caption says, “The Ogboni Society coming from a meeting at Onitsha, the city on the Niger River, during a trip to visit Richard and Helen Henderson, conducting research in the old town at Onitsha. These were Igbo members of Ogboni, which is primarily a Yoruba society.”

The Ogboni society, also known as Oshugbo in the Egba and Ijebu areas of southwestern Nigeria, is an association of accomplished elders in parts of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.  Members perform a range of religious and political practices, including meting justice for crimes and disputes, installing and deposing kings, and overseeing burial rites. Ogboni members recognize the underground as a spiritual force that unites humankind and witnesses all wrongdoings. Ile, the deity or omniscient spiritual force of the underground, is central to Ogboni beliefs, art, and practices.

The Earth Matters exhibition includes both insignia of office and figures from the meeting house of a Yoruba Ogboni (or Oshugbo) society.  These edan (staffs or insignia of office) and onile (society figures) demonstrate the importance of concepts of the earth to Ogboni. In the ease with which their motifs can be identified, the figurative pair of copper alloy edan suggest the knowable world: male/female, old/young…  and yet beneath each figure is a non-descript iron shaft.  Made from an ore of the earth, these shafts allude to things we cannot know: the unknowable world of the divine and the underground.  Likewise, the terracotta onile figures are made of a material of the earth that alludes to the power and knowledge beyond mere mortal comprehension.

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