This figure represents a person who was a twin, or ibeji. Nigeria has the highest rates of twinning in the world— around four times higher than the global average. Among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, twins are thought to bring blessings and hold special status in the community. They are honored both in life, and after they have died.
Upon the death of a twin—either as a baby or as an adult—a carved figure was often commissioned to honor the person’s memory, and to ensure continued blessings. Family homes often have small shrines where these figures are kept and tended, with regular offerings of food and gifts. The figures are washed and fed and polished with oil and camwood powder. Some are adorned with strings of beads or clothing, such as this figure.
If a twin dies as a baby, the mother will carry the figure on her back, tucked into her wrapper the way she carries her living children. It is always hoped that the deceased twin will not be lonely and entice the living twin to join him or her.
Ibeji figures always represent adults in the prime of their lives, whether or not the person reached adulthood. The elaborate, conical hairstyle and protruding, rounded eyes allude to spiritual qualities valued by the Yoruba.
With the passage of time, new traditions for honoring ibeji have emerged. Families may choose to purchase a plastic baby doll from the market, or use a photograph rather than commissioning a carved wooden figure such as this.