The intricate beaded designs on this dog-eared hat (fìlà abéti ajá) suggest that it was worn by a high-ranking diviner, an expert who harnessed natural and spiritual resources on behalf of the community. The imagery refers to the forces and gods (orishas) called upon during Ifá, the indigenous Yoruba practice of divination. Esu, the trickster god and the interlocutor between this world and the next, is represented by a three-dimensional face. The fish-legged figure above Esu represents Olokun, the god of the sea and patron of bead artists, whose materials—glass beads—metaphorically come from the sea. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, European-made glass seed beads, traded by colonial merchants, entered Nigeria and quickly became markers of status. The tiny, irregularly sized beads help date this hat: mass-produced beads, usually larger and brighter, were not available until later in the twentieth century.
Christie’s Paris, Art d’Afrique, d’Océanie et d’Amérique du Nord, sale code SOVEREIGN-4025. 23 June 2015, Paris.
Christie’s South Kensington, Ltd. Art and Ethnography from Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, sale code: ETH 3826. 3-4 July 1990, London.