Among the Yoruba, the political and religious elite had the exclusive privilege of covering their bodies, regalia, and ritual artifacts with beads. The very materials used on this Yoruba king’s V-neck tunic, from the imported European glass beads to those of prized indigenous jasper, expressed wealth and position, identifying the wearer as a person of substance and authority. Beaded front and back in a range of colors and possessing a remarkable capacity to catch light, the tunic dramatically visualizes the presence of its wearer. It is the iconography, however, that indicates the tunic belonged to an oba, or king. The recurring use of the interlace pattern denotes royal attire as this specific design motif is found only on palace articles. Just below the neck and framed by fringed conical crowns, an appliquéd face symbolizes the continuity of the oba’s office from the founding of the Yoruba peoples by Oduduwa, the first king. The crowns (adenla) signify an oba’s sacred authority — only kings, not lesser chiefs, were allowed to wear a crown with a conical shape — while intricate three-dimensional birds placed to each side identify the tunic’s owner as a direct descendant of the first king. The birds are also expressions of the power of women, the "mothers," who play an important role in the maintenance of the well-being of the community and without whom no person could rule. Near the shoulders and nestled beneath the crowns, pairs of animal horns, represented as red cones with white centers, are thought to be filled with potent materials that enable an oba to speak with authority: when he speaks with similar horns in front of his lips, his word is final. Most likely worn on ritual occasions, the tunic would have encircled the king’s body, demanding the attention of spectators.
Inherently serial, beads have long connoted continuity, unity, and regeneration. This garment was painstakingly composed by a bead artist who first threaded strands of beads, then arranged the patterns by laying the strands onto a cloth foundation before they were finally attached. Numerous repairs suggest that the tunic was valued and cared for over an extended period; however, repairs can also make dating a particular challenge. For Yoruba beaded textiles, the prevailing understanding among experts is that beads became larger and brighter over time. Here, the presence around the neck of rare, locally produced jasper beads and the abundance of the tiniest seed beads signal an early creation date, probably the earliest part of the twentieth century, or, perhaps, as early as the late nineteenth century.
This resplendent tunic would have been worn by a Yoruba king, or oba, on ritual occasions, dazzling spectators with its reflective quality and communicating the king’s status and wealth. When seed beads were introduced into Nigeria in the eighteenth century, the Yoruba Oyo Empire controlled trade routes, and thus the acquisition of glass beads, encouraging the association of beads with elite ase, or authority. The red stone beads sewn into the tunic’s neckline, called okun, were likely produced locally, remnants of a once robust bead trade among the various Yoruba kingdoms.
The tunic’s recurring interlace pattern is found almost exclusively on royal palace articles, and an appliquéd face symbolizes Oduduwa, the first king. The miniature conical crowns (adenla) signify an oba’s ase, and their shape refers to his ibori, the conical shrine to the inner head. The intricate three-dimensional birds placed to each side of the crowns express the power of women, or "mothers." Finally, the red cones with white centers near the shoulders and nestled under the crowns represent the animal horns that enable an oba to speak with authority. Numerous repairs, indicated by the presence of later, larger beads, suggest that the tunic was valued and cared for over an extended period.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).