New Acquisition: Royal Yoruba Tunic

Covered with thousands of glass beads in intricate patterns, a Yoruba king’s V-neck tunic adds new depth to the Museum’s collection of African art. The very materials of this tunic, from the imported European beads to the prized indigenous jasper beads, would have expressed wealth and position and signaled the wearer’s influence over both worldly and spiritual forces; the political and religious elite had the exclusive privilege of covering their bodies, regalia, or ritual artifacts with beads. It is the iconography, however, that indicates the tunic belonged to an oba, or king. Just below the neck and framed by conical crowns, an appliqued face symbolizes the continuity of the oba’s office from the founding of the Yoruba people by Oduduwa, the first king. The crowns symbolize an oba’s sacred authority— only kings, not lesser chiefs, were allowed to wear a crown with a conical shape—while intricate threedimensional birds placed to each side identify the tunic’s owner as a direct descendant of the first king. Near the shoulders and nestled beneath the crowns, pairs of animal horns, represented as red cones, are thought to be filled with materials that enable an oba to speak with authority. Worn over the shoulders and tied in three places, the tunic, its beads and motifs would have encircled the king’s body, sealing out dangerous spirits and ensuring his protection.
 
Inherently serial, beads have long symbolized continuity, unity, and regeneration. This garment was painstakingly composed by a bead artist who first threaded strands of beads and then sewed them onto a cloth foundation. Numerous repairs suggest that the tunic was valued and cared for over an extended period; however, the repairs can also make dating a particular challenge. When dating 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, likely the early twentieth century or the late nineteenth century. This dazzling textile joins what is becoming a fine group of Yoruba objects in the Museum’s collection, including a Gelede headdress and a pair of ere ibeji figures clothed in a similar, smaller beaded tunic.
 
Holly W. Ross
Guest Curator
 
Juliana Ochs Dweck
Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for
Collections Engagement
 
Credits:
Yoruba artist, Nigeria: Tunic, late 19th–early 20th century. Glass and stone beads, fabric, and thread, approx.: 101.6 x 71.1 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund (2012-77). Photo: Bruce M. White