Esan carving traditions, Ubiaja

Detail of carved door panel, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909.
Detail of carved wooden door panel, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, 1909.(NWT 1027; RAI 400.17422).

Northcote Thomas visited the Esan (or Ishan) towns of Agbede, Irrua and Ubiaja in August 1909. At the royal palace in Ubiaja, Thomas photographed some remarkable carved doors and house-posts. 71 years later, in 1980, the art historian Carol Ann Lorenz conducted research in Esanland as part of her PhD project Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture (Columbia University, 1995). In this article, we revisit Lorenz’s unpublished notes about the Ubiaja carvings in the light of our own research as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project.

Carved houseposts, Obirrra's house, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, ,1909.
Detail of Northcote Thomas’s photograph of sculpted house-posts at ‘Obiria’s house’, Ubiaja palace, 1909 (NWT 1007; RAI 400.17390).

In 1980, Lorenz was able to document the remains of what she termed ‘figurated house-posts’ – or orẹ in the Esan language – in a number of towns, including 75 in Uromi, a short distance from Ubiaja. These sculptural posts supported the verandas of palaces and noble residences, providing a visual statement of the owner’s status and authority. At the time of Lorenz’s fieldwork, such posts were no longer made and those that survived were in a very poor state – some no more than mere stumps. Although the examples in Ubiaja were no longer in evidence, Lorenz noted the importance of Thomas’s photographs insofar as they provided a rare documentation of an assemblage of complete posts in situ.

Ubiaja palace complex

Lorenz was unable to find any oral traditions about the carvings in Ubiaja. She did, however, learn from the ruling Onojie (king) of Ubiaja, HRH Abumhenre Ebhojie II, that a fire had destroyed the palace in 1902. Evidently unaware that Thomas visited Ubiaja seven years later, in 1909, Lorenz made the incorrect assumption that he had photographed the palace sculptures prior to their destruction in the conflagration. It appears, rather, that the house-posts that Thomas photographed were part of a new palace, built after 1902, or of buildings that had not been affected by the fire. Indeed, we know from Thomas’s photograph register that he photographed at least two different buildings within the palace complex.

The palace, Ubiaja, Edo State, Nigeria
The Onojie’s new palace, Ubiaja, 2020. Photograph by Paul Basu.

When we visited Ubiaja as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, a brand new palace had recently been constructed for the reigning Onojie, HRH Curtis Idedia Eidenojie. Adjacent to this impressive new concrete structure are various generations of earlier earthen-walled palace buildings, many in a ruinous state. It was not possible to say with certainty if any of these were the remains of the palace that Thomas photographed in 1909.

Ruins of old palace, Ubiaja, Edo State, Nigeria.
The ruins of earthen-walled buildings that formed a courtyard in the palace complex. Each new Onojie has built a new palace, and different generations of palace buildings sit alongside one another. It was not possible to ascertain if any of the ruins corresponded to the buildings Thomas photographed in 1909. The roof of the new palace can be seen rising above the ruins. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Thomas visited Ubiaja during the rule of Elabor, who reigned between 1876 and 1921. By 1909, however, Elabor was elderly and suffering from ill-health. In these circumstances, a power struggle existed between a senior member of the royal household, Prince Obiyan, and Elabor’s eldest son, Prince Ugbesia, over who should act as the Onojie’s regent. Thomas photographed Elabor alongside a man he labelled ‘Obiria’. During our fieldwork in Ubiaja, the name Obiria was not recognised and it was felt that this was an incorrect transcription of Ugbesia. Some of the doorposts photographed by Thomas and discussed by Lorenz are, according to Thomas’s photo register, from ‘Obiria’s house’.

King and Obirrra, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909.
Left: ‘King and Obiria’. The figure on the left, ‘Obiria’, is thought to be the king’s son, Ugbesia. The figure on the right is the Onojie (king), Elabor. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 999, RAI 400.17389). Right: ‘King and Obiria’. Elabor and Obiria (probably Ugbesia) sitting in front of sculpted house-posts at the palace. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1000, RAI 400.17391).

House-posts

Lorenz provided descriptions of each of the house-posts photographed by Thomas. Regarding the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1000), the sculpture on the left depicts two kneeling figures, one above the other with a platform between them. Lorenz reported that this configuration was unique in her survey of Esan sculptures, although it was common in Yorubaland. The sculpture on the right depicts a figure carrying a fowl or bird on a head tray, possibly representing an intended sacrifice.

Carved houseposts, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909
Left: ‘Figurine in court’. Sculpted house-post at palace, photographed by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1002; RAI 400.17393). Right: ‘Figurine’. Decorated plank and sculpted house-post at ‘Obiria’s house’, photographed by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1003; RAI 400.17394).

The house-post in the photograph above left (NWT 1002) is described as ‘depicting a female figure touching her breast with one hand and her full belly with the other. Her abdomen is decorated with incised patterns’. Lorenz described the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) as ‘depicting a painted snake image on a plank post, and a three-dimensional trumpet blower’. While Lorenz identified all these sculptures as belonging simply to ‘the palace in Ubiaja’, those in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) can be identified in the photograph below, which Thomas’s labelled ‘Obiria’s house’. Although not the main palace, it is likely that this was located in the palace complex.

‘Obiria’s house’. Photograph of a high status house with sculpted posts supporting the veranda. During our fieldwork in Ubiaja, the name ‘Obiria’ was not recognized and it was thought that this was an erroneous transcription of the name ‘Ugbesia’, the son of the king, Elahor. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1007; RAI 400.17390).

Lorenz described the sculptures in the photograph of what we now know to be ‘Obiria’s house’ (NWT 1007) as depicting (from left to right): ‘a naked male figure, a swordsman carrying a severed head, a warrior with a shield and spear, a man with a pith helmet, a trumpet player, and a seated king’. There is a strong formal consistency in the four central carvings (the swordsman, warrior, man in pith helmet and trumpet player), suggesting they were made together and were the work of a single artist or workshop. They also appear to be relatively recently carved, due to the lack of weathering or insect damage.

Although Lorenz did not comment on it, the post on extreme left of this photograph – that depicting ‘a naked male figure’ – is perhaps more interesting than it at first appears. Firstly, it has no head. Instead of a head, the post continues merely as a flat ‘plank’ to the roof joists. Could its head possibly be that held by the swordsman sculpted from the adjacent pillar? Secondly, the figure appears to be shackled around its neck and left leg to a pillar beside it. Pure speculation, but perhaps this figure represents the body of a vanquished enemy? Stripped, shackled and finally beheaded?

Although we cannot be absolutely sure that Obiria is the king’s son, Ugbesia, it is interesting to note that Ugbesia was known to be despotic and tyrannical. The Esan historian, Christopher Okojie, writes that with the decline in Elabor’s powers, ‘the light of the Ruling House of Ubiaja went out’ and was ‘replaced with darkness in which hatred, confusion, suspicion and bipartisan warfare’ reigned. As noted above, at the time of Thomas’s visit, there was conflict between Ugbesia and his competitor for the regentship, Prince Obinyan. This quarrel evidently split Eguare (the palace quarter) into two warring factions, which had a profound effect on the wider Ubiaja community. In 1914 Ugbesia was formally recognized as regent, but the following years were also spent embroiled in conflict until, in 1919, he died in ‘mysterious circumstances’, predeceasing his incapacitated father by two years.

King's wives bathing, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909.
‘King’s wives bathing’. Courtyard at the palace in Ubiaja with carved house-posts. It is likely that this is the quarters of the king’s wives. Each wife would have a room accessed through the doors between the house-posts. When we were shown the ruins of later palace building, this same arrangement of wives’ rooms around a courtyard was pointed out. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 994a; RAI 400.17385).

In her notes on the above photograph of a palace courtyard (NWT 994a), Lorenz describes the house-post figures as depicting, from left to right, ‘a seated king, an ekpokin box bearer, an ujie group, two swordbearers, and a female figure nursing a child’. An ekpokin is a box used to carry gifts or tributes to the king. Ujie is music/dance genre in Esanland associated with royalty. According to Lorenz, these were common motifs in Esan sculpture.

Door panels

In addition to house-posts, Thomas photographed other sculptural forms in Ubiaja, including a number of carved doors and an agbala stool. The door carvings are quite distinct from the styles either of Benin or Igboland, of which Thomas photographed many examples. Lorenz argues that they are strongly influenced by Nupe door carving styles from the north, with discrete relief figures arranged in vertical rows. The Nupe had invaded the region to the north of Esanland earlier in the 19th century, and their influence extended to the Esan towns such as Irrua, Agbede and Ubiaja that Thomas visited. Unlike Nupe doors, however, the Esan examples include many representations of human figures, as well as the more typical representations of animals and inanimate objects.

Relief door carvings, photographed by Northcote Thomas at the palace in Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1025; RAI 400.17419 and NWT 1027; RAI 400.17422).

Lorenz interprets the figure at the top right of the photograph above left (NWT 1025) as being a male noble (okpia) holding a segmented ukhurhe staff. He is positioned above a female figure (okhuo), below whose feet a horizontal female figure lies. Lorenz observes that this door appears to have been repaired. The centre panel featuring a human figure, profile of a monkey and a lizard, has, she suggests, been carved in a different style to the two panels that flank it. She also observed that this and the left-hand panel were placed upside down when the door was reassembled. The larger male figure at bottom left should be at the top, holding the royal symbols of ada and eben aloft.

Thomas’s photograph above right (NWT 1027) features scenes of violence, which Lorenz argues is a common theme in Esan carving. At the bottom right is an equestrian figure (ohenakasi), depicted in profile, wielding a double-edged sword (agbada). The male figure at top left, interpreted by Lorenz as a warrior, carries a grid-like shield, known as asa in Benin. The shield was made of sticks or palm ribs, which, as Lorenz argues, ‘would not offer much physical defence’. They were, however, ‘fortified with protective medicine (ukhumun), which enabled it to repel or catch enemy weapons’. This door also features a leopard (bottom left, recognizable from its tail which arches over its back), a crocodile eating another animal (top right), and a ceremonial eben sword – all three emblems are associated with royalty.

Agbala stool

Lorenz devoted a whole chapter of her thesis to a discussion of a type of courtly furniture, the agbala or stool of office. Like other items of regalia, the stool illustrate both similarities and differences between Esan and Benin City, where the equivalent stool is known as agba. Lorenz argues that Esan elites ‘appear to have required a locally carved stool of office which was similar enough to the Benin agba to retain its association with prestige and authority, but divergent enough to be a distinctively Esan product’.

Such stools are used exclusively by the Onojie or other hereditary chiefs on ceremonial and ritual occasions. Lorenz notes that it is particularly forbidden for the owner’s senior son and heir to sit upon them. The stools are kept in the ancestral shrine room and often serve as a focus of offering to the ancestors. Thomas photographed one of these agbala stools in Ubiaja, and noted that they were equivalent to ukhurhe rattle-staffs, used to commemorate and honour the paternal ancestors.

Stool used for worship of father, Ubiaja and end of stool, Irua. Northcote Thomas.
Left: Agbala stool photographed by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja in 1909 (NWT 1039; RAI 400.17436). Right: Side panel of agbala stool collected by Northcote Thomas in Irrua in 1909 (NWT 1-2564; MAA Z 12815).

Lorenz was able to locate nearly 30 examples of Esan agbala stools and was able to identify three distinct styles. The example photographed by Thomas in Ubiaja is typical of what she terms the ‘ridged figural’ style, which feature highly-geometricized caryatid figures, carved in relief on the stretchers, often – as in this case – with arms upraised. The side panels also feature relief carvings, with a semi-circle cut away at the base to form two legs. Unfortunately, the design on the seat of the stool is not clear in the photograph.

Thomas did not photograph examples of wood carving in the other Esan towns he visited. He did, however, collect the side panel of another agbala stool in Irrua. This is an example of what Lorenz defines as an ‘openwork’ style, associated with the town of Uromi. Indeed, by comparing this panel with other complete stools, she argues that it was likely made in Uromi, even though it was collected in Irrua.

Esanland at a crossroads of culture

Through her analysis of Esan sculpture, including the examples documented by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja in 1909, Lorenz’s main thesis was that Esan culture was essentially hybrid in nature. It was the mixture of Benin, Nupe, Yoruba and Igbo traditions that gave Esan art its unique character, as evidenced in these remarkable sculptural house-posts, carved doors and stools of office. Alas, these arts are no longer practised, and, due to the ephemeral nature of the materials, susceptible to decay and insect damage, and to collectors (Northcote Thomas included), very little of this sculpture has survived. We found not even a memory of it at the palace in Ubiaja.

Perhaps a new generation of contemporary Esan artists will one day discover Thomas’s photographs of these amazing sculptures and revive – or reinterpret – the tradition?

Further reading

  • Lorenz, C. A. 1995. Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture, Unpublished PhD thesis, Columbia University.
  • Okojie, C. G. 1960. Ishan Native Laws and Customs (Yaba: Okwesa)
  • Ukpan, J. A. 2010. History and Culture of Ubiaja (Benin City: Obhio)

Ukhurhẹ – ancestors, archives, interventions

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhurhẹ ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by George Agbo.

The painstaking archival and collections-based research made possible through the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project enables us to make novel connections between objects, images, texts and sounds, and opens up new avenues of understanding. Working with the material legacies of Northcote Thomas‘s anthropological surveys in West Africa provides insight into cultural practices of the past, challenges assumptions about colonial collecting, and presents possibilities for creativity and collaboration in the present.

When we first examined a remarkable assemblage of 39 carved wooden ukhurhẹ staffs in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in 2018, we were immediately struck by the freshness of their appearance. As far as we know, they have never been on public display and they had the appearance of coming straight from the carver’s workshop – despite being at least 110 years old.

Brian Heyer provides a succinct summary of such ‘rattle-staffs’ in Kathy Curnow’s book Iyare! Splendor & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. He writes,

When an Ẹdo man dies it is his eldest son’s duty to commission an ukhurhẹ in his honor. He then places it on the family altar as the only essential ritual object there. An ukhurhẹ consists of a wooden staff divided into segments designed to resemble the ukhurhẹ-oho, a bamboo-like plant that grows wild near Benin City. Each segment represents a single lifespan, and linked they are a visual symbol of ancestry and continuity. Their mass numbers on altars stress the importance of the group over the individual.

The top segment of the ukhurhẹ is hollowed by slits, a wooden piece remaining within. This acts as a rattle when the staff is stamped on the ground, a sound said to call the ancestors.

Ukhurhẹ topped by heads are standard for commoners and chiefs. Royal family members’ examples end in hands or hands holding mudfish. Only the Oba’s ukhurhẹ can be made from brass or ivory, though even most of the royal staffs are usually wooden, made by the members of the Igbesanmwan royal carving guild.

Northcote Thomas encountered these ukhurhẹ staffs during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo people of Southern Nigeria. They were – and, indeed, still are – an important part of the ancestral altars located in chiefly families’ palaces and compounds. Thomas photographed a number of such altars in Benin City itself and in the wider region. In Uzebba, for instance, Thomas noted that ukhurhẹ (which he spelled uxure or uchure) were known as ikuta, but fulfilled a similar memorial function – presencing the ancestors.

Northcote Thomas photographs of ukhure on ancestral altars, Benin City, 1909
Left: Ikuta at ancestral shrine in Uzebba, 1909 (NWT 546, RAI 400.15687); Right: Ukhurhẹ propped against the back wall of Chief Ezomo’s ancestral altar, Benin City, 1909 (NWT 160, RAI 400.17962). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute.

In his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, Thomas explains that these staves – also widely known as rattle-staffs – represent particular male ancestors. They are placed on the family altar after the death of the family head, once he has transitioned into the status of an ancestor. The ukhurhẹ is a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹ to honour and seek the intercession of their departed kin. Over the generations the staffs accumulate, alongside other altar objects such as ivory tusks, memorial heads, bells and stone celts.

Excerpt from Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 1910
Excerpt from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria (London, 1910), describing the uchure (ukhurhẹ).

In unpublished notes, Thomas describes the practices surround the ukhure in greater detail. He describes, for example, Chief Ero‘s yearly sacrifice to his ancestors in which the blood of sacrificed cows, goats and fowl was smeared on the staffs. He describes how the ukhurhẹ propped against the wall at the ‘shrine of the father’ in Chief Ezomo‘s compound were stained dark brown due to these ‘repeated outpourings of blood’. He also reports that Ero could only give the names of two of the ancestors represented by the staffs, suggesting that the massed staffs come to represent the ancestors in a more collective sense.

In addition to the rattle-staffs found on ancestral altars, Thomas also documents the use of larger, more elaborately carved ukhurhẹ of community cults associated with various divinities. In October 1909, Thomas spent several days observing the festival of the Ovia cult in the town of Iyowa, a few miles north of Benin City. He documented the ceremonies, songs and dances in great detail. (This will be the subject of a future article). The ukhurhẹ of Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹ has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Left: Ovia masquerade holding the ukhurhẹ (NWT 1276, MAA P.29433); Middle: boys holding Ovia ukhurhẹ staffs for Thomas to photographs, note that the carved figure at the top of each staff has the form of the Ovia masquerade (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Cowries are offered to Ovia on the second day of the festival (NWT 1267, RAI 400.18370). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
Northcote Thomas's typescript notes on the Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Pages from Northcote Thomas’s unpublished typescript notes about the Ovia Festival, including description of the use of ukhurhẹ. Click image to enlarge.

Forty-four years after Northcote Thomas documented the Ovia Festival at Iyowa, another anthropologist – R. E. Bradbury – made a study of the same festival at Ehor, another village on the northern outskirts of Benin City. Bradbury writes that the ukhurhẹ ‘are the real symbols of Ovia’; ‘they are about four and a half feet high, carved with representations of the Ovia masquerades. They, more than anything else, are identified with Ovia herself who is sometimes said to enter them when she is called upon by the priests’.

Representations of Ovia on ukhure
Left: Detail of two of the Ovia ukhurhẹ photographed by Northcote Thomas in Iyowa (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Detail of Ovia ukhurhẹ collected by Northcote Thomas in Benin City in 1909 (NWT 296, MAA Z 20328). The carved figure has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, with its network headdress surmounted with parrot feather plumes, and crossed sticks beaten during the Ovia dances.

In The Art of Benin, art historian Paula Girschick Ben-Amos explains that the ukhurhẹ of these ‘hero deities’ are ‘different from the more commonly seen ancestral staffs, as they are much thicker and have the figure of a priest or other objects specific to the cult as a finial’. ‘The rattle staff,’ she writes, ‘is both a means of communication with the spirit world, achieved when the staff is struck upon the ground, and a staff of authority, to be wielded only by properly designated persons’.

It is interesting to note that Thomas did not collect any ukhurhẹ that had actually been used in rituals either on ancestral altars or in cult ceremonies. And this brings us back to our initial impressions of the assemblage of ukhurhẹ we encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhure ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Prior to our examination of the staves we had found an intriguing exchange of letters between Northcote Thomas and Charles Hercules Read, who, in 1909, was Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. The letters show that Thomas was under the impression that Read had agreed to acquire the collections he had been gathering during his survey, reimbursing his initial outlay in purchasing them. It is clear, however, that Read was not interested in the kinds of ‘ethnographical specimens’ that Thomas was collecting. Writing from Benin City in July 1909, Thomas explained, for example, that ‘I have ordered all the “jujus” of Benin City to be carved, probable cost £25’. Read replied in August that ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were, unless they serve some definite and immediate purpose’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 1909
Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 14 July 1909 and 20 August 1909. British Museum original correspondence. Click image to enlarge.

Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹ staffs, each surmounted with a figure representing a different deity or ebo. Confirmation of this came, by chance, a couple of years later, when we found a further reference to the carvings in correspondence between Thomas and the German anthropologist Bernhard Struck, curator at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden. Thomas and Struck maintained a professional correspondence over many years and, in a 1924 letter sent from his home near Oswestry, Thomas provides detailed corrections and comments on an scholarly article Struck was evidently working on. In a digression, Thomas notes that ‘There are 30-40 ebo; I have commissioned [herstellen lassen] the uxure from Eholo nigbesawa. They are in Cambridge’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and Bernhard Struck
Excerpts from a letter from Northcote Thomas to Bernhard Struck, 6 August 1924. Thomas was a fluent German speaker/writer. In the letter Thomas comments on the manuscript of an article Struck is writing; this seems to correspond with Struck’s essay ‘Chronologie der Benin-Altertümer’ [Chronology of Benin Antiquities], but this was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1923.

Elsewhere in the same letter, Thomas explains that ‘Eholo nigbesawa’ means Eholo the woodworker [Holzarbeiter]. In fact, however, Eholo is the title given to the head of the wood and ivory carvers’ guild, the Igbesanmwan – and the name/title should be Eholo N’Igbesamwan. It seems, therefore, that Thomas commissioned the ukhurhẹ from Eholo N’Igbesamwan and they were either carved by him personally or by other members of the guild. According to the Historical UK inflation rate calculator, the estimated cost of £25 corresponds to approximately £2850 today, so this would have been a significant and lucrative commission.

The story of how the ukhurhẹ were obtained is important, not least since it challenges stereotypical assumptions that colonial-era collectors such as Thomas either looted objects from sacred sites or else exploited local craftspeople by paying paltry sums for their work.

Whereas Read saw little value or purpose in these ‘modern things made to order’, it appears that, for Thomas, this was an opportunity to assemble what he perceived as a complete set of representations of Edo deities in a traditional form. While many of these deities are associated with identifiable symbols or regalia, such as that of Ovia, Thomas may have been projecting his own assumptions about the distinct visual representation of each ebo when he commissioned them to be carved in this way. Perhaps the carvers even encouraged him in this belief! In the labels attached to each ukhurhẹ and in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.

Excerpt from catalogue of objects collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria, 1909-10
Above: Pages from the collections catalogue from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 tour, listing the names of the various ebo represented on the ukhurhẹ staffs; Below: Carved figures on the tops of the ukhurhẹ commissioned by Thomas, corresponding to the list above. Click images to enlarge.

Carvers still produce ukhurhẹ in Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.

Ukhure for sale in carvers' shops in Benin City
Ukhurhẹ for sale in carvers’ shops in Benin City today. Left, the shop of William Edosomwan, Igun Street; Right, Emma O. Carving Depot, Igbesanmwan Street. Photographs by Paul Basu.
Ukhure on ancestral altar at Ezomo's Palace, Benin City
Chief Ezomo, James Okponmwense, shows us the ancestral shrine at his Palace. None of the ukhurhẹ are of particular antiquity. He explained that most of the shrine objects were sold or stolen in the 1980s. Photograph by Paul Basu.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹ to be made as a memorial to Northcote Thomas himself. We worked with traditional carver Felix Ekhator, who has a workshop on Sokponba Road, Benin City, just opposite the famous Igun Street. Felix’s first calling was as a professional wrestler, but in the late 1970s he followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on woodworking as a career. He made our ukhurhẹ in the traditional way from the wood of a kola tree, which is hard and durable. At its top Felix carved the figure of Northcote Thomas, copying his posture and clothing from a photograph taken on his 1909-10 tour.

Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Above and below: Felix Ekhator working on the Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ in his workshop off Sokponba Road, Benin City. Photographs by George Agbo.
Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator and the finished ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator with the finished Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The finished ukhurhẹ will be displayed alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery in January 2021. In the exhibition, which will transfer to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in April 2021, our intention is to use contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions, disrupting conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoking further questions. Should, for example, we honour Northcote Thomas, the colonial-era anthropologist, as an ancestor? Should we introduce his presence, his agency, alongside the cultural artefacts that he caused to be produced?

Mock up of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition display of ukhure collected by Northcote Thomas
Initial mock-up of the planned display of ukhurhẹ at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition. Felix Ekhator’s contemporary ukhure disrupts our reading of the historical ‘specimens’ commissioned by Thomas. Visualisation by Paul Basu.

We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.

Conservation notes: ‘Akosi’ figure from Fugar

‘Akosi’ shrine figure collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar in present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909.

In her latest blog post from UCL’s Conservation Lab, Carmen Vida discusses how Northcote Thomas’s historical field photographs inform the work of reassembling ‘composite’ objects from the collection and help conservators’ make decisions about appropriate conservation treatments.

It often comes as a bit of a surprise to people when they first get to know about museum conservation to learn that conservators do not necessarily always do everything that can be done to an object, or try to make it complete, new, or ‘like it was’. Out of many possibilities, conservators decide on what is an appropriate treatment for each object in dialogue with experts, curators and other stakeholders. As a conservator, I am very aware that every conservation intervention is a new event in the life of an object, an event that can be ‘life-changing’ – though, hopefully, a change for the better by extending the object’s life and making it more meaningful to others. It is the conservator’s job to ensure that the conservation intervention always fits with and helps reveal what the ‘life’ of the object was and is, and that it never obscures its significance, values and stories, but rather helps to reveal them.

For conservators, damage is not always bad. It can, rather, be an interesting thing: it can, for example, tell us about the way an object was used, help us to understand its ‘biography’, inform us about the conditions in which it has be stored, and so forth. For this reason, conservation always starts with research and investigation. We seek to get to know an object as closely as possible through documentation, through comparison with similar or related objects, and through the signs left on the object by its previous history. This helps us to design conservation treatments that fit with the object’s past history as well as its present and future use. In a way, conservation is a bit of a time machine, moving between the object’s past, present and future!  

As discussed in a previous post, Giving Objects a Voice, many objects appear to be ‘mute’. That is, they have no accompanying information, and conservators must rely entirely on what they can discover from their analysis of the object itself. But working with the collections assembled by Northcote Thomas is providing me with a unique opportunity because the archive itself is so rich and varied: not only objects, but written records, sound recordings and, very importantly for the conservator, historic photographs. These different elements in the archive can sometimes be brought together to shed light on each other. So just as the historic photographs of people have been affording their descendants in West Africa the possibility of reconnecting with their ancestors (see for instance the blog Ancestral Reconnections), the historic photographs of the objects are affording conservators the possibility of reconnecting with the earlier life of some of the objects we are treating. This information is vital to guide our conservation treatment choices because it allows us to compare two different moments in the life of the object, and it helps us decide what the treatment should achieve and how. It ultimately helps us make ethical treatment decisions.

Elements of the figure prior to conservation. NWT 2659. MAA Z 12292, Z 12293, Z 12294.

Some of the objects we have been working with in the UCL Conservation Lab illustrate this well. I have recently been revisiting the treatment of a figure that Thomas collected in Fugar in present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909, which was conserved by one of our students last summer. In Thomas’s catalogue, the figure is labelled with the single word ‘akosi’, with no further information. The object is a ‘composite’ insofar as it consists of several elements and materials: (1) a carved wooden figurine with a feather, (2) a red glass bead ‘necklace’ or ‘bracelet’, and (3) a ‘headdress’ consisting of strings of cowrie shells threaded though cane and plant material. At the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, these three elements have been accessioned and stored separately. Bringing together the [Re:]Entanglements project’s archival research, collections-based research and fieldwork, it has, however, been possible to re-associate the elements that make up this assemblage with reference to a photograph that Thomas made of the figure at the time of collection. This, we assume, shows the assemblage as Thomas initially encountered it in its original context.

Northcote Thomas's photograph of 'akosi' figure, taken in Fugar in 1909.
Northcote Thomas’s field photograph of the ‘akosi’ shrine figure, taken in Fugar, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909. NWT 1095. MAA P.29204.
Fieldwork in Fugar, examining Thomas's photograph of the 'akosi'.
Discussing Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the ‘akosi’ figure during fieldwork in Fugar, March 2020. Paul Basu notes that ‘Those we spoke with in Fugar did not recognise the type of figure or the word”akosi” recorded by Thomas. In some dialects of the Edo language, however, “akosie” refers to shrine figures moulded from mud. The Fugar carving resembles an “ikenga” or “okega” figure more typically found in Igbo- and Igala-speaking areas of Nigeria, where they are a form of ‘alusi’ (deity). Igala and Igbo influence can be discerned in masquerades and material culture in the area around Fugar. An example of an “okega” from Igala in the Smithsonian collection shares some features with that collected by Thomas in Fugar’. Photograph by Paul Basu.

This ‘akosi’ figure will form part of the forthcoming exhibitions at the SOAS Brunei Gallery and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. As such, one of the conservation treatment aims was to ensure that, after 111 years, all three elements could once again be put back together for display.

'Akosi' assemblage collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar in 1909.
Elements of the figure prior to conservation annotated to highlight areas of damage (see notes below).

An initial condition assessment of the object revealed several instances of damage:

  1. The wooden figure was covered in surface dirt and dust, and debris from insect activity.
  2. There was a through crack in the left wrist that severed it completely from the rest of the arm.
  3. The left foot had suffered extensive insect damage and was largely missing.
  4. The feather had also suffered extensive insect damage and was dirty, broken and misshapen. There is a corresponding hole on the right side of the figure where presumably a second feather used to be, but this is totally missing now.
  5. The cane and plant fibres in the cowrie shell headdress had become brittle, inflexible and unable to support the weight of the cowries. The headdress was made up of five tendrils. Of these, one was very short and another slightly shorter than the other three. There were also loose cowries bagged separately, indicating that perhaps originally there were only four strands and that when one had broken, the broken end had been reattached at the top.

We had to decide what level of treatment would be appropriate for each of these issues, and we were able to do so thanks to the possibility of referring to the historic photograph.

Annotated photograph of 'akosi' figure, taken in Fugar in 1909.
Annotations on Northcote Thomas’s 1909 photograph of the figure showing existing condition and damage at the time of collection (see notes below).

Close examination of the photograph revealed:

  1. That the surface dirt present was most likely museum dirt, although there were areas of dirt in the original figure the ghost of which could still be seen in the object. For this reason, it was decided to sensitively clean the wooden elements with only dry cleaning methods and to avoid the use of any solvent which may have removed more than simple surface dirt. In this way we could guarantee the cleaning of recent dirt but leave behind any deposits that may be related to the use or beliefs associated with the figure.
  2. The through crack on the wrist can already be seen in the historic photograph. Wood is anisotropic and moves in different directions in reaction to changes in humidity and temperature. Cracks of this type often occur through movement tensions in green wood that has not been properly allowed to dry before being carved. That the crack can already be seen in the historic photograph suggests that the object may have already been in existence for some time before Thomas acquired it. This information clarified that it would be totally inappropriate to fill that crack because it has been there for over 100 years and allowed the wood to move in response to environmental changes without further stresses, but also because a fill would have obscured important information about the object history.
  3. The insect damage caused to the left foot can also be seen in the historic photograph, although perhaps it was not as extensive then. Because of this, only minimal intervention fills were done to support any areas at risk. The fills were done with long fibre Japanese tissue paper (a very thin but strong paper) and a cellulose based adhesive that was sympathetic to the nature of wood. Watercolours were used to tint the Japanese tissue paper to blend the fills with the surrounding wood. The insect damage visible in the historic photograph again seems to indicate that the object was not new when it was acquired by Thomas.
  4. Two feathers are visible in the historic photo, one on either side. The remaining feather was repaired with fills done in the vane to strengthen it and realign it back to its original shape. The feather was also dry surface cleaned and also cleaned with solvents to restore its shape as much as possible.
  5. It was clear from the historic photos that only four strands of similar length were originally present as part of the cowries headdress, confirming that the two shorter strands were originally one and that the loose cowries were probably part of this broken strand. That information, together with the need to strengthen the cane so that it would be able to support the weight, allowed us to take quite an interventive approach: the fourth strand was lengthened with the lose cowries, and all the strands were stabilized by threading them with nylon fishing wire, to support the weight instead of the fragile cane threading. Tinted epoxy buttons were made matching the colour of the cowries to serve as stoppers for each of the cowrie strands. Three nylon lengths were braided to create a stronger wire that was used at the top of the object to connect the nylon fishing wire used on the cowrie strands, and to allow the headdress to sit again on top of the figure during exhibition.
Cowrie 'headdress', part of Aksoi assemblage photographed and collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar, 1909.
The cowrie ‘headdress’ after conservation treatment. The nylon thread is nearly invisible, but can just be made out, particularly at the top.

The conservation treatment given to this object is a good illustration of the decision making processes we conservators go through as part of our work. Ethical treatment decisions were made in this case because we were seeking to stabilise the object and bring it to the condition that best reflected its values and affordances. This meant different approaches to different areas of the object:  minimal intervention was adopted for most elements whereas the headdress required a far more interventive solution to allow the object to be displayed back together and have its integrity restored.

Conversations with a carver

George Agbo in conversation with Chief Anaemena, Amansea.
George Agbo and Chief Anaemena discuss photographs of wood carvings collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911.

In 2018 we photographed many of the artefacts collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone and now held at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. This allowed us glimpse into the artistic skills of the various communities in which Thomas worked. This included metal working such as bronze casting and blacksmithing, wood carving, pottery, basketry, weaving and leather working. Our engagement with these collections has led us to pursue certain lines of inquiry in our fieldwork: for instance, we are interested in who made these objects, why and how they were made, to what uses were they put, and whether these artistic practices have survived.

Carver, Felix Ekhator, Sakpohba Road, Benin City.
Carver, Felic Ekhator, of Sakpohba Road, Benin City.

In some place, such as Benin City, we have found that traditional arts continue to flourish, as can be seen in the metal working guilds in Igun Street or the nearby wood carvers who produce works not dissimilar to those collected by Thomas over 100 years ago. In many places, however, it appears that these skills are being lost or have died out.

Chief Anaemena, Amansea.
Ozo Chief Raphael Anaemena of Amansea, Anambra State, Nigeria.

In Amansea, Anambra State, Nigeria, which Thomas visited in 1911 during his first tour among Igbo-speaking communities, we met a carver – Chief Raphael Anaemena – who also holds the Ozo title. We did not see him work; he is advanced in age and has not carved in a couple of years, but he shared interesting insight into the art. He is from the Ibe family in Amansea, historically known across the region for the art of carving.

Although we do not have record of any wooden artefacts collected by Thomas from Amansea, Chief Anaemena’s father or grandfather may well have carved the doors or shrine figures that Thomas photographed in the town. He and other carvers from the Ibe family also received commissions from neighbouring towns such as Ebenebe, Ugwuoba and Awka where Thomas did collect. There were carvers in these places too, but the works of the Ibe of Amansea were particularly sought after due to the high quality of their craftsmanship.

Examples of wood carving photographed by Northcote Thomas in Amansea in 1911.
Examples of wood carving photographed by Northcote Thomas in Amansea in 1911. Left: carved door (NWT 3466; RAI 400.20020; MAA P.31638); Right: shrine figure (NWT 3473; RAI 400.20026).

We sat down with Chief Anaemena to look over some of the photographs of the wooden objects Thomas collected in the area and benefitted from his insight into production techniques. Consider, for example, how carvers joined pieces of wood.

Thumb piano collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, 1911. NWT 2 0351; MAA Z 14207.
Elaborately carved thumb piano or ubo collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu in 1911. (MAA Z 14207)

Looking at the above elegant wood carving to which a thumb piano (ubo) is attached, and which was acquired by Thomas in Awgbu, Chief Anaemena explained that some parts such as the leopard and the animal heads with horns were carved separately and then joined together. While other carvers would use glue, such as the type made of wax from a certain insect in the bee family, to join the various parts, the Ibe would achieve a better result by creating a protrusion on one piece of wood and a groove on the other wood into which the protuberance would be fitted. Another joinery technique is ‘nailing’ with thorns such as those from orange trees, palm branches or pieces of wood given nail-like shape. However, this technique only works with soft woods such as the type used in the production of the box for keeping eagle feathers which Thomas collected from Nise.

Box collected by Northcote Thomas in Nise, 1911. NWT 2 0599; MAA Z 13900.
Box for storing eagle feathers collected by Northcote Thomas in Nise, 1911. (MAA Z 13900)

Generally, the kind of wood used for carving is determined by the object the carver intends to create. Masks for instance would be produced from light wood so that they could easily be carried by the masker. Other production specifications such as size and design are largely determined by the one who commissioned the carving. Carvers do not usually produce carvings to be kept for sale. The work is driven by demand, where the carver could even be employed for some time in his client’s home. One who wishes to have an ikenga figure made, for example, would give the carver specifications about size and the objects it would carry in its hands. However, clients could at times ask the carver to make design decisions for them. According to Chief Anaemena, it was once common to see the ikenga figure with a knife in one hand and a human head in the other as exemplified by the one Thomas collected from Awgbu.

Ikenga collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, 1911. NWT 2 0348; MAA Z 14203.
Ikenga figure collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, 1911. (MAA Z 14203)

The trophy is suggestive of the malevolent side of ikenga’s power. At some point, people began to find that too fierce. Ozo Chief Anaemena explained that, in the 1970s, he began to put the ofo stick in one of the ikenga’s hands and a knife in the other to suggest ‘okpegbuo ogbuo’ (it can only kill justly). This was well received and it soon became fashionable.

Stool carved by Chief Anaemena for his Ozo title taking ceremony, Amansea
Stool carved by Chief Anaemena for his Ozo title taking ceremony, Amansea.

Today, Ozo Chief Anaemena does not carve anymore but he still has some of his works. An example is the stool he carved in 2013 for his Ozo title taking ceremony the following year. He also showed us some of his carving tools including nkori oshishi (for creating effects on the wood), muma (for shaping), ugama (for cutting), and mma oge (for cutting). We hope that in the course of our fieldwork we will meet some traditional carvers who still practice their art and look forward to learning more from them.

Some of Chief Anaemena's woodworking tools, Amansea.
Some of Chief Anaemena’s wood carving tools, including: (1) nkori oshishi (for creating effects on the wood); (2) muma (for shaping); (3) ugama (for cutting); and (4) mma oge (for cutting).