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Ceramic altar for the new yam harvest festival
Igbo, probably late 19th century AD
Around the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Igbo people of southern Nigeria made clay altars or shrines with a number of figures. The main crop of the Igbo was yam, and these altars were used at the new yam harvest festival to help produce good harvests and to emphasize the importance of the family in Igbo society.
This example consists of a central male chief holding a drinking-horn in his left hand and a fan in his right, both signs of his status. Either side of him are two pregnant women, probably his wives, with elaborate hairstyles and scarification, and holding fans. Seated in front is a servant or child with a fowl, possibly a sacrifice for the yam deity, Ifejioku.
In this region, as in most of sub-Saharan Africa, the potters are women. Normally only men are permitted to make representational and naturalistic figures. However, the creator of this piece was probably a post-menopausal woman who was perceived by society as having relinquished her female status.
T. Phillips (ed.), Africa, the art of a continent (London, Royal Academy, 1995)