Aronson, Lisa “Ijebu Yoruba Aso Olona: A Contextual and Historical Overview.”  African Arts 25 (3, 1992): 52-63; 101-102.

As emblems of chieftaincy, priesthood, and membership in the Oshugbo society, title cloths (aso olona) lie at the very core of power and leadership among the Ijebu Yoruba. Yet these richly patterned and textured cloths have received surprisingly little attention in the literature compared with other Ijebu arts or other Yoruba textiles.[1] This study serves to fill this gap by examining their history, symbolic meaning, and use in a variety of contexts, both traditional and modern. It also considers the far-reaching effects Ijebu textiles have had elsewhere in Nigeria, most particularly among Eastern Ijo groups living more than 150 kilometers to the east.

It seems appropriate to begin by discussing the Ijebu system of rule, the context within which these textiles operate. The Ijebu are best described as a federation of states (Isichei 1983:134) combining a divine king (Awujale) with a more decentralized form of government. The Awujale, who is based in the town of Ijebu-Ode, rules over a series of lesser crowned rulers located in towns such as Ijebu-Ife, Ijebu-Remo, Ijebu-Imushin, and Ijebu-Igbo. The latter are expected to honor and serve the Awujale at the same time that they exercise some degree of autonomous rule over chiefs and others below them.[2] A separate but not unrelated system of rule is the judiciary society called Oshugbo by the Ijebu and Egba Yoruba (and Ogboni by other Yoruba subgroups); it is made up of male and female elders who oversee court cases at various levels, deride the punishment of criminals who have been condemned to death, and tend to all affairs concerning the king from the time he is selected and installed to his burial (Drewal, Pemberton, & Abiodun 1989:136).

The present ruling kingdom was said to have been founded in the late fourteenth century when, according to myth, Obanta, son of the god Oduduwa, was sent from Ile-Ife to reign as Awujale of the Ijebu nation. In the process, he encountered and subsequently conquered several indigenous groups including the Idoko, a name that still identifies the people in one Ijebu district and which has some bearing on the history of weaving in the area. Later migrations from Benin and Ondo added rich layers of culture to the Ijebu area.[3] Yet other influences came by way of the Ijo of the Niger Delta, from whom the Ijebu adopted cultural traditions including their water-spirit masquerades (Drewal 1986:32). Like other Nigerian kingdoms, the Ijebu kingdom is a complex cultural entity that has operated within an active network of trade and communication over several hundred years, all of which complicates any understanding of Ijebu weaving and its history.

The weaving under consideration in this study is done on an upright frame loom (ofi), regarded by the Ijebu as the most traditional in their area (Fig. 4).[4] The precise source for weaving on the off may never be known. Several Ijebu villages including Idoko claim a tradition of weaving, suggesting that the art may have existed in the region prior to Obanta's alleged arrival. More generally, however, Ijebu people believe that in the fourteenth century a man named Afin, who presumably followed Obanta from Ile-Ife, is the culture hero who brought weaving and mud architecture to the Ijebu area (Olusola 1968:13). Such a belief must be viewed with some degree of caution however. As a centralized society, it would be typical for the Ijebu to Yank the origins of certain art forms--particularly those associated with leadership--to their own kingdom rather than its predecessors. In so doing, they legitimize it as a royal creation rather than something appropriated from groups encountered when Obanta arrived in the area. In addition, there is yet no evidence that weaving of the type done in Ijebu-Ode has any equivalent in or near the Ile-Ife area from where it was supposedly brought.

It is also uncertain that only women wove on the upright frame loom, as is the case today. More than one of my informants indicated that Ijebu men once did it; one elderly weaver even claimed that her father taught her how to weave. Such claims are plausible. Although it is usually women who weave on the upright frame loom in western Nigeria, there are exceptions. One of them occurs among the Bunu Yoruba, where both men and women once wove on such a loom (see Elisha Renne's article in this issue). Another is found in Benin, where the royal court weavers are exclusively male (Ben-Amos 1978). In both cases the cloths are intended mainly as attire for the highest-ranking individuals in the community; the fact that these individuals are also usually male may account for male participation in their production. Likewise, Ijebu textiles also function in the context of power, specifically in legitimizing, reinforcing, and even differentiating Ijebu leadership roles.

Cloths Woven by Women

Ijebu women weave two basic categories of cloth on the upright loom. In the simpler category two heddles (poroporo) are utilized to produce textiles woven by the plain-or tabby-weave method and designed with indigo and white warp stripes of varying widths, depending on the cloth's use. One type, aso odun ("festival cloth"), has wide, evenly spaced warp stripes in these two colors, and a white weft. It is worn as a wrapper by senior chiefs. Another, called ikale, is made up of smaller, more irregular warp stripes and a blue weft. Considered a female-gendered cloth because of the large areas of blue in its design, ikale is worn by pregnant women to elicit blessings from the gods for a healthy birth. It may also be used to ensure prosperity and victory over enemies or protection against sickness and death (Aremu 1982: 6). Its own production and use seem to extend well beyond the Ijebu area itself.[5]

The second category of cloths woven on the upright loom is aso olona, the main focus of this study. This textile is produced only in the Ijebu area, presumably because of its link to the Ijebu-based Oshugbo society. It requires a third heddle or pattern stick for the incorporation of a rich array of supplemental patterns and shag textures. Thus the cloth carries the name aso olona, meaning "cloth with patterns." It comes in two distinct sizes. The larger one, intended as a wrapper, requires four individual panels sewn together along the selvage to create a cloth measuring approximately 1.8 by 2.5 meters (Fig. 1). Referred to as aso iborunnla, meaning "big covering cloth,"[6] it is worn toga-style with one corner flung over the left shoulder. The Ijebu name for the smaller cloth is itagbe (Fig. 2). Conceivably a miniaturized version of the larger wrapper, it is constructed of only one panel of cloth approximately 1.2 meters in length. Depending on its use, the itagbe is worn either over the left shoulder, over the right, or on the head.

Regardless of what type of cloth the weavers are working on, they tell me they must always appeal to Obalufon, their god of creativity and weaving, for inspiration and for assistance in dividing the warp threads so that the beater stick (apasa) can enter.[7] However, the technical knowledge of weaving is a privilege acquired mainly as adults through a highly structured system of apprenticeship, though some women learn at an early age from their mothers.

Abiola Lawal, a weaver in Ijebu-Ode, informed me that she had taught forty-three apprentices how to weave. Apprenticeship with her could take up to a year, the length of time needed to master the mechanics of weaving and to complete a weft-float patterned cloth. An event called ifiri, or "freedom-day" (derived from the English word "free"), marks the completion of apprenticeship. During that ceremony the apprentice gives the instructor a set amount of money (in 1978 it was 20 naira) together with a long list of items including two containers of a hot drink called oti, two packets of sugar, two bottles of honey, a plate of salt with cover, one hundred each of regular kola nuts and bitter kola, fifty pieces of native pepper, and, finally, a cock and a hen used for sacrifice during the ceremony. A photograph often serves to document the moment when the instructor officially gives the apprentice a newly carved beater stick in front of her completed cloth, which is still on the loom (Fig. 5). In essence, the apasa functions here as the staff of mastership, and the photograph as the certificate validating the apprentice's newly acquired status as a weaver.[8]

Age and superior abilities as a weaver and instructor can afford a woman the title of mother or senior weaver (Iyaegbe), a title that calls for her official appearance in ceremonies (Fig. 3). I was told that on the Muslim New Year (Odun-ileya) the Iyaegbe would lead the other weavers in the presence of drummers to the king's palace to receive blessings and presents.

Despite being honored because of their profession, weavers are not necessarily privy to the underlying meanings of the cloths they create.[9] Access to this knowledge is a privilege given only to those who have the right to wear the garments.

Aso Olona: Pattern, Style, and Meaning

Lesser crowned rulers, chiefs, members of Oshugbo, and priests wear aso olona as marks and reminders of their earned position in life or their relationship to the king. A priest told Henry Drewal that the cloths, with their richly decorated weft-float patterns, symbolize "long lives well lived," in sharp contrast to the plain white cloths the Ijebu Yoruba are said to wear when they first come into the world.[10] Thus the patterns and colors represent the richness and diversity of an individual's experience in life, including acquired knowledge of the spirit realm (Drewal, pers. com., 1991).

At least twelve of the fourteen patterns I documented in the Ijebu weaver's repertoire (Fig. 6) are associated with leadership or the spiritual powers by which it is exercised. Several represent water spirits, an important component of Ijebu cosmology. The four water spirits that appear on aso olona are crocodile (ooni), frog (opolo), fishhead (agbarieja), and snake (ejo). Each is represented from a bird's-eye perspective as though oriented for divine rather than human viewing. This viewpoint also recalls the horizontality of Ijebu masks representing water spirits.[11]

The crocodile image (Figs. 6A, 7) appears most frequently in accordance with its all-encompassing role as guardian of the spirits (Drewal 1986:37). The Ijebu place the large cloths bearing its image or sculptural representations of the crocodile in their shrines for protection.[12] Likewise, the crocodile spirit appears as one in a sequence of masked forms in the Ijebu Agbo masquerade (Drewal 1986: 38). In woven form, it is shown bearing two heads, one at each end, perhaps to suggest its all-seeing powers.

Another common water-spirit motif is one the Ijebu call fishhead (agbarieja), an image best read as an abstract rendering of two interlocking mudfish (Figs. 6C, 8). The mudfish symbolizes Olokun, goddess of the sea, who bears particular meaning for royalty and Oshugbo. A comparable representation of the mudfish with similar meaning is found at Benin (Fig. 10),[13] tangible evidence of the historical connections between the Ijebu and Benin noted in Ijebu oral history.[14]

Style may even help to date this connection. The present-day Ijebu image of the mudfish is abstract in its rendering. However, earlier versions of it--one on a wrapper in Edinburgh dating from 1790 (Fig. 11) and the other on a cloth in Berlin dating from 1886 (Fig. 12)-come closer to the naturalistic carving and casting style one associates with arts of Benin and Owo. If style can be used as evidence of historical contact, then this confirms that the Ijebu were more closely tied to Owo and Benin in the early to mid-nineteenth century than subsequently.

Ijebu weavers place power symbols of an inanimate nature on the cloths as well. One labeled abalaye (Fig. 6J) may refer to a hooked staff of authority used by Ijebu chiefs and Oshugbo members (Fig. 13).[15]

Another design symbolizes the drums (gbedu) played to honor kings, lesser crowned rulers, and chiefs. Actual drums are emblazoned with references to office in decorations carved in relief on their sides; these include the central image of a head with rays emanating from above and below as well as other Oshugbo or chieftaincy-related objects such as the itagbe title cloth (Fig. 14).

As a pattern on cloth (Figs. 6G, 9), the gbedu is shown as a diamond shape, representing the head of the drum, with its four legs extending outward. The inclusion of legs in the design distinguishes it from representations of other drum types because gbedu are always carved with leg supports. The Yoruba usually describe this drum in anthropomorphic terms. Like humans it has "legs" and the power to "speak" (Adegbite 1988:16-19).

A type of talking drum[16] known as gangan is represented by small repeated triangles that surround the overall design. These triangles suggest not the shape of the drum but the actual tapping of it, a rare example of the visual conceptualization of music in African art.

The meaning of aso olona derives from more than just the weft-float patterns. Some of the symbolism comes from the way in which the cloth is finished off. The weaver may divide the itagbe fringe into seven sections, wrapping each with thread, sometimes intricately, to create elaborate tassels. Or she may create six vertical slits at each end of the cloth, dividing the cloth in this area into seven woven sections. The number seven alluded to in each case suggests the delicate balance of power between Oshugbo and the ruling royalty. I was told by the Ajalorun, or crowned ruler, of Ijebu-Ife that six of the seven tassels refer to the six ruling chiefs (Iwarefa) of Oshugbo, and the seventh to the divine king (Awujale) over whom they officiate in certain matters.

The number three, particularly sacred to the Ijebu both within and outside the Oshugbo society, also has its place on aso olona. It is a key component of the design on an itagbe that contains three registers of frog motifs (opolo), each with three frogs,[17] and three colored sections of red and black within the shag area (Fig. 15).

The shag (shaki) is also a standard feature on aso olona. The weaver creates it by weaving supplemental threads through a small grouping of warp threads, leaving the ends hanging in front.[18] The shag is meant to be worn outward for visibility. It is associated with power, prestige, and things that are good. The word shaki means tripe, among the tastiest and most desired foods for the Yoruba. It has a much deeper meaning in Oshugbo cosmology however. Within Oshugbo, shaki serves as a metaphor for one's inner vulnerability and transparency to the "minions of the earth" from whose gaze nothing can be concealed (Thompson 1971: ch. 6/2)[19]

Aso Olona as Emblems of Authority and Identity

Apart from the spiritual or prestige-related references of patterns or texture, the aso olona as a whole marks the status and identity of a chief or Oshugbo member.[20] During a chief's installation, the Awujale officially bestows the title in a complex ceremony involving considerable protocol and the presentation of goods. According to the Ajalorun of Ijebu-Ife, the chief-to-be, still bare headed and unadorned, kneels before the king for his blessing. The latter begins by pressing a cluster of iyeye leaves to the candidate's forehead to affirm his honor. He presents him with the official chieftaincy attire, including coral beads, a cap, a leather flywhisk and, finally, the itagbe, which he places on the candidate's shoulder. From that day forward, the itagbe functions as a constant reminder of the chief's subservient role to the king (Fig. 18).

Because itagbe are viewed as highly personalized symbols of one's status or identity, individuals will often present them to their deities as an expression of their gratitude. The backs of Ijebu shrines are frequently adorned with itagbe that have been presented to the gods. In the event that a chief or Oshugbo member has no itagbe to offer, he or she may present a photo of himself or herself wearing it. In either case, offering this cloth is a gesture of supreme generosity to the gods.

In this capacity, an itagbe functions as the visual equivalent of prayer, a use of cloth Henry Drewal has also documented among Western Yoruba groups.[21] Ijebu weavers confirm this use through their recent practice of weaving actual words (in Yoruba or English) on the doth (Fig. 4), together with the more traditional ideographic symbols. The words woven into one itagbe read Jebemi Oluwa, meaning "God, answer my request."[22]

Aso olona continues to mark its owner's status after death. Chiefs and other high-ranking individuals must be buried with their doth to affirm their stams within the spirit realm. At times an image of an itagbe may also be painted on the wall above the spot where a titled elder was interred. To suggest the much honored Oshugbo status, the full-size aso olona (aso iborun-nla) may appear as the doth encasement for a deceased elder in an Egungun performance (Fig. 20).

Thus far I have made little distinction between aso olona used by chiefs and those belonging to Oshugbo members. There are important differences, even though as many as ninety percent of Ijebu chiefs belong to Oshugbo. One major distinction involves the amount of pattern and color in the garment. Chief Adesina Adeyemi of Ijebu-Ife, both a high-ranking chief (Orangun) and head (Apena) of Oshugbo, demonstrated this by modeling the modes of dress required for each of his roles. As chief, he put on a cap, a robe (agbada) made of factory doth, and an itagbe bearing only the decorated shag design (Fig. 18). As the Apena of Oshugbo, he wore an itagbe on his left shoulder, another on his head, and an aso iborun-nla around his body, each richly embellished with the frog motif and shag in brilliant colors (Fig. 19). The shoulder cloth bore the words "ROF ILEDI AJALORUN IJEBE IFE" (Ijebu-Ife has been misspelled), referring to the chief's membership in the house of the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity (ROF) of Ijebu-Ife.[23]

The opulence of Oshugbo attire contrasts with the relative simplicity of chieftaincy garb, and stands in stark opposition to the garments of initiation. To become an Oshugbo member, one must be ritually reborn. The notion of rebirth is expressed in the production and presentation of the well-known edan figures given to the initiates as a staff of office. When the brasscaster removes the clay mold from the newly cast edan, the initiate must bury it as the placenta must be buried in the ground after the birth of a child (Williams 1960:145).

Rebirth is also suggested by the characteristic nudity of the edan figures and the initiates themselves. Peter Morton Williams describes two grades of Ogboni membership among the Oyo Yoruba. The first is the we we we, or "children"; the second is the ologboni or alawo, meaning "owners of the mystery of the cult," which includes any titled officials. As candidates work up to the second stage, they wear only an apron or waist-cloth that signifies "the relationship meant to exist between man and earth" (Williams 1960:145-46).

At some point during or after initiation, the Oshugbo initiates in Ijebu wear the apron over a long wrapper as their formal attire (Fig. 16) to refer to their passage into the society. The main body of the apron is simply a square panel made of woven raffia with cotton trim and added decoration. Raffia is the material most appropriate for use in initiation because of its associations with purification.[24]

Marilyn Houlberg suggests that Freemasons, the English-based fraternal society, may have inspired the current form of Oshugbo aprons (pets. com., 1989). However, an indigenous antecedent exists in woven raffia panels still made for ceremonial and secular uses in the Ijebu village of Esure, a few kilometers outside Ijebu-Ode. Some panels (odun, meaning "festival") are intended for use as undergarments for Oshugbo members. Others are used as seats for armchairs. Whereas the latter are made entirely of raffia, the ceremonial panels must combine cotton with raffia and be woven in three colors: the natural raffia color, black, and green. Like the Esure woven panel, the Oshugbo initiate's apron (Fig. 17) combines raffia with cotton and utilizes a tripartite scheme through the three vertical bars sewn on the front. Topped with a triangular structure, the overall design is said to represent the iledi, or Oshugbo meetinghouse that Drewal argues is of supreme importance in Oshugbo cosmology and ritual.[25]

How an individual wears the itagbe also designates his or her membership in the society. In principle, those belonging to Oshugbo carry their itagbe on the left shoulder to distinguish themselves from chiefs, who carry it on their fight. (Nevertheless, Oshugbo members often wear their title doth on the right in order to leave the left shoulder and arm free for ritual activity [Drewal, Pemberton, & Abiodun 1989:140]). The Ijebu associate the left side of the body with Oshugbo, as numerous practices substantiate. When society members assume the ritual gesture of clenched fists, it is always the left that rests on top of the fight. They also shake with the left hand and dance in the direction of the left (Drewal, Pemberton, & Abiodun 1989:140).

A more reliable indicator of Oshugbo membership is the wearing of itagbe on the head. When important decisions are made at Oshugbo meetings, members drape the cloth over their heads so that the fringed ends rest on the chest (Fig. 16). In public they wear the cloth turban-style, with the fringe falling toward the face (Fig. 19). It creates an effect of fullness that alludes to spirituality, just as the bulging eyes and forehead of the figures on edan staffs "evoke the moment of possession when . . . the head swells (ori wu) and divinity dwells within the devotee" (Drewal in Vogel 1981:90).

In Yoruba art in general, projections from the head give visual form to spiritual power (M. Drewal 1986). The itagbe fringe serves this function even as it embodies the power of the office it represents. Images on Oshugbo paraphernalia including drums, doors, armlets, and staffs (ipawo aso) (Fig. 22) show projections emanating outward and downward from heads, evoking the Oshugbo elder with his fabric crown. Even one of the cloth patterns alludes to this image in an abstract form.

Wherever represented, these projections seem to carry ritual meaning. Elders sound staffs of authority, as Henry Drewal points out, "on important ritual occasions when their actual voices should not be heard" (Drewal, Pemberton, & Abiodun 1989:133). Similarly, there are taboos associated with the fringe, possibly explaining why such elaborate handwork is required to finish it off. I was told that a chief must never touch the fringe of his itagbe to the ground in the presence of the king, although no explanation for this prohibition was given.

That both male and female Oshugbo members wear itagbe on their heads and iborun-nla toga-style contradicts the norm that dictates that men and women dress differently, and emphasizes the pairing of the sexes reflected in Oshugbo philosophy and its art.[26] The entrance to an Oshugbo house in the Ijebu-Remo area speaks of such unity (Fig. 23). In its overall shape and tripartite form, the door bears a striking resemblance to an itagbe (Fig. 15), which may not be coincidental, since each in its own way serves to encase the inner power, privilege, and secrecy of Oshugbo. The upper register of the door contains images of three Oshugbo members. The two situated to the viewer's left are male and the one to the right is female, as evidenced by her breasts and slightly longer wrapper. Otherwise, all wear turbans and assume the same stance. Three is the sacred Oshugbo number: the trio of figures turns toward their left, the sacred side, and assumes the sacred Oshugbo gesture of the left clenched fist held over the right.

The figure in the lower register, flanked by two attendants and clad in his agbada and British-inspired crown, is an obvious reference to the Awujale, or king. Overall, the door design conveys the delicate balance of power and lines of division between Oshugbo and divine rule. The parallel tripartite division of each register suggests complementarity. At the same time, showing the king as centralized and frontal in relation to his attendants implies hierarchical rule, whereas the three Oshugbo members, being equal in size and similar in stance and in dress, suggest the more egalitarian nature of Oshugbo.

Morton-Williams asserts that Oshugbo and its related Ogboni predate divine kingship (1960:364), a history that aso olona and its use may suggest. Houlberg argues that the itagbe, in its miniature size, may be a metaphor for the large iborun-nla, implying, among other things, that the latter is historically older (pers. com., 1991).[27] Consistent with this theory, members of Oshugbo wear both the iborun-nla and the itagbe, whereas chiefs wear only the latter. Might this suggest that the chiefs appropriated Oshugbo's title cloths in miniature form?

Ijebu woven textiles continue to play distinct roles as symbols of power for traditional chiefs and Oshugbo members. In recent times their use has been extended to bolster the authority of nontraditional forms, of chieftaincy. For example, in 1978 I interviewed a woman who was a chief (iyalode) in the Catholic church of St. Louis in Ijebu-Ife. She had commissioned an itagbe and two iborun-nla to wear in her official capacity (Fig. 21). According to her request, it was completely white, the only decoration being shag throughout the cloth and words in English identifying her status. The chief consciously rejected the boldly contrasting colors and figurative weft-float patterns associated with traditional aso olona and the beliefs they represent.

Shag on the Yoruba baby ties (oja) that mothers use to anchor babies to their backs may be another nontraditional use of shaki. As Venice Lamb and Judy Holmes point out (1980:201), the shag in a baby tie, like that of aso olona, is worn outward to draw attention to and thus honor the baby that it holds. Ijebu weavers may also weave patterns into the shag area of the oja, using contrasting threads to indicate that the baby comes from a royal household.[28]

Ijebu Textiles beyond Ijebuland

Aso olona is not standard attire for chiefs or Ogboni members throughout Yoru-baland and therefore does not figure in many studies on Ogboni ritual. Only the Egba, the Ijebu's neighbors to the west, use the cloths for chieftaincy and Oshugbo attire in ways similar to those of the Ijebu.[29] Nonetheless aso olona has made an impact on regions well beyond the Ijebu area, mainly to the east, among Ijo groups living at the eastern end of the Niger Delta proper. Nembe, Kalabari, and Ibani Ijo families typically own a type of cloth that bears a striking resemblance to aso olona both in overall construction and in its array of patterns. This textile seems to have had its origin among the Ijebu, although the Ijo identify it and its designs as ikakibite (ikag-ibara among the Nembe), meaning"cloth of the tortoise." The Ijo regard the tortoise as supremely powerful because of his wise and cunning behavior, and so give him prominence on this prestigious cloth.

The Ijebu honor the tortoise as one of many water spirits,[30] but they do not represent him on aso olona. The fact that the Ijo refer to all of the patterns on the cloth as tortoise suggests that they have reinterpreted the meaning of the varied Ijebu patterns to make them their own, a process Joanne Eicher and Tonye Erekosima have termed "cultural authentication" (1981).

Nonetheless, Eastern Ijo groups are well aware of the western origins of their tortoise cloth. This is expressed clearly in a Nembe Ijo masquerade called Owuaya, which is the name for both the mother or guardian mask and the entire canoe-load of masquerades that she brings ashore. The Owuaya complex can only be performed (i.e., brought out from the canoe) through the presentation of a cloth bearing the tortoise design. According to E. J. Alagoa's 1982 account, the Opu Sekiapu (head of the Sekiapu society) first offers fifteen manillas, a traditional form of money, to which Owuaya, the mother or guardian of the masquerades, replies that they are worth "more than four hundred manillas, indeed more than four hundred times four hundred manillas." The Opu Sekiapu then offers a piece of rare handwoven cloth called iselema bite (Fig. 25). It is only this cloth that is deemed acceptable as payment for the masquerades to exit from the canoe and dance (Alagoa 1982:272). Owuaya says: "The cloth is fine, very fine. Is this not a unique cloth from Warri river? The cloth is fine, very fine. This doth that comes from Warri river. Is it not a special cloth?" In addition to suggesting the cloth's extreme value, the words confirm that the doth came from the west, or Warri, side of the Delta, iselema being the Nembe word for that side. Moreover, the cloth's panel construction and weft-float patterns strongly suggest Ijebu origins. Some Ijo groups, the Egbema Ijo of the Western Delta periphery in particular, even refer to such cloth as idokobite, bite being the word for cloth and idoko, the local name for the Ijebu.[31]

But how and under what circumstances did the Ijo acquire these cloths? In previous studies I have explained it solely in terms of trade (Aronson 1980b, 1981), an explanation that I now feel may not be completely accurate. It is true that in the last few centuries the Eastern Ijo have received vast quantities and varieties of cloths traded from elsewhere in Nigeria, Ghana, England, France, and India, all of which they have incorporated into local use and preserved as family heirlooms. We also know that the Ijebu, the originators of aso olona, have been actively trading doth in the Niger Delta for the last 400 years. As early as the sixteenth century, the Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira observed the Ijebu trading cloths along with beads, animal skins, and palm oil in the direction of the Forcados, a river located just south of Warri in the central Niger Delta (Pereira 1956).[32] The very same pattern continued into this century, as confirmed by an Itsekiri chief who recounted that as a child (in the 1930s) he had seen Ijebu traders selling cloths along the banks of the river near his village of Batere.[33]

The question remains as to whether or not aso olona actually figured in this trade. Historical sources indicate only that the Ijebu were trading blue and white striped cloths, much like the plainwoven varieties of Ijebu weaving (aso odun, ikale) described earlier in this paper. The more richly decorated aso olona are never mentioned in these references.

The unreliability of negative evidence notwithstanding, we also need to consider if cloths so spiritually laden and significantly linked to Ijebu leadership would have been traded as mere commodities. Igor Kopytoff, in his discussion of commoditization, argues that we must address the "cultural biography" of goods in order to understand their place in economic exchange.

Following his line of argument, we can presume that the Ijebu brought aso olona into the Delta for their own use and for reasons linked to their associations with power and authority.

Several factors support the idea of an Ijebu presence in the Delta area sufficient to warrant the construction of spirit shrines where aso olona were hung, or for Ijebu authorities to be seen wearing or using their ritual attire. One attraction would have been the Itsekiri, who live in the Warri area just south of Benin. Although living some distance from Ijebuland, the Itsekiri are culturally and linguistically related to the Ijebu. In fact, several Itsekiri towns still claim Ijebu origin,[34] which indicates an early pattern of Ijebu settlement, possibly as a result of the cloth trade. Another factor is the reciprocal pattern of exchange between the Ijebu and Ijo as clearly indicated by the presence of Ijo institutions in Ijebu territory.

The Ijebu Ekine society and associated masks have their source in the Ijo area of the Delta, where the Ekine society (or Sekiapu, as the Ijo also refer to it) first developed (Drewal 1986). It is not inconceivable that the Ijebu chiefs would have presented their cloths as gestures of good will or as mediums of exchange, perhaps even for the purchase of masks, as the Nembe Ijo ceremonies to bring out the masquerades implies?

The Ijo who saw and received the cloths perceived them as being very powerful. Though they reinterpreted the meaning of their motifs, they seem to have imitated Ijebu patterns of use. Priests from Nembe, the Eastern Ijo group closest to the central Delta, always wear their tortoise cloth (ikagibara) over their left shoulder in the Ijebu Oshugbo style. During funerals, the Kalabari wear their tortoise cloth (ikakibite) wrapped turban style, again comparable to the manner in which it is worn by Oshugbo members (Fig. 26). Also, during the funerals of their chiefs, the Kalabari and the Ibani Ijo use ikakibite to line the walls and ceilings of the chambers where the body lies in state in a manner not unlike the way cloths are hung in Ijebu shrines.

These cloths came to assume such importance for the Ijo that demand outstripped the supply, bringing the Ijo to Akwete Igbo weavers for their replication. Through this process, the Ijebu-originated patterns (the tortoise designs to the Ijo) came to be standard motifs in the Akwete weaver's repertoire (Fig. 24). This had already begun in the late nineteenth century, when Akwete weaving underwent changes, as I have described in previous studies (Aronson 1980a, 1980b, 1981, 1989). Now, only a few of the Ijo ikakibite are Ijebu originals, the vast majority being Akwete versions.

More recently, Akwete weavers have had to accommodate a new wave of demand for Ijebu cloths as the result of the spread of the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity throughout Nigeria. Now open for membership to any individual with the financial means to join, Reformed Ogboni chapters exist throughout the country. Regardless of ethnic origin, a member must own an itagbe. Although the cloths are acquired from weavers in Ijebu-Ode, Akwete weavers have a reputation for making them (Fig. 27). Thus the process of diffusion involving doth has come full circle, the Oshugbo significance meeting up with the designs more than a hundred years after their initial spread to the Akwete area.

Aso olona distinguish Ijebu chieftaincy from Oshugbo membership, and each of these from the king (Awujale) himself. At the same time, the relative uses of the cloths imply unity and complementarity of Ijebu community officials, their roles and responsibilities. The aso olona and its designs have also spread over long distances, carrying ideas of power and authority that were reinterpreted in each location where the cloth found a home. Aso olona, then, serves as a window for studying the relative histories of Ijebu institutions of rule, their connections and points of departure.

However, the study of these title cloths raises as many or more questions than it answers. To achieve a better understanding of the history of Ijebu weaving, it is necessary to conduct a broader survey of villages outside Ijebu-Ode, where I focused my work, as well as more detailed studies of existing weaving traditions. Do men weave on the upright loom in those outlying areas? Did the production of aso olona ever extend beyond the boundaries of Ijebu-Ode, where it is confined today?

Also, to what extent can we use the cloth to explain the Ijebu's historical ties with Benin (or Owo), whose art forms share some of the same motifs? Were the cloths themselves, in their portability, responsible for carrying the Ijebu designs to Benin, as they did to the Eastern Ijo area? Can we even assume the meanings of those designs to be the same in each place?

The dissemination of Ijebu cloths to the Eastern Ijo is a problem not yet fully resolved. I worked mainly in Ijebu-Ode and in the Nembe, Kalabari, and Ibani Ijo region but very little in between. A more detailed investigation of more centralized Delta peoples such as the Itsekiri, Ikale, Ilaje, and Apoi Ijo may provide an explanation linking the two areas.

This study is based largely on the three months of fieldwork I did with Ijebu weavers in 1978. It also draws on the field data collected by others who have studied Ijebu culture although not necessarily weaving in particular. I wish to thank Marilyn Houlberg, whose data, field slides, and insight into Ijebu culture she has so generously shared with me for this article. I also wish to thank Henry Drewal, Babatunde, Lawal, Kate Ezra, John Picton, and, in particular, Jean Bergatti for reading and critiquing varying versions of this paper.

notes

1. The two leading studies on Yoruba art (Drewal, Pemberton, & Abiodun 1989; Thompson 1971) only hint at the meaning and ritual use of Ijebu textiles. Even less revealing are studies of Oshugbo (Ogboni) art and ritual, which give little if any attention to the cloths, despite the role ljebu textiles play in that society (Agiri 1972; Arewa & Stroup 1977; Brincard 1980; Drewal 1981; Drewal 1989; Drewal, Pemberton, & Abiodun 1989; Morton-Williams 1960; Dennet 1916; Ojo 1973; Williams 1964; Witte 1982, 1988). Our main sources are a number of African textile surveys in which the textiles are only illustrated or are discussed mainly from the point of view of technique and design, with little attention given to their social context or their relationship to other ljebu arts (Cordwell 1952; Etcher 1976; Kent 1971; Lamb & Holmes 1980; Picton & Mack 1979; Schaedler 1987).

2. For a somewhat detailed description of Ijebu leadership systems, refer to Ogunkoya's article (1956) on the history of Ijebu.

3. For a more detailed account of Ijebu history, see Lloyd 1977 and Drewal 1989.

4. At the time of my research in 1978, both the upright loom (women's) and vertical, foot-treadle loom (men's) were being used in the Ijebu area. Some of the male weavers originated from Ilorin and were weaving the typical Ilorin cloth known as asooke.

5. People from Oyo and Ogun states, who also manufacture and use the cloth, refer to it as Kijipa (Aremu 1982:3).

6. More specifically, iborun-nla means "large covering (i.e., protection) from the sun" (oorun); according to Babatunde Lawal this translation explains its original function (pers. com., 1992). However, based on the context in which the cloths are used, iborun also means ceremonial or festival cloth.

7. Obalufon seems to have particular importance in the Ijebu region. The Remo Yoruba, a subgroup made up of sixteen villages, who share their allegiance between the Awujale in Ijebu-Ode and the king (Akarigbo) of Shagainu, celebrate the Obalufon festival each year through a lavish display of finely woven cloth. Oshugbo-related itagbe and iborun-nla often appear during this celebration (Marilyn Houlberg, pers. com., 1991).

8. For a discussion of the Yoruba's innovative uses of photography, see Sprague 1978.

9. Maude Wahlmann observed a similar situation among Moro potters who are told by priests what patterns to apply to their ritual pots. Like the Ijebu weavers, they know the names and how to make the designs but not necessarily their underlying meaning (Wahlmann 1972).

10. More research needs to be done on the use of aso olona among priests. The one Henry Drewal interviewed may have been wearing it because of his membership and priestly function within Oshugbo.

11. The Ijebu view the horizontality of their masks as an expression of "floating on the surface of the water," which is the way the Ijebu describe how they first saw water spirits (Drewal 1986:38).

12. I was not allowed to photograph either the crocodile sculpture or the iborun-nla cloths bearing the pattern in the shrines where I observed them.

13. In Benin, Olokun is a god rather than a goddess.

14. For recent discussions of the Ijebu-Benin connection, see Drewal, Pemberton, & Abiodun 1989 and Ezra 1992.

15. Abalaye translates as "We met it in the ancient world" (H. Drewal, pers. com., 1991).

16. Gangan is also one in a set of bio-memphronic pressure drums the Yoruba collectively call dundun. Played with a stick, the Yoruba use it as a talking drum or to accompany dancing.

17. The frog image is the only one on aso olona that is repeated three times in one register. All others are either single or in pairs. The reason may be one of relative size, the frog being the smallest in comparison with images of the crocodile, fish, and elephant.

18. Technically, shag is a form of knotting known as rya or ghiordes.

19. In certain areas of Ijebuland, the shoulder cloth is referred to as shaki rather than itagbe. See also note 29.

20. Even the patterns can be associated with one's lineage and may be commissioned from the weaver on that basis.

21. Drewal identified the white cloth purchased by initiates for the Great Mother Iyanla as "a visual prayer to the mother of us all" (Drewal 1977:561-62).

22. It is common for nonliterate weavers to misspell the words they weave on their cloths. The correct spelling for this phrase should be gbebe mi oluwa. It could also refer to the phrase jebeeni oluwa, meaning "God's will always comes to pass."

23. The Reformed Ogboni Fraternity, or ROF as it is commonly called, was formed after the Christian church tried to put an end to traditional Ogboni practices. Besides being more secular in its orientation, ROF now has chapters throughout Nigeria and is no longer strictly a Yoruba institution.

24. Before entering certain Ijebu shrines, one must be purified by passing through a curtain of raffia fibers, a practice similar to the function of holy water in the Catholic church.

25. According to Drewal's Ijebu informants, untie means "owner of the house" rather than "owner of the earth," as it has been previously translated (Drewal 1989; Drewal, Pemberton & Abiodun 1989:136).

26. Mainly it is men who join Oshugbo. However, women past menopause may also join.

27. All existing examples of Ijebu cloths dating before this century are of the larger size, including those traded to and now owned by Eastern Ijo families.

28. This was explained to me when I asked the meaning of a geometric pattern in the shag area of a baby tie.

29. The Egba refer to their shoulder cloth as shaki, which is the name for the shag woven into it.

30. Because he resides in land and sea, the Ijebu see the tortoise as a symbol of liminality between water and land. For this reason, they are sacrificed in front of certain Ijebu maskers (Drewal 1986:36).

31. Idoko is the name of one Ijebu subgroup and one of the earliest kingdoms among the Ijebu. In earlier discussion I indicated that the Idoko Ijebu claim an early history of weaving, a claim that may be substantiated by the ljo's use of that term when referring to the Ijebu-originated cloth.

32. Sources dating more than one hundred years later tell us that they were trading their textiles to the Gold Coast, Gabon, and Angola via European middlemen (Ryder 1969:88, 93-95). By the end of the eighteenth century they were exporting cloths as far away as Brazil for use by Yoruba slaves (Adams 1966: 97-108), who apparently valued them for their durability.

33. His people referred to the traders as abamira, a word deriving from the expression "abami ra-o" (help me to sell) that the Ijebu traders would shout when reaching tbe Itsekiri waterside (Mr. Rewane, pers. com., Itsekiri, 1978).

34. These towns include Omadina, Koko, Gborodo, and Inorin (Mr. Rewane, pers. com., Itsekiri, 1978). 35. There are many references in liu oral tradition to heads of trading houses returning from their journeys with cloths acquired through their transactions with other trading heads.

PHOTO (COLOR):

1. ASO IBORUN-NLA, THE LARGER VERSION OF ASO OLONA ("CLOTH WITH PATTERNS"), WORN AS A WRAPPER. IT SEARS THE MOTIFS OF THE CROCODILE (CENTRAL BAND) AND THE FROG, AS WELL AS SHAG (SHAKI). APPROX. 1.8m x 2.5m. AUTHOR'S COLLECTION.

PHOTO (COLOR): LEFT:

 

2. AS A CHIEF, THIS MAN WEARS HIS ITAGBE, THE SMALLER TYPE OF ASO OLONA, OVER THE RIGHT SHOULDER. IJEBU-IFE, MAY 1978.

PHOTO (COLOR): RIGHT:

 

3. FOR THIS PHOTOGRAPH THE SENIOR WEAVER (IYAEGBE), 70-YEAR-OLD AISATU ODUTOLA, DRAPED AN ITAGBE CLOTH OVER HER SHOULDER TO INDICATE HER TITLED STATUS. IJEBU-ODE, MAY 1978.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

 

4. A WOMAN WEAVES AN ITAGBE ON THE TRADITIONAL UPRIGHT LOOM. THE CLOTH INCORPORATES SHAG AS WELL AS WORDS IDENTIFYING THE CHIEF WHO WILL WEAR IT. IJEBU-ODE, MAY 1978.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

 

5. PHOTOGRAPH OF ABIOLA LAWAL PRESENTING AN OFFICIAL BEATER STICK TO HER APPRENTICE, WHO KNEELS AS A SIGN OF RESPECT TO HER SEATED MENTOR. THE APPRENTICE'S FIRST COMPLETED CLOTH IS STILL ON THE LOOM. THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS TYPICAL OF THOSE TAKEN TO DOCUMENT THE END OF A WEAVING APPRENTICESHIP. IJEBU-ODE, 1978.

ILLUSTRATION:

 

6. WEFT-FLOAT PATTERNS USED IN IJEBU ASO OLONA.

A OONI (CROCODILE)

B OPOLO(FROG)

C AGBARIEJA (FISHHEAD)

D ERIN(ELEPHANT)

E EJO(SNAKE)

F ALANGBA(LIZARD)

G GBEDU(LARGE SlNGLE-MEMBRANE DRUM) AND GANGAN (TALKING DRUM)

H UNIDENTIFIED

I FOWOBOJU ("PASS THE PALM OVER THE FACE," A GESTURE THAT

  ACCOMPANIES PRAYERS OR CERTAIN RITUAL CEREMONIES)

J ABALAYE(HOOKED CEREMONIAL STAFF)

K EEKONO(FINGERNAIL)

L ATAPO(STOOL)

M WAALA(KORAN BOARD)

N OMOLOBE (KNIFE)

PHOTO (COLOR): TOP:

 

7. CROCODILE (OONI) MOTIF ON ASO OLONA. AUTHOR'S COLLECTION.

PHOTO (COLOR): CENTER: 8. FISHHEAD (AGBARIEJA) MOTIF ON ASO OLONA. AUTHOR'S COLLECTION.

PHOTO (COLOR): BOTTOM: 9. DRUM (GBEDU) MOTIF ON ASO OLONA. AUTHOR'S COLLECTION.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

 

10. PLAQUE BEARING TWO IMAGES OF THE MUDFISH. EDO, BENIN KINGDOM, NIGERIA; 16TH-17TH CENTURY. BRASS, 22.9cm. THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK, GIFT OF MR. AND MRS. KLAUS G. PERLS, 1991.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

 

11. IBORUN-NLA WRAPPER WITH THE MUDFISH MOTIF. THIS CLOTH MAY DATE FROM AS EARLY AS 1790. IT APPEARS THAT ONE OF ITS FOUR PANELS IS MISSING. ROYAL SCOTTISH MUSEUM, EDINBURGH.

 

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): 12. IBORUN-NLA WRAPPER WITH THE MUDFISH MOTIF. 19TH CENTURY. MUSEUM FOR VOLKERKUNDE, BERLIN.

 

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): 13. HOOKED STAFF TRADITIONALLY CARRIED IN THE LEFT HAND BY MEMBERS OF THE OSHUGBO SOCIETY AND CHIEFS FROM IJEBU. IJEBU-ODE, MAY 1978.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): 14. DRUM (GBEDU) OWNED BY THE AJALORUN OF IJEBU-IFE. IJEBU-IFE, JUNE 1978

 

.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): 15. ITAGBE COMMISSIONED FROM AN IJEBU WEAVER IN MAY 1978, AUTHOR'S COLLECTION.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

16. OSHUGBO MEMBER WEARING THE TRADITIONAL APRON. THE/TAGBE IS WORN DRAPED OVER THE HEAD WHEN IMPORTANT DECISIONS ARE MADE AT SOCIETY MEETINGS. ILISHAN, 1978.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

17. OGBONI (OSHUGBO) APRON WITH AN APPLIQUED IMAGE OF THE OGBONI LODGE (ILEDI) IN THE CENTER. RAFFIA, COTTON; LENGTH 62.5cm. COLLECTED AT ILISHAN IN 1978 BY MARILYN HOULBERG. FOWLER MUSEUM OF CULTURAL HISTORY, UCLA.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

18. ADESINA ADEYEMI DRESSED IN HiS OFFICIAL ATTIRE AS A HIGH-RANKING CHIEF, HE WEARS AN ITAGBE OVER HIS SHOULDER. IJEBU-IFE, JUNE 1978.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

19. ADESINA ADEYEMI IN HIS TYPICAL ATTIRE AS HEAD OF THE REFORMED OSHUGBO FRATERNITY. IT CONSISTS OF AN IBORUN-NLA WRAPPER AND TWO ITAGBE, ONE ON HIS LEFT SHOULDER (BEARING THE INITIALS OF THE FRATERNITY AND THE OTHER ON HIS HEAD. IJEBU-IFE, JUNE 1978.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

20. AN EGUNGUN REPRESENTING A DECEASED OSHUGBO MEMBER WEARS ASO IBORUN-NLA. ILISHAN, MARCH 1982.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

21. WOMAN WEARING A WHITE SHAG IBORUN-NLA AND fTAGBE IN HER CAPACITY AS A CHIEF IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH OF ST. LOUIS. IJEBU-IFE, JUNE 1978.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

22. STAFF (IPAWO ASO). IT SHOWS THE SUSPENDED BELLS AROUND THE HEAD OF THE IMAGE, EVOKING THE OSHUGBO ELDER WITH HIS TASSELED TURBAN (SEE FIG. 19). IJEBU-ODE, JUNE 1978.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

23. DOOR AT THE ENTRANCE TO AN OSHUGBO HOUSE (ILEDI) IN THE IJEBU-REMO AREA. THE FIGURES iN THE UPPER REGISTER ARE OSHUGBO MEMBERS, TWO MALE AND ONE FEMALE. BELOW THEM ARE A KING FLANKED BY ATTENDANTS. AUGUST 1980.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

24. TORTOISE CLOTH (IKAKIBITE)WOVEN IN AKWETE FOR SOMEONE FROM THE IBANI IJO AREA. ALTHOUGH AKWETE WEAVERS NOW WEAVE ONE WIDE CLOTH, THEY WILL OCCASIONALLY WEAVE THE TORTOISE CLOTH IN MORE THAN ONE PANEL, AS SEEN HERE, TO MORE CLOSELY REPLICATE THE IJEBU-ORIGINATED CLOTH. DECEMBER 1977.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

25. DEPUTY CHIEF ROBERT DEDE ALAGOA, HEAD OF THE SEKIAPU SOCIETY AT NEMBE IN THE EASTERN IJO REGION. HE IS PRESENTING THE RARE ISELEMA BITECLOTH BEARING THE TORTOISE DESIGN TO THE MOTHER OF THE MASKS SO THAT THEY CAN BE BROUGHT OUT OF THE CANOE TO PERFORM. NEMBE, DECEMBER 1974.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):

26. KALARARI IJO MAN WEARING THE TORTOISE CLOTH (IKAKIBITE) ON HIS HEAD AS ONE WOULD AT FUNERALS. THE WRAPPER, ALSO CALLEDIKAKIBITE, IS IMPORTED FROM FRANCE OR ENGLAND. BUGUMA, MARCH 1978.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): 27. THE LATE AKWETE WEAVER DAKURU ROSE ORDOR WEARING AN OGBONI SHOULDER CLOTH SHE WOVE ON COMMISSION FOR AN OGBONI MEMBER LIVING IN THE NEARBY CITY OF ABA, AKWETE, SEPTEMBER 1977.

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