The most emblematic and personalized accessory of a Yoruba diviner (babalawo) is his apo Ifa, a beaded leather bag featuring brilliant adornment that is not merely decorative but constitutes a commentary on his vocation through its materials and color scheme. Dedicated to the perpetual pursuit of knowledge, diviners lead a peripatetic existence, making themselves available as advisers and seeking out renowned colleagues whose wisdom and talent might expand their own understanding.
In view of their itinerant way of life, Yoruba babalawo have been compared to artists and are described as "travelers who are strangers everywhere, at home nowhere." Their mobility and freedom to practice their profession anywhere are facilitated by a portable set of diving implements, which includes palm nuts (opele Ifa), a tray (opon Ifa), a tapper (iroke Ifa), and a small ivory head symbolic of the god Esu (also called Elegba). These are carried in the apo Ifa, the outer flap of which may be decorated with cowrie shells or imported European beads. The fundamental importance of the apo diviner’s way of life is indicated by the epithet akapo ("carriers of bags").
The high status of Ifa diviners in Yoruba society is reflected in the access they have to materials reserved for royalty, such as ivory and beadwork. The primary emblem of Yoruba divine kingship is a beaded crown, which is worn with other beaded accessories, such as slippers and gowns. That such highly valued and expensive materials are also incorporated into the finery associated with diviners is not merely a sign of their elevated rank but an acknowledgment that both kings and diviners are leaders whose authority stems from their relationship to orun, the otherworld. There is a diviner’s aphorism that alludes to their beaded regalia as visible signs of their comparable power: "[I] share things equally with rulers, they wear kings’ crowns and I wear [diviners’] beaded necklaces."
The sensibility that guides the carving of Ifa divination trays is also evident in the beadwork or shellwork applied to apo Ifa, with motifs similarly arranged to form compositions that reflect multiple perspectives. However, in apo these are asymmetrical, consisting of distinct fields of different patterns in a patchwork like configuration. In the work shown here, this design tactic is apparent in tis two contrasting halves – one filled with a schematic "dancing" figure, the other subdivided into three squares of dissimilar abstract patterns: interlocking triangles, a checkerboard, and a large X. thus, any sense of a visual center is sacrificed as the eye constantly moves from one segment to the next. Without any single unifying element, the picture plane breaks down into an aggregate of diverse forms, resulting in an aesthetic vitality and dynamism expressed by the Yoruba principle known as "shrine." A contributing factor to this compositional approach may be the beadworker’s practice of turning the bag as he worked.
According to Yoruba color theory, the chromatic scale may be measured in terms of tonal gradations and temperature, and their full range serves as a metaphor for forces within the cosmos. Three primary color groups are each associated with distinct character traits: white (funfun) is associated with cold; red and the related colors pink, orange, and yellow (pupa), with heat; and black and the related colors blue, purple, and green (dudu) are the mediating tones in between. Here, the beadwork composition features a palette that dances between "hot" pink and yellow and "moderate" blue and green, accented by white, black, and red. The dynamic reflected in this color field is that of pupa and dudu set within a backdrop of the full spectrum of possibilities, or wholeness. This color combination is often worn by diviners as an expression of their efforts to reveal and mediate the forces of the world and the otherworld.
Further Reading: Henry John Drewal, "Art and Divination among the Yoruba: Design and Myth," Africana Journal 14, nos. 2-3 (1987). Henry John Drewal, Beads, Body, and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe, Exh. Cat. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998. Alisa LaGamma, Art and Oracle: African Art and the Rituals of Diviniation, Exh. Cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Olabiyi Yai, "In Praise of Metonymy," in The Yoruba Artist, ed. Rowland Abiodun, Henry John Drewal, and John Pemberton III (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).
[African dealer, until 1984]; Claire and Michael Oliver, New York, 1984–1999
LaGamma, Alisa. Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, no. 29, p. 53.