Nigeria; Yoruba, Owo subgroup
Ivory, wood or coconut shell inlay; L. 19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991 (1991.17.122)
This opulent ivory sword is an udamalore, literally a "sword of the well-born." It was carried by a high-ranking chief of Owo, a Yoruba state in present-day Nigeria that rose to regional power in the eighteenth century. Worn on the hip, it indicated the power and status of its bearer at public ceremonies and celebrations.
Consisting of a figurative handle and a curved, openwork blade, this udamalore is a stunning example of the works created at this celebrated ivory-carving center. The human head that constitutes the pommel displays a delicate coiffure of repeated chevrons, while the eyes are augmented with dark inlaid wood. Triangular projections sprouting at the top and bottom of the head may be a reference to Sango, the Yoruba deity of thunder and warfare. Similar triangular extensions are found on the heads of figural dance staffs carried by Sango devotees. Their appearance on the udamalore may refer to the chief's affiliation with this deity and his dominance in political and military matters. The solid base of the blade is decorated with two knot patterns, while the openwork section depicts an Owo chief in ceremonial dress, wearing his own udamalore horizontally on the left hip. The space around the figure is pierced, but the sword's gently curved outline is maintained by delicate bands of ivory. In his right hand, the chief holds a curved sword, while a bird perches on his left hand and pecks at his crown. The upraised sword is an uda, used in combat, while the bird refers to the protective spiritual power associated with elderly Yoruba women. In combination, these emblems suggest a ruler who is physically and spiritually equipped to face all the challenges he may confront.