In their myths and legends, the Yoruba peoples of southwestern Nigeria trace their origins to Ile-Ife, the place of creation and the throne of Oduduwa, the founder and first oba (sacred king) of the Yoruba people. With the end of fierce intertribal wars and the presence of British colonial forces in the nineteenth century, the concept of a “Yoruba” people took hold and with it the notion of Ile-Ife as the legendary cultural center of the Yoruba. From the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries the city-state of Ile-Ife was a major trade center with a highly developed political system, an ancient tradition of stone beadmaking, and the technology and artistic talent for the creation of exquisite works of art, including superb terra-cotta and bronze sculptures.
Beads of stone, terra-cotta, and bronze appear to have been the privilege of the political and religious elite; later, beaded art was also primarily associated with ritual and royal regalia. With the arrival of European glass beads, especially tiny seed beads from trade with England, a wondrous new material, rich in its range of colors and powerful in its capacity to catch and reflect light, became available for celebrating the power (ase) of sacred kings, divine spirits (orisha), and the ancestors (ara orun, “those who dwell in the spirit world”).
Perhaps the most impressive and powerful creation of Yoruba beaded art is the great conical crown, or adenla, with its veil covering the face of the king. The conical crown is worn only on ritual occasions during the annual cycle of festivals when the king appears in public. A large face is depicted at the front of the crown, referring to the kings who have worn the crown from the time of Oduduwa, the first king and founder of the Yoruba. Birds on the sides and peak of the crown refer to awon iya wa, “our mothers,” and the inner authority (ase) of women whose hidden power to give birth is the basis of Yoruba society. A packet of herbal medicines is placed within the crown to protect the wearer. The adenla included in the exhibition range from all-white examples (nos. 25, 27) to spectacular demonstrations of color and design celebrating the authority of the king.