FRAME|WORK: A seven-headed bush spirit from Nigeria

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature a life-size sculpture depicting a Nigerian bush spirit, currently on view in the African gallery at the de Young.

Shrine figure or bush spirit with seven heads, 20th century
Nigeria, Cross River, Ijo people
Wood, glass eyes, paint
172.7 x 35.6 x 45.7 cm (68.5 x 14.5 x 18 in.)
Museum purchase, gift of Phyllis C. Wattis and the Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Major Accessions

With a spear and a cutlass in the hands of both “janus” (or back-to-back) bodies, this seven-headed standing figure is reminiscent of proud warriors past. This sculpture embodies power and strength and represents the combatant philosophy that pervades Ijo society and its art.

Seven is a particularly auspicious number in Ijo thought. Seven-headed figures are believed to depict Tebesonoma, an important figure in narrative performances held throughout the central and western Nigerian delta. Multi-headed sculptures may represent clairvoyance and other super human powers, including the ability to see in all directions. This super power is evinced in the figure's mirorred eyes, which indicate enhanced, even supernatural vigilence.

An Ijo warrior must demonstrate potency and courage to illustrate personal achievement and individual virtue. These warriors reportedly derive their fortitude from the knowledge of a magical language, the command of which is expressed by the bared teeth and ferocity of each of the seven heads. The symbolism of force is reiterated by the dagger and spear the battle-ready figure holds. A four-legged animal, possibly a leopard, crouches above the seven heads and is a powerful reminder that a warrior earns his status by killing wild animals as well as humans.

Demonstrate your own courage and fortitude when you come face-to-face with this fearsome figure at the de Young!