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The Cover
May 12, 2004

Twin Figures (Ere Ibeji)

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2004;291(18):2173. doi:10.1001/jama.291.18.2173

Among the most prolific African sculptors anywhere are the Yoruba or Kwa-speaking peoples of southwestern Nigeria and Benin. Metal and terra-cotta sculptures have been found that date back to AD 1000, although earlier dates are possible. More recent are ivory sculptures, which have been dated to the 17th century. The small, wooden figurative sculptures bear much later dates, although the dating process is much less informative since wood has naturally a shorter life and is also prey to such natural predators as moisture, termites, and fire. A special class of these wooden sculptures, extensively studied in recent years, is that of the Ere Ibeji, or Twin Figures (cover ). These sculptures, which may represent one or both of a pair of twins who have died, are familiar in the Yoruba culture, which has one of the highest rates of twin births in the world. Tragically, the loss of one or both of the twins during infancy is also common. But because twins are believed to have special powers, when one dies, a figure is carved so that its spirit may inhabit it. The surviving twin honors and cares for the figure. In the case of the cover illustration, it is probable that both twins died in infancy, since each figure shows equal wear. It is then the mother's task to care for them. They are honored on special occasions, ritually fed and bathed, clothed, and often carried about by the mother. The wooden figures of the much-loved twins are stroked and caressed until a rich patina develops, much like statues in churches rubbed featureless by the devout. In this particular pair, a yellow beaded bracelet and an anklet may be seen on one of the figures, while the other wears a necklace of azure. The wood has been rubbed with camwood powder, a red dye extracted from the hardwood tree of the same name. Scarification marks on cheeks and chin link the twins to a specific family.

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