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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Art: Royal Crown (adènlà)

» Yoruba artist, Nigeria

Royal Crown (adènlà)

Royal Crown (adènlà)
Artist / Origin: Yoruba artist, Nigeria
Region: Africa
Date: 20th century
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Glass beads, fiber, cloth, and thread
Medium: Other
Dimensions: 54 1/2 in x 8 x 8 in (including beaded veil)
Location: Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Credit: Courtesy of the Newark Museum

Headdresses like this one are among the most important items comprising ceremonial royal regalia among the Yoruba.

A large ethnic group residing primarily in southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, the Yoruba believe that an oba, or ruler, is invested with earthly status and spiritual power. Ornate, beaded crowns such as this suggest both aspects of the oba’s identity as well as his ability to mediate between the worlds of the seen (aye) and the unseen (orun).

The materials, iconography, and form of the crown, or adènlà, all work together to communicate the privileged position and inherent authority of the wearer. In Yoruba culture, beads are prized objects, believed to help seal in spiritual forces. Thus, wrapping the physical head—the container of a person’s “inner head,” seat of their áse or “essence”—in a beaded crown serves to intensify that individual’s spiritual energy. Because of their mediatory properties—their ability to refract and reflect light—beads are considered especially appropriate decorations for figures such as rulers, diviners, and herbalists, who are themselves able to channel spirits and manipulate the forces of the cosmos. Similar meaning is conveyed through the bird at the top of the conical crown seen here, which is also a symbol of control over supernatural forces.

Color and patterns communicate further information about the crown’s wearer. Blue beads dominate the decorative scheme of this particular crown. Rare and expensive, these beads are associated with coolness and darkness—references to temperature, but also temperament. A cool disposition is highly valued among the Yoruba and associated with certain incarnations of divinity. The interlacing of patterns created by the colored beads symbolizes the chain of divine ancestors and suggests the continuity of life, while the round faces on the headpiece’s exterior are to be understood as those of royal ancestors, including Odùduwà, the legendary founder of the Yoruba kingdom. These visages also give a face to the king, whose own features are obscured by the crown’s beaded veil. This veil is meant to focus attention on the office of the oba, rather than on his individual person, and to protect onlookers from the supernatural powers radiating from the semi-divine ruler.

Expert Perspective: Mary Nooter Roberts, Professor of Culture and Performance, University of California, Los Angeles

“One of the things that differentiates the museum experience from the kinds of display that you might see elsewhere in the world is that multi-sensory dimension is lacking in museums. We focus in Western museums on the visual. We prioritize the ocular, but in most parts of the world, display involves all the senses.

So for example, one of the aspects of objects of status and prestige is to aggrandize the person or the people in question. If it’s a king, for example, the king’s dress or garb will literally make him or her larger as a person. Staffs of office, scepters and spears, and ceremonial weapons of different kinds, literally extend the reach of the ruler. Crowns and head pieces of different kinds literally protrude into the sky in a way that enlarges and aggrandizes the person.

So the person, both physically and metaphorically, is larger than life. And this is really important because very often the kinds of objects made of these precious and rare materials are being used to designate somebody as literally having one foot in humanity and one foot in the other world, someone who may be between this world and the other world, somebody perhaps of at least semi-divine attributes.”

Expert Perspective: Babatunde Lawal, Professor of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University

“Among the Yoruba, the king is a representative of the living dead because the process of coronation implies a ritual death, a rebirth in the body of the new king of the founding ancestor. That was why in the past kings hardly appeared in public without covering their faces. Such kings wore crowns with their face on top, stylized to represent the public face of the individual underneath who is now a reincarnation of the royal dead.”

Expert Perspective: Christa Clarke, Senior Curator of Arts of Africa and the Americas, Newark Museum

“The Yoruba of Nigeria have this tradition for many centuries of making these beaded crowns which are the preeminent symbol of kingship. And a king or a chief might have twenty or more crowns depending on when they are worn, depending on their situation.

In the early twentieth century with the British in Nigeria, you begin to see a form of crown that develops in the shape of a British barrister’s wig. So it’s a white crown and it has the kind of curls on the side that were similar to the wigs that you see British judges wearing. And it was actually an interesting way of showing how some of these regional leaders in Nigeria both appropriated symbols of power from the colonial forces and at the same time adapted them.

In a way, obviously the form is evoking this system of power which was imposed on the Yoruba. But at the same time, the color white was also very symbolically meaningful to the Yoruba—it is the color of purity, it is the color of spirituality. And one of the interesting things about the crown in the Newark Museum’s collection is that it still evokes the conical shape of the traditional beaded crown. At the very top of this particular beaded headdress you have these small cone shapes and that’s one of the ways leaders were still able to evoke a traditional form while making a nod to the power of a foreign symbol.”

Additional Resources

“African Beaded Art: Power and Adornment.” In Exhibitions. Smith College Museum of Art Web site.

Drewal, Henry John. “Yoruba Beadwork in Africa.” African Arts 31.1 (Winter 1998): 18–27, 94.

Lawal, Babatunde. “Àwòrán: Representing the Self and Its Metaphysical Other in Yoruba Art.” Art Bulletin 83.3 (September 2001): 498–526.

Lawal, Babatunde, Christa Clarke, and Carol Thompson. Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art, Featuring The Bernard and Patricia Wagner Collection.Exhibition catalogue organized and co-published by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and The Newark Museum, New Jersey, 2007.

“Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art.” In Featured Exhibitions. Newark Museum Web site.

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