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Art Through Time: A Global View

Death Compare: How Can Art Make the Absent Present?

Twin Figures (Ère Ìbejì)

Twin Figures (Ère Ìbejì)
Artist / Origin: Yoruba artist, Nigeria
Region: Africa
Date: Early 20th century
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Wood
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: approx. 10 in. (25.4 cm.) (each)
Location: National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria
Credit: Photo Courtesy of Marilyn Houlberg

Ancestral Effigy (Rambaramp)

Ancestral Effigy (Rambaramp)
Artist / Origin: Vanuatu artist(s), Tomman Island, Vatbuyang Village, Vanuatu
Region: Oceania
Date: Mid-20th century
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Fiber, bamboo, bone, paint
Medium: Other
Dimensions: H: 89 in. (226.1 cm.), W: 38 in. (96.5 cm.), D: 15 in. (38.1 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Ms. Terry Beck/Art Resource, NY

How can art make the absent present?

In many cultures, art serves as a means to keep the deceased present among the living. Sometimes, as with mourning miniatures, this is done with portraits that act as reminders of those lost. Other times, art is understood as a vessel that can literally contain the spirit or soul of the dead individual. This is the case with both ère ìbejì in Yorubaland and rambaramp in Vanuatu.


Questions to Consider

  • It is often said that death is the great leveler of humanity; no one is exempt from it. Yet, both ère ìbejì and rambaramp are created for individuals considered somehow “special” in their respective cultures. What does this suggest to you about the role of art in perpetuating societal status even beyond death?
  • How do the form and scale of these memorial figures reinforce their respective functions? To what degree does identifiability or the lack thereof contribute to the function of each figure?
  • In their original contexts, figures like these were considered receptacles for the soul or spirit of the deceased. Do you think it is appropriate to include such objects in museum collections?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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