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Object Name: Beaded fly whisk
Culture: Yoruba peoples
Place of Origin: Nigeria
Medium/Materials: Glass, beads, cloth, thread, hair, wood
Dimensions: L: 71 cm, Diam: 7 cm (L: 27.95 in, 2.75 in)
Credit Line: Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust.
Accession Number: X65.10855
Irukere refers specifically to an iru (tail), the part that trails behind like a potent memory. The tails of certain animals, such as those of the agemo (chameleon), akika (spiny anteater/pangolin), or elephants, are thought to contain that creature’s ase or potency, and are greatly sought after for medicinal and protective purposes. The term kere connotes something huge or substantial.
This whisk, made from a horse’s tail, suggests images of military and royal might and status as well. Thus tails in whisks convey the presence of power and potential. But irukere conjures up other thoughts as well. Crowther (1852, 157) cities the proverb, Iru esin ki ipe idi iru enia, bi esin ku afi iru si aiye (the horse’s tail soon becomes a man’s tail [for] when the horse dies he leaves his tail behind him). The key themes revolve around passage– between orun (otherworld) and aye (world) and heredity.
As I learned from another Yoruba example, the use of horsetail whisks by Gelede maskers at Lagos is “emblematic of hereditary [sic].” The tail left by the departed horse is what descendants claim from their ancestors. The whisk thus signals its owner’s connectedness to those departed and embodies inheritance. The royal whisk’s texture and color, its softness and whiteness, create an aura of soothing peace and blessing. The ways in which the whisk is used add other meanings. Rulers frequently hold the whisk in front of their mouths, shielding their enu ase (mouth/words of power) from the general populace, just as the beaded veil shields or masks the ruler’s piercing eyes.
Actions with the whisk often replace words. During certain royal rites, oba must not speak. Instead they communicate by waving the whisk or brushing it on the heads, shoulders, and backs of those who respectfully approach to receive such unspoken, gestured benedictions. The touch of the whisk physically transmits the bless, for embedded within its beaded shaft and finial is the ase of empowering matter. The finial is head with crested coiffure, whose central ridge consists of cylindrical red beads. These same beads are used around the neck and at the base of the handle. Their position punctuates the form, signaling completeness and activated power. Note how the mouth, made of vertical strands of white beads, suggests a mouth covered (possibly by a whisk). The sequence of horizontal lines (perhaps representing neck creases, which symbolize beauty), checkerboard, zigzag and triangular patterns demonstrate the virtuosity of the artist and the power of envisioned ase.
Source: Drewal, H., Mason, J. (1998). “Beads, Body, and Soul – Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe”, Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. page 222