Ancestor Figure (Ekpu), 18th–19th century
Nigeria, Calabar Province; Ibibio peoples, Oron group
H. 27 1/2 in. (69.9 cm)
Purchase, Acquisitions Benefit 2006, and Ross Family Fund and Daniel and Marian Malcolm Gifts, 2007 (2007.173)
Ancestral figures created by Oron carvers from southeastern Nigeria's Cross River estuary are considered to be among the oldest surviving wood sculptures from sub-Saharan Africa. Until the 1930s, the creation of a work such as this was an essential part of the process whereby an esteemed Oron elder was elevated to ancestral status. The figures served as the locus where the distinguished individuals portrayed were invoked to play an essential role in assuring the well-being of their offspring. Features including headdresses, beards, and stomachs alluded to their exalted social standing. The eldest member of a clan was the guardian and keeper of a shrine in which as many as fourteen generations of their forebears were so honored.