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You Are What You Wear

A crown that conceals and reveals
<H6>Yoruba culture<br>Nigeria<br><I>Crown</I>, about 1920<br>Glass beads, leather, canvas, wicker<br>Minneapolis Institute of Arts<br>The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund</H6>
Yoruba culture
Crown, about 1920
Glass beads, leather, canvas, wicker
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund


During the 11th century in Africa, the Yoruba of western Nigeria began to rule the region south of the Sahara. The lands of western Africa did not have strict boundaries at that time, and the Yoruba were not united into one kingdom. Many different Yoruba kings ruled over many different city-states. But each tribal king had to trace his ancestry to the original royal family of Oduduwa, the Father of the Yoruba. Kings descended from the god Oduduwa himself were considered divine. They were called obas.

The Yoruba became very powerful. In the 17th century they took control of the trade routes in western Africa, which brought great wealth to Yorubaland. From Europe, in the 19th century, came tiny glass beads that were highy prized. Such beads were used on objects made for the obas, including slippers and footrests, fans and flywhisks, and thrones and crowns.

Of all the beadwork created for an oba, the veiled crown, or adenla, was the most important. Worn only on ceremonial occasions, it gave the oba power to speak with ancestral spirits in order to help his people. The gathering of birds refers to the power of royal women, and the beaded veil protects ordinary people from the face of a living god. The crown was always treated with the respect due the oba, even when he was not wearing it.

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1. The Yoruba live in western Nigeria. They are one of the largest tribes in Africa.
2. The crown’s large face represents a royal ancestor. Vertical markings identify the king’s lineage. A pouch of magical herbs was placed inside the crown by a priest. It was thought that if the king looked at the inside of his crown he would go blind.
3. The birds on the crown represent the power of divine elder women called “the Mothers,” who help and protect the king.


December 2008