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Re-thinking the Calabash – Emma Christina Rice

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Re-thinking the Calabash; Yoruba Women as Containers

Deconstructing Gender in Yoruba Society Using the Calabash as a Metaphor for Women as Containers of their own Gendered Identity

Emma Christina Rice[1]


This paper examines the calabash, a type of bowl used by the Yoruba peoples of South-Western Nigeria. Other than briefly appearing in descriptions of Yoruba divination and praise poetry, the calabash has received little scholarly attention. It is a piece of material culture that is used in everyday activities and therefore does not comply with traditional Western categories of ‘art’ or ‘artefact’, but can more accurately be described as a ‘tool’. According to Will Rea, ‘the principles of classification that underlie African art historical paradigms follow from principles of classification already established in anthropology.’[2] Rea suggests that African art history focuses its interests upon categories that already exist within Western epistemology. This paper will question the assumption that Yoruba societies accept categories such as ‘art’, ‘artefact’ and ‘gender’ in the same way as Western societies. Stemming from the early twentieth-century school of Structural Functionalism, Anthropology’s ‘principles of classification’ traditionally focus upon decoding material culture’s aesthetic symbolism in order to understand particular cultural ways of seeing the world. This paper will examine a piece of Yoruba material culture without attempting to decode the symbolism of its aesthetic appearance. By discussing the calabash as a general piece of equipment with a variety of uses, my argument will instead use its employment in everyday life as a metaphor for perceptions towards Yoruba women. By interpreting the calabash in the domain of metaphor and signification, this paper will progress from a comparison between the calabash and women into redefining Yoruba notions of gender that differ from those upheld in the West.

I argue that Yoruba attitudes suggest that a woman’s body is also a vessel that contains and conceals elements of her gender identity. The calabash will therefore provide a metaphor for my argument’s suggestion that Yoruba notions of gender and the body do not comply with traditional Western standards; that of the body as a complete, gendered entity. The calabash’s liquid contents provide a symbol for fluid gender identity which I will suggest that Yoruba people perceive is contained within the body. Therefore, using the calabash as a model, this paper will ask if it is possible that Yoruba notions of personhood juxtapose those in the Western world and instead accept the body as a composite site into which gender identity is made manifest?

Yoruba communities have used calabashes as an integral part of everyday life for hundreds of years. The word ‘calabash’ denotes bowls, containers and dried gourds that hold anything from milk and butter to firewood. As well as being used as part of everyday routines, the calabash plays a role in ritual practice and serves as a container for spiritual and magical substances. Traditionally moulded from clay, carved from wood or made from the shells of dried fruits, these containers’ designs are regionally specific. According to Mildred A. Konan, ‘there is a great diversity, even in towns and villages just a few miles apart’[3]. Local artists commonly decorate these gourds with designs ranging from figurative to abstract. Konan writes that ‘Nigerian calabash artists have created an almost infinite variety of beautiful and unique designs’[4]. This paper, however, is not concerned with the gourd’s aesthetic appearance. Instead it will focus on the use of the calabash as a container that holds and conceals things. Once an understanding of the concealing and containing nature of this sacred vessel is demonstrated, this paper will show how Yoruba notions of gender and the body are comparable to the calabash and its contents.

Through an examination of the calabash in its domestic and ritual purpose in society I will suggest that Yoruba bodies are perceived as hollow forms, like a calabash, into which the essence of identity is enclosed. The purpose of this enquiry is to question an assumption that Western standards of gender, built-in and solidly joined to the body, are accepted in Yoruba communities. By examining a calabash used in ritual to hold good or evil substances, I will argue that a woman’s body also contains creational or destructive force in Yoruba society. Her body as a vessel of power suggests that she is a container into which things are made manifest. Therefore, rather than gender being an intrinsic part of the body this paper will ask: could her contents include the essence of her identity as a woman? Is it possible that Yoruba women exist as a manifestation of woman-ness? This paper will therefore use a comparison of material culture with women to question the assumption that Western standards of gender identity are cross-culturally accepted. Rather than examining the calabash’s aesthetic appearance, this paper will examine it as a tool used in everyday life and ritual practice; a model which will provoke a redefinition of Yoruba perceptions towards the concept of gender.

Yoruba Women as Containers of Blood

In order to examine Yoruba women as containers of their own gender identity it is important to deconstruct the notion that women are containers of blood. This Section will define a Yoruba ontology as accepting the world as a physical realm, filled with competing positive and negative forces. I then examine a Yoruba understanding that the metaphysical realm can enter into the body. An examination of spiritual forces that can enter physical entities will support my claim that Yoruba ontology understands the body as a composite site into which things can be made manifest. A focus on a woman’s body brings this Section towards the concept of gender. It will be suggested that a woman’s body acts as a container as her womb encloses blood that can be used for creation or harm within society.

Yoruba society is born out of two ancient cultures, Oyo and Ife, both of which date back to A.D. 800-1000[5]. Oyo and Ife were the main epicentres from which evolved two distinct ontologies, effecting the supernatural and political structures that exist within the Yoruba today. There is no such thing as simply ‘The Yoruba’ but descendant communities, the cultures and traditions of which vary with geographical location. Therefore, when this paper discusses ‘Yoruba’ it is discussing more generally a Yoruba-centric ontology rather than a specific geographically located community. In discussion of the Yoruba universe, it is important to grasp its sense of fluidity. The differentiation between Aye, the physical world of the living, and Orun, the metaphysical world of the spiritual, is discussed by Henry Drewal and John Pemberton. They suggest that the Yoruba universe is often carved into a calabash, the top and bottom half of which are connected by intersecting lines (see fig.(1)) . These intersecting lines illustrate pathways between spheres. In return for blessing a community, the complex network of Yoruba Gods called the Orisa are kept alive by devotional practice. Described as ‘open channels of communication’[6], Pemberton and Drewal suggest that the pathways, illustrated on the calabash, allow a reciprocal exchange to take place between humans and spirits. Unlike Christian conceptions of heaven and hell, in which good and evil exist in separate domains, Yoruba ideologies suggest that the universe is a compound of competing good and evil tensions. This particular calabash, decorated as two separate spheres connected by pathways, is a metaphor for a Yoruba world that spirits can enter into. Using the images of the universe inscribed upon a calabash as a model, we can examine the female body as a vessel in which similar competing powers are at play.

In Yoruba communities, the body is acknowledged as a site into which the Orisa can enter. The blurred boundaries between physical entities (humans) and metaphysical spirits (the Orisa) encourages my examination of Yoruba bodies as a composite sites that enclose fluid aspects of identity. Yoruba notions of Orun and Aye are best described through a Yoruba proverb that states, ‘The world is a marketplace [we visit], the other world is home’[7]. By comparing the world to the marketplace, this proverb paints a picture of earthly heterogeneity into which the Orisa pass into. The marketplace is a site for inter-village exchange and communication. This proverb therefore suggests the coming and going of spirits into the physical world by comparing it to a place of social movement. Karin Barber examines Yoruba polytheistic belief systems that worship the Orisa. She states that each Orisa has ‘its own town of origin, its own personality and special attributes’[8], illustrating the idiosyncratic nature of each God. Their existence is entirely dependent upon human activity as they are kept alive through personal devotion and ritual practice. It is during this devotion that the Orisa ‘mount’ their devotee and become manifest within their body. According to Barber, if an Orisa is not frequently communicated with it will die within a community. Barber describes this ‘collaboration’[9] between realms as a reciprocal exchange of mutual dependence between the Orisa and Yoruba communities. By becoming manifest in the physical world and the human body, the Orisa’s activity in Yoruba societies suggests that the Yoruba body is not perceived as a concrete entity. This considered, there is a case for a Yoruba perception in which the body exists as a composite site into which things can become manifest. Is it possible that gender identity could be characterised as a metaphysical essence, like the Orisa, and therefore flow in and out of the body throughout the course of a human life?

A focus upon women’s bodies enclosing spiritual force will turn this argument towards a discussion of the body as a container of gender. By examining a Yoruba woman’s mind as a container for secrets, and her womb as a container for powerful blood I will argue that Yoruba societies uphold that the body can become manifest with more than just the Orisa. A woman’s intelligence and proficiency increases throughout the course of her life. A society based upon a network of secrets, Yoruba standards of authority are directly interlinked with a person’s access to knowledge. A woman’s seniority affects her hierarchical position within society as her increased time on the earth suggests that her mind is full of more secrets than other members of the community. The most influential knowledge concerns the spiritual realm. This is called “deep” knowledge (jinle) and refers to cult secrets and the ability to manipulate magical substances. Andrew Apter describes this “deep knowledge” as ‘too dangerous for the public’[10], hence it is ‘confined to cult specialists’[11] who inherit the right to such knowledge through their lineage. Access to jinle equips a person with the tools to dismantle social harmony when used for witchcraft. A legitimate threat to societal unanimity, Apter suggests that ‘deep knowledge is, by definition, dangerous and heterodox because it opposes official charters of kingship and authority and reconfigures hegemonic taxonomies of the natural and spiritual world’[12]. Apter argues that knowledge is power because of its ability to challenge the natural order of things. An elderly Yoruba woman is therefore often perceived as dangerous with the ability to destabilise societal balance through her application of witchcraft.

As well as containing secrets and knowledge that can be turned to evil use through witchcraft, women are believed to contain a metaphysical essence described as ase. Existing within all living things, ase is an important aspect of Yoruba life. Its ability to move in and out of the body furthers my examination of women as containers. There is no correct definition of ase and its association with the spirit of living things makes it an easy generalisation for any type of metaphysical presence. Drewal and Pemberton describe ase as the ‘life force possessed by everything that exists’, as well as the ‘power to make things happen and change’[13]. Andrew Apter takes this description of an activated substance further as he compares it to electricity that ‘possesses both positive and negative values’[14]. This description of ase as a force that can be used for good or evil aligns it with the positive and negative forces playing upon the Yoruba cosmos at all times. Like all living things, a woman contains ase. Her ability to bring a child into this world means that her body uses this ‘life force’[15] in a positive way to give life to a new born child. Her womb, a vessel for the creation of humanity, is filled with menstrual blood containing her ova, the fertilising of which enables life to grow. As an organ that is designed to contain and release menstrual blood, a woman’s womb is directly comparable with a specific sacred calabash that will be discussed later in this paper; its fluid contents can also create or destroy by determining a King’s rule. Before examining this specialised ritual calabash however it is important to comprehend the Yoruba belief in the binary power of women’s blood. The female body as a vessel of creational or destructive power furthers this paper’ argument that her physical form encloses fluid elements of her gender identity.

According to Andrew Apter, Yoruba attitudes towards female menstruation dictate that throughout the course of a woman’s cycle her blood transforms. A woman’s blood changes from being life-giving (releasing eggs that, when fertilised, can create new life) to becoming destructive in the menses form as it is rejected by the womb. Apter suggests that the positive potential of a woman’s blood is due to its ‘capacity to mix with male sperm and create new life’[16]. In contrast, the menses is acknowledged as ‘bad blood’[17] because, in being rejected from the womb, it is not fit for procreative purposes. As the antithesis of creation, the ‘bad’[18] blood’s inability to fertilise with a man’s sperm is applied to a wider acknowledgement of its destructive powers. Apter states that it is ‘feared by men precisely because it can neutralise their most powerful medicines’[19]. Therefore, in a community where a person’s wealth and success is dictated by the number of their children, a woman’s ability to neutralise a man’s sperm and his consequent claim to procreation suggests that she is both feared and revered by her male counterparts.

Apter argues that, as well as transforming from good to bad throughout a menstrual cycle, a woman’s blood transforms again when she enters into the menopause. When a woman’s reproductive organs can no longer produce eggs and therefore ceases the flow of blood, Apter speculates that Yoruba communities uphold that a kind of blockage is created in the woman’s body. According to this argument, the blockage of her womb means that it becomes a sealed vessel in which negative life force can fester. A menopausal woman’s blocked organs give her the potential to use her contained ase for witchcraft. Her increased years living in the community also make her more likely to obtain cult knowledge. Her mind can therefore act as a vessel of secrets and her body is a vessel of power- both of which could destabilise social harmony if put to destructive use. Apter explains that women’s ‘barren wombs were seen to trap the menstrual blood that is both polluted and powerful, turning them into vessels of concentrated ase; the vital force of ritual potency and effective verbal command.’[20] The womb described as a vessel of ‘ritual potency’ aligns it with a calabash used in ritual that will be discussed in the next Section. Within Yoruba communities, where knowledge often equates to power, a woman’s authority is elevated by the mystical workings and intrinsic understanding of her anatomical binary potential. As a fertile woman she is a life-giver, as a menstruating woman she is ‘polluted’ and as a menopausal woman she is a blocked vessel- the contents of which provide an ideal place for simmering corrupted life force to exist.

Throughout Yoruba communities, witches are a legitimate threat to social balance. They are widely called ‘aje’ but can also be referred to as ‘agbalagba’ meaning ‘the elders’ or ‘awon iya’ meaning ‘our mothers’. This latter title acknowledges the association between witches and mothers; interdependently labelled but appositionally active as one brings life into the world and the other takes it away. Every woman has the potential to become a witch, as does every man. The likelihood of a man’s transgression into black magic however is significantly lessened due to his lack of womb – he does not obtain an extra vessel in which to block off ase. Yoruba witches are believed to be active at night. The cover of darkness connotes the secret nature of their actions. According to Oyeronke Oyweumi, within Yoruba societies children are ‘the ultimate raison d’etre of human existence’[21] therefore a woman’s value is heavily dependent upon the number of children she bears. This suggests that the more children a woman gives birth to, the more she appeases societal expectations of her role within society. This considered, Oyewumi highlights the likelihood of jealousy within Yoruba polygamous structures between co-wives. Oyewumi states that Yoruba witches ‘kill the living children of her co-wives by draining their blood in nocturnal feats with her coven’[22]. A witch’s ability to destroy another woman’s born or unborn children means that she is a threat to any female competitor.

According to Apter, a common Yoruba association between infertility and witchcraft suggests that a victim is ‘destined to become something of a witch herself, taking revenge on her rivals’[23] if she is made barren. This consequently creates a no-win situation for a woman whose victimisation, through no fault of her own, encourages rumours to spread about her own transgression. Oyewumi states that ‘a witch can even cause male impotence by stealing a man’s penis and using it to have sex with another woman’[24]. This suggests that, as well as ‘neutralising’ a man’s sperm, a witch can take the matter of his reproduction entirely into her own hands and cause pregnancy in a woman without his consent. Through their manipulation of ase for destructive purposes, it is believed that witches have large amounts of authority over the reproduction of a Yoruba community. Marc Schiltz furthers this alignment of the power of women’s blood with their place in society by stating that, ‘women’s power is closely associated with their role as procreators, especially with the belief that they control the life-giving blood’[25]. A Yoruba woman’s blood is acknowledged to flow in and out of her body. The fluidity of her blood supports my argument for a Yoruba conception of a women as containers; her body may be viewed as a composite site, rather than a completed form, into which elements of her gender identity can flow in and out.

Senior Yoruba women are not only perceived as containers that can destroy life through witchcraft. Their blocked wombs are often affiliated with the economic blocking of fair trade at market. The calabash’s everyday use in the marketplace to contain commodities and collect money during exchange provides another metaphor against which we can compare the Yoruba female body with a vessel. In a description of a calabash’s various uses, Konan writes, ‘in the marketplace, grain, rice, peanuts and freshly prepared foods are sold from calabash containers’[26], suggesting that they are an invaluable tool to Yoruba men and women during trade. In his examination of market exchange in Yoruba communities, Marc Shiltz recognises that a man’s fear of a woman’s power is rooted in her potential activity in witchcraft.[27] He suggests that, ‘for men, such fears are constantly exacerbated by the fact that women have always been able to achieve relative economic autonomy’[28]. Women pertaining ‘economic autonomy’, according to Schiltz, takes place in the marketplace. He states that ‘in the capricious context of markets’[29] is where ‘women can compete with men and even outdo them in acquiring wealth and in tying others to them as debtors and clients’[30]. This ‘tying’ of men to their economic power takes place when ‘farmers tie themselves to women traders’[31], placing the profit of their product in women’s hands whilst they farm in the fields.

The Day of Carrying Water

This Section will focus on the role of a calabash in ritual performance. Using Andrew Apter’s observances of the annual Yemoja festival in the Ekiti town of Ayede, I look to progress from a study of the calabash’s use at market and in domestic life to examining its spiritual worth. During this festival, a calabash is used to move a spiritual substance from the bush into the King’s palace within the town. This spiritual substance is materialised in water that is carried in the calabash by the Yemoja priestess. When presented to the Oba (King) the sacred contents of the calabash can revitalise him and restore his right to rule. If filled with deadly parrot feathers however, the containments can illicit his suicide. This section will discuss the calabash as a ritual container in comparison with the womb; the contents of which can destroy or revive the King as well as sanctioning new life in the town through cursing or blessing from the Orisa. Furthermore, from the concealing and revealing nature of the calabash and its covert contents we can infer much about a woman’s task of knowing and yet, pretending not to know about the secrets behind ritual performance. Her meditated silence is imperative to the power balance between genders within the Yoruba. As the generator of new life, a woman’s womb contains principal power, her mind must therefore feign ignorance in order to maintain an equilibrium between male and female authority. A woman’s mind as a vessel of guarded knowledge and womb as a vessel of life force is how this section will compare her body to the ritual calabash that can kill or revive a King. Using a piece of material culture as a metaphor, I will therefore discuss a woman’s body as an enclosure of potential, into which elements of her identity exist separately to her physical form.

According to Apter, ‘at no other time during the Yemoja festival is female power so explicitly associated with kingship’[32] than during the climax of the festival called ‘The Day of Carrying Water’. This considered, a close analysis of the day’s events will make provision for an in depth discussion of a woman’s authority in Yoruba communities. Apter documents Yoruba belief systems that believe that Orun, the spiritual world, can be found to exist in bush-shrines outside of a Yoruba compound. Because Orun becomes manifest in the physical world, it can be visited by particular priests or priestesses in order to transfer spiritual power from the Orisa into a town for ritual purpose. Apter writes that it is in such a bush-shrine that the Yemoja priestess fills the calabash with contents that will revive the King[33]. He describes the calabash’s contents as, ‘concentrated powers (ase) of the Orisa, conceived as hot, explosive, and polluting force which is invoked by esoteric incantations and medical preparations’[34]. This suggests that this particular calabash exists as a container for spiritual forces that are provoked by Yoruba medicines. The Yemoja priestess’ journey to the palace is full of challenges. It is believed that the calabash’s weight is “heavy”[35], so heavy in fact that ‘all the town’s hunters together could not lift it’[36], however with the help of specialised medicines the priestess is able to carry it back to the town. The difficulty of her journey is alleviated by the lively beating of drums, the rhythm of which encourages her every step, and the sprinkling of water at her feet to cool the ‘hot’ spiritual power within the calabash.

Apter suggests that these precautions are necessary as ‘the welfare of the community is literally balanced on the priestess’s head’[37]. According to Yoruba belief, if the calabash were to spill or to break the priestess would die and a terrible fortune would fall upon the town. Precariously balanced, the calabash’s contents therefore mirror that of the womb. Like menstrual blood that, if spilt, can ‘neutralise [men’s] most powerful medicines’[38], the gourd’s contents must remain well contained for social harmony is to ensue. Similarly, like a womb’s contents of life force, the calabash contains ase that can create new life in the King and replenish his reign. A comparison of the priestess’ calabash and a woman’s womb is furthered by Apter’s statement that ‘the entire collective drama is modelled on the delivery of childbirth’[39]. He suggests that the Yoruba proverb, ‘may she carry it safely and put it down’[40] is often spoken over ‘The Day of Carrying Water’ and, more generally, over pregnant women in the town. This aligns the carrying and putting down of the calabash, that’s sacred contents must be carefully guarded, with the attentiveness required to safely deliver a child. Yemoja, widely accepted in Yoruba belief systems as the Goddess of fertility, is the devotional object of this ritual exchange, furthering the connection between a restored governance and flourishing reproduction within a community. As they both may determine the town’s future, is it therefore logical that the rebirth of the King’s rule is comparable to the conception of a new generation. Thus a comparison between a ritual calabash and the female body provides another line of argument for Yoruba women as containers of elements of their gendered identity.

Once the priestess’ journey to the palace is complete, the ‘concentrated powers’[41] manifested within her calabash must be transferred to the King. Apter describes this as the ‘crucial moment of fearful metonymy’[42] as the beating of the drums and choral chanting all amount to this climatic transfer. The calabash still balanced on her head, the priestess turns her back on the King three times before sitting on his lap. As he places his hands upon her shoulders their body contact creates a metaphysical passageway, allowing the transferal of energy. This signifies the festival’s conclusion and, according to Apter, ‘as far as the general public is concerned (and further inquiry revealing, as far as they should be concerned), the king is thus empowered each year’[43]. Apter’s bracketed insert alludes to the public’s purposeful silence if they understand the constructed nature of the ritual performance. The illusion of the public’s ignorance adheres to a general Yoruba understanding that only cult members are allowed knowledge concerning the activity of the Orisa.

The manifestation of ‘concentrated powers’[44] through the priestess’ body into the King suggests that she becomes his equivalent at the climactic moment of performance. According to Apter, the calabash on her head and the beaded crown of the King are both given the same name; ‘the calabash-crown and the King’s beaded crown are both called Olokun, the generic Orisa of the sea and deep waters’[45]. Wearing crowns of the same name further suggests the temporary equality of the priestess and King at the moment of spiritual appropriation. The priestess acts as the mediatory between the calabash and the King as she transfers the ‘concentrated powers’[46] from the calabash into his body, in order to revive him. This is an example of a body acting as a vessel into which transient concepts, such as ‘concentrated powers’ from the Yemoja Orisa, can be made manifest. This provides a further example of the Yoruba body being accepted as a composite site into which things can flow, rather than existing as a solid entity.

The relationship between knowledge and power that is so embedded in Yoruba consciousness is important to remember when discussing the role of the Yemoja priestess. Her jinle or ‘deep knowledge’ is her understanding of the medicines that enable her to lift the calabash above her head and the calabash’s mysterious contents. Apter’s analysis offers a unique insight into the ritual secrets that Yoruba citizens would never, under normal circumstances, be allowed to know. Inside the calabash is water, taken from a stream near the bush-shrine outside of the town. The Orisa’s ‘concentrated powers’[47] are manifested in this water and are therefore fluid in their physical and metaphysical form; they can be spilt out of the container and can flow into the body of the priestess and the King. Apter reinstates this comparison between physical and metaphysical fluid by stating that, ‘like cult secrets, this water must never leak, spill, or accidentally flow forth’[48].

Having focussed on the life-giving potential of the sacred calabash, I will now present its power to take life away. As well as being the goddess of fertility, Yemoja is also described as the ‘mother of witches’[49]. This goddess’ power, like any woman’s, can therefore be used for good or for evil; bringing life into the world or taking it away. As well as sanctioning the fertility of an entire town and revitalising the King, the converging of power from the bush also puts him in grave danger. Allied with the town’s council of chiefs, the goddess can enforce the killing of the king; if the calabash contains red parrot feathers, he must commit suicide. If these feathers are floating upon the calabash’s water when he unveils its contents, the King knows that he must take his own life. Apter suggests that this overthrowing takes place when a king’s rule is ‘too despotic’[50] and ‘when he transcends and violates the limitation of his office’[51] suggesting that the Yemoja festival is a playing out of democracy within the town.

The power to destroy life through the contents of a mysterious vessel therefore compares the Yemoja’s calabash to the blocked womb of a Yoruba witch. The gourd’s twofold potential, rebirthing the King or demanding his suicide, is a mirror of a woman’s binary potential that can create new life through reproduction or take it away through witchcraft. Apter suggests that the ritual carrying of the calabash and a woman carrying an unborn child can be interpreted as metaphors for the entire Yoruba kingdom’s creation and governance. He states that ‘the delivery of the calabash from the bush to the palace is, like insemination, a deep implantation of external power and, like childbirth, the delivery of new life’[52]. As a vessel responsible for the vitality of the community, after the ‘deep implantation of external power’[53], the Yemoja priestess’ calabash is like a fertilised womb.

As the vessel’s carrier, the Yemoja priestess is therefore comparable to all Yoruba women. A woman’s responsibility extends to providing the community with its next generation and concealing ritual knowledge, the spilling of which would demystify the authority of the cult leaders and consequently throw the entire political governing body off balance. Working in alliance with the King’s council of chiefs who may be hungry for his position on the throne, the Yemoja calabash can be interpreted as a metaphor for the female sanctioning of male jurisdiction. Apter states that, ‘the destructive forces of male power competition […] are transposed, by the calabash, into regulatory idioms of fertility and female control’[54]. As a Yoruba woman upholds authority over her own reproductive organ and the secret structure under which it operates, a community’s rebirth is therefore in her command. In a complex system of paradoxical power relations however, she permits her own political dominance by pleading ignorant to ritual mysteries, the conscious allowance of which suggests she secretly obtains the ultimate authority.

On a wider scale, the balance of knowing-yet-not-knowing can be applied to the Yoruba’s reciprocal relationship with their Gods. Karin Barber describes ritual trickery that is not necessarily to deceive, but to show off the Orisa in their best light. She describes a devotional ritual in which a Shango priest, possessed by the Orisa Shango, performs various trickery such as setting fire to the grass with his breath and ‘plucking sweets and cigarettes out of thin air’[55].. The reciprocal nature of Yoruba’s relationships with their Orisa means that the more their ‘glory’ is shown in ritual, the more ‘alive’ they become within the community and thus the more blessings they will in turn shed upon the town. Barber demystifies this cosmological network by stating that, ‘perhaps what the ‘secret’ really comes down to in the end is the open secret that gods are made by men’[56]. This fact may be known by a community’s citizens but will never be openly acknowledged. Thus exists one of many paradoxes within Yoruba ontology; it is widely known that the Orisa’s power is derived from human activity, however the power of the cult lies in the denial of any human involvement.

Between Yoruba women exists a network of knowledge from which men are exempt; the workings of their womb and the sacred life force that is contained within it. Because women’s wombs are a containers of creational power, their compliance in knowing-yet-not-knowing is part of the reciprocal exchange of gender power relations within Yoruba communities. This Section has compared the binary potential of a specific ritual calabash to a woman’s womb. Either can bring prosperity or harm to a community through creating new life or causing corruption through witchcraft. Through this comparison we can assess a woman’s body as a vessel, containing elements of her identity. Like the Yemoja priestess on her journey back to the town, a woman must maintain a careful balance throughout her life. She must choose to use the contents of her womb for creation rather than destruction and uphold the illusion of her ignorance concerning ritual secrets. Through the use of a specific ritual calabash as a metaphor, this Section has portrayed Yoruba women as vessels whose safeguarding of their contents determines social equilibrium. Like the liquid contents of the Yemoja sacred calabash, a woman’s gendered identity therefore exists in fluid form; her sacred contents must not be spilt nor corrupted but used for the prosperity of the Yoruba community.

Yoruba Notions of Gender and Personhood

Thus far, a woman has been compared to a calabash according to its definition as an object that can contain reproductive power, dangerous blood and ritual secrets. Within Yoruba communities the same heterogeneous elements combined in one human form are what make up a woman’s identity. Yoruba female bodies have therefore been presented as vessels, into which elements of personhood make themselves manifest over the course of their lives. In contrast, this Section will examine Western notions of personhood that suggest that gender is conflated with the body from birth. By comparing these two different notions of being I will argue that Yoruba attitudes towards gender and the body have been influenced by that of the West over the course of history. This Section will examine the body as a wrapping for the essence of identity has been proved to exist in many non-Western cultures and interests anthropologists as a way of arguing against absolute Western ideals. After demonstrating other cultural conceptions of the body and gender in direct comparison to attitudes upheld by the West, this Section will then utilise an example of Yoruba transvestitism to bring our focus back to Nigeria. Through an examination of a man wearing a woman’s clothing in ritual performance, temporary transvestitism in Yoruba communities will further my argument for the body as a container for fluid gender. This Section will strengthen the presentation of women’s bodies as containers by suggesting that today Yoruba concepts of personhood exist as a hybrid of Western and indigenous Nigerian attitudes.

This paper must temporarily move away from a comparison between the body and the calabash in order to contextualise the existence of different worldly notions of personhood. Western attitudes that present the body as a solid entity believe that concrete gender is established from birth. In his interrogation of modernity, Bruno Latour examines the Western separation between subjects and objects[57]. According to Latour, the modern world defines any living species as a subject and any inanimate thing as an object. Latour suggests that this mode of classification enables the modern world to distinguish between natural and societal spheres; ‘modernising finally made it possible to distinguish between the laws of external nature and the conventions of society’[58]. This classification of society existing independently from nature exemplifies the Enlightenment ethos that the human brain can scientifically deconstruct its habitat. According to this ontology, society therefore commands nature; a hierarchical governance that positions the human brain above the natural world. Many Western communities which accept this Enlightenment logic, the categorisation of the world in order to deconstruct it, have lost the acknowledgement that other ontologies exist. The focus of this paper is to prove that the individual as a complete entity, separate from its natural surroundings, was (and remains today) only one perception amongst a complex international system of world-senses that perceive the body and gender in different ways.

With reference to the work of Oyeronke Oyewumi, I argue that the influence of a Western presence in Nigeria affected Yoruba notions of personhood and gendered identity. It is false to attribute the shaping of any contemporary Nigerian ethos entirely to Imperialism. To do so would portray the complete victimisation of Nigerian citizens and denies them any agency over their own perception of the world. However, throughout the long history of relations between Nigeria and Europe it is likely that Yoruba governing, political and philosophical structures became more adherent to colonial expectation over time. In her examination of Yoruba women, Oyewumi suggests that colonialism in Nigeria encouraged the exclusion of women from state and economic structures[59]. She redefines gender relations amongst the Yoruba and contests the misconception of feminist theory that the patriarchy is, and always has been, universal. Oyeronke suggests that Yoruba communities pre-colonially existed as un-gendered. This suggests that before Imperialism, a Yoruba person’s gender was not acknowledged as an integral part of their identity. Whilst remaining sceptical of Oyeronke’s claim that Imperialism entirely shaped Yoruba gender relations today, her text furthers my argument that gender, in Yoruba consciousness, has not always been accepted as an integral part of the body.

Oyewumi describes the West as a ‘biologically determined society’[60] – a way of understanding the world through a lens that first and foremost considers a person’s gender over any other contributing factor of their identity. As we have discussed in Latour’s description of a modern world, Western dualisms between society and nature extend to the clear categorisation of men and women. In Western societies, it is typical for a child’s gender to regulate almost everything from the colour of their bedroom to the expectation of their hobbies before they have even spoken their first word. In contrast to a ‘biologically determined society’[61], Oyewumi portrays precolonial Nigeria as lineage-driven; a person’s family lineage and seniority dictating their place in societal hierarchy, whilst their sexual organs simply reveal their ability to bear children. According to Oyewumi, pre-colonial Yoruba societies upheld a notion of equality between their male and female community members.

She claims that gendered tasks and gendered words within the community did not even exist. During European interaction with Nigeria, an assumption of gender specific language led to the mistranslation of many words in Yoruba lexicon. Two such mistranslations are the words Aya as ‘wife’ and Oko as ‘husband’. The application of gender-centric language misled a true interpretation of these two fundamental figures in a Yoruba family structure; Aya meaning whomever married into a lineage and Oko whomever retained their lineage identity. It was therefore possible for an Oko to be a female if her family lineage was of higher social ranking than her male counterpart. Oyewumi proposes that, ‘a superior was a superior regardless of body type’[62]. She states that it was ‘a gross misrepresentation to assume that anatomy necessarily defined the line of authority inside the lineage’[63]. Oyewumi uses the word ‘anafemale’[64] to describe a Yoruba conception of an anatomical woman devoid of gender expectation. She suggests that ‘if an anafemale member was the oldest person present in the lineage, then she was at the apex of authority’[65]. This argument advocates that a pre-colonial Yoruba social hierarchy was based upon a person’s seniority, the acknowledgement of sex was only to determine their role in reproduction. This suggests that gender classification was not an integral aspect to pre-colonial Yoruba notions of identity. If the conflation of the body and gender did not exist in the past, it is possible that modern Yoruba attitudes do not completely uphold Western notions of biological determinism and instead accept the body as a ‘composite’ site into which gender identity is made manifest.

It is conceivable that contemporary Yoruba attitudes towards gender relations exist as a hybrid of pre-colonial un-gendered bodies and those of Western biological determinism. A suggestion of this hybridity brings this section back to an examination of the Yoruba body as a vessel, rather than a vehicle for gender expectation. It is viable that Yoruba gender associations exist but, rather than being concrete elements of individuality, these associations become manifest within the body at any one time; the body can contain gender, just like it can contain ‘concentrated powers’[66] that can be transferred in ritual practice. It is possible that Yoruba attitudes towards identity are not classified in such concrete forms as the dualisms of the Western world. In order to extend my argument for Yoruba notions of fluid gender, this Section will now examine Yoruba transvestism.

Yoruba transvestism supports my argument for gender acting autonomously from the body because it is an example of people temporarily adopting a gender that is different from their anatomical sex. Whilst transvestism is traditionally associated with men wearing female clothes to gain psychological gratification, I will focus on temporary transvestism in Yoruba cult ritual as the wearing of habitually female clothes to allow the transmittance of spiritual power into the body. In his examination of gender relations in Yoruba communities, J. Lorand Matory focuses on the use of cross-dressing in Shango cult ritual[67]. The initiand, either male or female, must partake in a complex ceremony before successfully becoming initiated in the cult. During this ceremony a particular costume is worn that is imperative in eliciting the ‘mounting’ of Shango. According to Matory, ‘the initiand wears wrap skirt (iro), blouse (buba) and baby sling (oja) throughout the month of the initiation, whether possessed or conscious’[68]. This clothing not only echoes a woman’s attire but a mother’s, suggesting that a man must feign the ability to bring a child into this world in order to be worthy of spiritual gratification.

The month of dressing or (for a male initiand) cross-dressing has been interpreted by some scholars as part of a theatrical farce, however Matory suggests that the boundary crossing of costumes is a far more complex emblem of the dualism between man / woman and husband / bride that exists within Yoruba communities. Matory states that, ‘regardless of biological sex, the initiand is called a “bride”‘[69] suggesting that the Orisa, whom in this case is Shango, obtains the role of husband in the dichotomous relationship of subservience and dominance. During the process of possession ‘Shango will “mount” the initiand bride, an act whose sexual implications are clear’[70]. The phrase ‘to mount’ also widely translates as ‘to fuck’. It therefore must be acknowledged that a male initiand is not dressed as a women, but as a ‘bride’, connoting his forthright readiness to be dominated by his Orisa. Matory states that, ‘the distinctive feature of the title Oko, or ‘husband’, is that it can be used to address both Gods and Goddesses. It names a universal quality of the possessing Orisa’s relations to human beings’[71]. Thus Yoruba conceptions of gender do not comply with Western concrete dualisms of male and female bodies. Instead, gender identity is reducible; the relationship between husband and bride is used in ritual as an emblem of power relations between man and the Gods.

The cross-dressing of a male initiand to enable his ‘husband’ / ‘dominant’ / ‘Oko’ orisa to ‘mount’ him supports of our argument for the Yoruba notion of manifested gender. The male initiand does not become a woman, his sex does not change, but he becomes a ‘bride’, highlighting the constructed nature of gender roles within society and illustrating their ability to be manipulated for the emblematic purposes of demonstrating power relations. Matory rhetorically asks his reader, ‘what boundaries does the cross-dresser cross?’[72]. As discussed, it is more than just the boundaries between “man” and “woman” but that of subservience and dominance according to spiritual devotion. For the purpose of this paper the question of whether this example of cross-dressing ‘affirms or undermines hegemonic gender roles’[73] is beyond the point. What supports my argument is the fact that, for the Yoruba, cross dressing signifies a crossing of physical barriers and entering of metaphysical essences into the body. Matory states that, ‘transvestites are the most permanent emblems of the god’s own dressing across boundaries – in the bodies of human beings’[74]. In other words, a man dressed in a ‘bride’s’ clothing is an example of temporary gender manifestation. It is a reflection of the Orisa’s border-crossing from the metaphysical into the physical and can be interpreted as a metaphor for the way in which intangible elements, such as gender, can move in and out of Yoruba bodies.

Yoruba Logic and the Sortal Particular

Throughout this paper I have suggested that Yoruba notions of personhood accept that the body is a ‘composite’[75] site into which elements of identity are made manifest. Understanding this relies upon a particular logic of counting and division. During her time teaching mathematics in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, Helen Verran discovered that Yoruba students approached number in an unexpected way. She suggests that, by Yoruba standards, every ‘thing’ does not exist as a complete entity but as a subdivision of a composite whole. One plus one therefore does not equal two. One plus one equals a bigger quantity of one-ness. She calls this the ‘sortal particular’[76]. Derived from Verran’s argument, this section will introduce my own theory: the concept of woman-ness. By comparing Yoruba perceptions of number to Yoruba perceptions of women, this section will speculate that female identity is understood as a manifestation of a primordial whole.

Verran’s research opposes what she describes as ‘the “officially sanctioned” way of using numbers that is enshrined in mathematics curriculum’[77] in Africa. As critical anthropology has developed however, the concept of culturally relative mathematics and logic has become more widely accepted. Andrew Apter summarises this by stating that, ‘if critical anthropology has taught us anything, it is that our methodological appeals to rationality and objectivism are overdetermined by the historical conditions of their genesis – shot through with implicit assumptions of racial difference’[78]. Apter’s nod to the racist antecedents of Western rationality suggests that this elitist attitude is outdated. By ignoring the notion of absolute Western logic, this section suggests that through understanding a culture’s approach to number, it is possible to unpack their cultural perspective on other aspects of life, such as gender.

Verran suggests that culturally relative approaches to logic are language-dependent. The way in which a society interprets the world around it is through its language, therefore linguistic methods are a starting point from which we can trace societal understanding. Verran applies this to her promotion of a culturally relative curriculum when she states that ‘Yoruba and English languages create alternative starting points for numbering, resulting in different quantifying logics’[79]. Here Verran suggests that the difference in English and Yoruba language translates into a difference in the handling of numbers. Verran continues, ‘I suggest that the types of things that English speakers postulate as constituents of the world differ from the types of things that Yoruba speakers have as constituting the world; that is, the types of designating categories used in the two languages differ’[80]. It is these different ‘designating categories’[81] between English and Yoruba that Verran sets out to define by comparing Western quantifying logic with what is understood in Yorubaland.

Verran observed many Yoruba teachers leading classes on measuring quantity. In answering several questions about quantifying amount, ‘how many jugs are there in the bucket of water?’ etc., the classes answered nearly all correctly. What interested Verran was the difference between the Yoruba teachers’ explanations and the traditional Western process of teaching measurement. Instead of presenting the children with individual sums of quantity that the class had to add up, (1 jug + 1 jug = 2 jugs), Verran states that the teachers knew ‘that these Yoruba children would more easily learn to measure through conjuring up a ‘plurality’[82]. The water was therefore poured from the bucket into the different jugs meaning that the measuring process was done in the inverse. Calculating individual measurements (the jugs) through the division of an existing collective whole (the bucket) seemed to be the only way that the Yoruba children could grasp the concept of quantity. One would be forgiven for asking if this really matters. If the children still calculated the correct answer then does the process make a difference? To this question Verran argues yes. She suggests that the teachers’ process proves that Nigerian handling of number is almost entirely antithetic to that of the West; a division from plurality rather than the addition of singular elements.

Verran gives a name to the Yoruba concept that every piece of matter derives from a collective whole. She calls it the ‘sortal particular’[83]. In describing Verran’s argument, Andrew Apter characterises the ‘sortal particular’ as ‘qualitative sorts of “thinghood” that infuse the universe and which manifest themselves in different modes at particular times and place’[84]. To translate this idea into the English lexicon we can add the suffix ‘-ness’ to any English noun. A single cup becomes a subdivision of ‘cup-ness’, a single pen becomes a subdivision of ‘pen-ness’ and a single orange becomes a subdivision of ‘orange-ness’. Summarising this concept Apter states that ‘five oranges are therefore not five individual oranges forming a group, but ‘orangeness’ divided into a plurality of five’[85]. This idea of dividedness is conducive to the way in which the Yoruba children learn to measure water from a plurality. The jugs of water were filled up from the bucket, rather than the other way round, meaning that the amount of ‘water-ness’ was shared out between available components. Yoruba logic therefore ‘starts with the whole and breaks it up into parts’[86]– English language speak would understand these designated parts as numbers.

Verran compares the Western concept of quantity to the Yoruba’s in which ‘number is taken as reporting “the total amount of matter manifesting”‘[87]. The manifestation of matter that intangibly exists suggests that Yoruba logic incorporates an acknowledgement of the metaphysical. The essence of cup-ness, pen-ness, or orange-ness must exist in an abstract state to allow its manifestation in a singular objective form. Following this theory, the deconstruction of Nigerian logic can tell us much more than just a preferred handling of number; it opens up a new Yoruba perspective on the world in which things exist as a metaphysical essence that then become manifest in smaller quantitative matter in the physical realm. Combined with our examination of the female body as a vessel and ritual transvestism, Verran’s discovery of the ‘sortal particular’ promotes my argument for the Yoruba concept of fluid gender that becomes manifested within the body. If a collective essence of orange-ness can be divided into oranges, I suggest that a woman can be perceived as a subdivision of woman-ness.

Before applying Verran’s ‘sortal particular’ to the concept of gender, we must recognize this mode of logic in other aspects of Yoruba life. When discussing the existence of things in metaphysical essence this argument must consider the spiritual realm of the Orisa. As previously discussed in an examination of Yoruba cosmology, the Orisa enter into the world and can ‘mount’ the human body during ritual. Apter directly compares logic concerning the Orisa and Verran’s ‘sortal particular’ by stating that, ‘the very multiplicity of the Orisa themselves represents a mode and degree of dividedness relative to a primordial whole’[88]. The ability of the Orisa to manifest themselves within a body (as demonstrated by the Yemoja Priestess) mirrors the argument that they are subdivisions of the collective essence of Orisa-ness. In the same way, their activating power, ase or life force, exists in the metaphysical realm and manifests into the body that acts as a vessel for its materialisation.

According to Apter, family and town structures can also be seen to demonstrate the ‘sortal particular’. He states that, ‘the home or compound is a manifestation of the town; it is a mode of dividing the town into ile, or a mode of dividedness of the town itself’[89], suggesting that Yoruba societal structures also embody a model of dividing from a plurality. Yoruba compounds are therefore fractals of the wider kingdom. Their hierarchies and societal roles echo those on a larger scale. Apter goes on to explain that, ‘we thus start from the town as it subdivides into ile not from the ile as they combine to form towns’[90].

The ‘sortal particular’ is also evident in Yoruba attitudes towards new born members of the community. When applying this logic to human reproduction Apter states that, ‘the child is not “born into” a house or lineage, but is born out of it, coming to manifest the lineage through the ritual mode of naming itself, as in the proverb: “Ilé ni a n´ wo, kí a tó so. o.mo. l’orúko” (It is to the house that we look, before we name the child’[91]. The naming process of a child is an imperative process in forming its identity within the community. By looking first to the ‘house’, the Yoruba infer that the child is a manifestation of the lineage from which it is derived. A person is therefore a subdivision of ‘composite’[92] elements.

The making manifest of identity within a human body is therefore a way in which to translate Verran’s ‘sortal particular’ to our discussion of gender within Yoruba society. If people contain subdivisions of their identity, gender, like a person’s name, must be one strand of the composite whole of personhood. Through Verran’s logic, I suggest that a woman exists therefore as a manifestation in the here and now of woman-ness. The quantification of her gender, like that of number, is divided from a collective essence that exists in the metaphysical; like ase, it flows and like number it divides. Verran states that ‘it is through our talk of the features that we say are manifested by the things we say there are, that we come to number’[93]. My argument reflects this and suggests that it is through our talk of manifesting features in the material world that we come to the concept of gender.

This paper began by using the calabash as a metaphor for a woman’s body that acts as a vessel for creative and destructive force within society. In a similar way, my argument now uses a theory concerning Nigerian number as a metaphor for a new perspective towards Yoruba gender. By destabilising the idea that Western logic is universal, Verran’s argument for the ‘sortal particular’ made me question what other aspects of Yoruba society are wrongly assumed to comply with Western ideologies. A redefinition of Yoruba number suggested that their notions of gender could oppose, rather than mirror, Western perceptions of the complete, gendered body. It is possible that, like number, Yoruba gender identity exists in abstract form and materialises itself, as a divided state, in the physical realm. I suggest that a Yoruba woman’s body is therefore perceived as a container. As well as holding creative and destructive power in her womb, her entire physical form encloses her gender identity. Following the evidence within this paper, I suggest that Yoruba communities believe that the body absorbs metaphysical abstractions, like the ‘mounting’ Orisa or a temporary materialisation of ‘brideliness’, and gender exists as one such metaphysical abstraction that becomes manifest within the body.

The part and whole: Yoruba gender and an art history of things.

My argument is then that Yoruba peoples acknowledge that gender exists as a fluid essence rather than solidly bonded to a human body. The Yoruba logic that Helen Verran’s ‘sortal particular’ articulates, makes it is evident that attempting to examine gender, as a concrete Western category, in Yoruba consciousness, where objects and subjects are not accepted as singular entities but rather subdivisions of a collective whole, is counter-productive. Gender, like number, is a cultural construct. In order to properly deconstruct Yoruba attitudes towards gender, understanding the calabash has enabled us to unravel Western perceptions of personhood and understand women as containers.

This paper challenges an African art history that has widely ignored the calabash as a piece of material culture for study. Amongst the diverse art-making practices of Yoruba people, it is possible that the calabash has been overlooked due to its lack of overtly symbolic value within society. When compared to rich textile designs, various masks used in masquerade and ritual paraphernalia such as regalia and costume, it is not surprising that the calabash appears almost insignificant in comparison to the wealth of material culture produced by Yoruba communities. I argue that, rather than undermining the calabash’s symbolic significance, its ubiquity actually enhances its epistemic value.

In support of the suggestion that African art history prioritises ‘art’ that reflects a cultural context, Will Rea states that all too often African material culture becomes ‘epiphenomenal static symbolic markers of a presumably deeper underlying social structure’[94]. Rea highlights the wide assumption in African art history that a piece of material culture is therefore only created as a consequence of a cultural practice. The Yemoja calabash, for example, would be interpreted as an illuminating resource when learning about Yoruba belief systems due to its intended creation for ritual purpose. If we were to interpret the calabash through the perception that most African art is an ‘epiphenomenal status symbolic marker’ our examination of the calabash would have ended at section two.

In accordance with Rea’s caution against interpreting African art solely through its social function, this paper has progressed further than just unpacking the calabash’s role within society. I have used the calabash to deconstruct Yoruba notions of the universe, I have highlighted its use as a market container and have recognised its use as ritual paraphernalia. I have then gone further, suggesting that a discussion of the calabash can be useful for more than just illuminating Yoruba societal habits. Understood as a metaphor for a woman’s body, interpreting the calabash and its place in Yoruba society has enabled this argument to redefine a Yoruba perception of gender and its relationship to the body. Through examining its containments of mercantile profit and creational or destructive force, it has become evident that the calabash is a piece of material culture that is most commonly associated with the womb in Yoruba societies. Understanding the workings of a calabash within Yoruba society as an object that conceals and contains has therefore guided my research toward Yoruba belief in the procreative power and revered cult knowledge that is contained within a woman.

Having established that Yoruba communities upheld the notion of women as containers, particularly in relation to the close examination of ‘concentrated powers’ being moved from a calabash into the Yemoja priestess this paper was able to assume that Yoruba perceptions of the body juxtaposed those upheld in the West; the Yoruba body existing as a site into which things can become manifest, rather than a solid complete entity. My assessment thus moves that a comparison between international, precolonial Yoruba and modern Western perceptions of personhood. allows for differing notions of gender and the body exist around the world today, disrupting the assumption that Yoruba perceptions of gender and the body conflate with those upheld by the West. An example of temporary transvestitism occurring within modern Yoruba ritual practice furthers my argument that, instead of existing within the body from birth, Yoruba peoples accept gender as existing in fluid form. By comparing the calabash as a container to a woman’s body as a vessel of her own gender identity, an entire anthropological theory surrounding the cultural perception of Yoruba gender has been reconsidered.

The way that this paper has manipulated material culture is not by a method traditionally used by the History of Art. I have not considered the calabash’s aesthetic value, nor focused on a particular artist that specifies in calabash creation. Instead I have utilised the shape, form and function of the calabash as a model to inspire new thinking surrounding the subject of gender within Yoruba ontology. When evaluating the ethnographical interpretation of material culture this paper runs in accordance with the argument that, ‘to pre-empt an ethnographically defined understanding of what constitutes a thing would be to simply offer an alternative theory of things’[95]. This paper has antagonised an ‘ethnographically defined understanding of what constitutes as a thing’ by pushing the calabash forward as a worthy subject for anthropological investigation. Throughout this paper I have therefore defined it as a Yoruba object that deserves ethnographic attention. In doing so, this paper has offered up ‘an alternative theory of things’ by reworking the paradigm of gender construction within Yoruba consciousness and reworking an interaction between The Schools of Anthropology and History of Art. Therefore, in place of examining the calabash with pre-determined ideas of how it compares to a Western notion of ‘art’, this paper has used it as a metaphor, from which an investigation into plural ontologies surrounding cultural perceptions of gender has been accomplished.


Emma Rice was the winner of the 2016 Lionel Cliffe Prize, awarded for the best undergraduate dissertation in African studies at the University of Leeds, and her essay is based on that dissertation. Emma writes that ‘as a final year student of History of Art at Leeds University, the decision to focus my dissertation on the subject of gender in Africa was an easy one. Having lived in Malawi as a teenager for several months I was bewildered by the complex social structures at play that I struggled to understand. It wasn’t until I was taught by Will Rea that my fascination with gender in Africa really came into focus. As a consequence I was determined to write a piece that reflected my journey from misinterpretation to understanding different ways of seeing’.


Fig. (1): ‘Calabash. Oyo, 19th century. The Yoruba conceive of the cosmos as consisting of two distinct yet inseparable realms, aye and orun. Such a cosmic view is often visualised as a spherical gourd, whose upper and lower hemispheres fit together. Carved gourd, Diam. 9 ¾ in. Staatliches Museum fur Volkerkunde, Munich.’

Fig. (2): A Bura woman from the North-Eastern State of Nigeria using a calabash as a head cover for her child

Fig. (3): A woman carrying multiple calabashes on her head


Apter, Andrew, Black Critics and Kings, The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp.7-113.

Apter, Andrew, ‘The Blood of Mothers: Women, Money, and Markets in Yoruba-atlantic Perspective’, The Journal of African American History, Vol. 98 (2013), pp.72-98.

Apter, Andrew, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox: Yoruba Kingship and Female Power’, Cultural Anthropology Vol. 6 (May 1991), pp.212-229.

Apter, Andrew, ‘Shango’s Wrath and the New Materialism: Reflections on Fieldwork in Nigeria’, (Unpublished), pp.2-6.

Barber, Karin, ‘How Man Makes God in West Africa: Yoruba Attitudes Toward the “Orisa”‘, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute Vol. 51 (1981), pp.724-745.

Drewal and Pemberton, Henry and John, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1989), pp.13-16.

Henare, Holbraad and Wastell, Amiria, Martin and Sari, ‘Introduction’, Thinking Through Things ed. Henare, Holbraad and Wastell, (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), p.3.

Konan, Mildred, ‘Calabashes in Northern Nigeria’, Expedition Magazine Vol. 17.1 (September 1974), pp.3-8.

Latour, Bruno, We Have Never Been Modern (London: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp.13-132.

LiPuma, Edward, ‘Modernity and Forms of Personhood in Melanesia’, Bodies and Persons ed. Michael Lambek and Andrew Strathern, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp.53-79.

Matory, J. Lorand, Sex and the Empire that is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), pp.171-215.

Oyewumi, Oyeronke, The Invention of Women (Place of Publication: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp.1-179.

Pemberton, John, ‘Egungun Masquerade of the Igbomina Yoruba’, African Arts Vol. 11, (Los Angeles: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Centre, 1978), pp.40-100.

Rea, Will, ‘Materialising Manifestation’, The Inbetweenness of Things ed. Basu P, (London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming), pp.7-15

Schiltz, Marc, ‘Habitus and Peasantisation in Nigeria: A Yoruba Case Study’, Man Vol. 17, (Wiley: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1982), pp.728-746.

Viveriros de Castro, Eduardo, ‘Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism’, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. 4, (Wiley: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1998). pp. 469-488.



[1] I would like to thank Will Rea for his support. His research in Nigeria first inspired me to study African art and his teaching has nurtured my enthusiasm for the complex relationship between Anthropology and Art. I would also like to thank John Picton. Conversations with him encouraged my research into the calabash’s symbolic connection with the female body. Finally, I would like to thank Dr Zachary Kingdon whose information concerning the World Museum’s collection of calabashes exposed the numerous models that exist throughout Nigeria and, indeed, throughout Africa.

[2] Will Rea, ‘Materialising Manifestation’, The Inbetweenness of Things ed. Basu P, (London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming), p.7.

[3] Mildred Konan, ‘Calabashes in Northern Nigeria’, Expedition Magazine Vol. 17.1 (September 1974), p.3.

[4] Konan, p.5.

[5] Henry John Drewal and John Pemberton, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1989), p.13.

[6]Drewal and Pemberton, p.14.

[7] Drewal and Pemberton, p.16.

[8] Karin Barber, ‘How Man Makes God in West Africa: Yoruba Attitudes Toward the “Orisa”‘, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute Vol. 51 (1981), p.729.

[9] Barber, p.738.

[10] Andrew Apter, Black Critics and Kings, The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p.31.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Apter, Black Critics, p.7.

[13] Drewal and Pemberton, p.16.

[14] Apter, Black Critics, p.99.

[15] Drewal and Pemberton, p.16.

[16] Andrew Apter, ‘The Blood of Mothers: Women, Money, and Markets in Yoruba-atlantic Perspective’, The Journal of African American History, Vol. 98 (2013), p.73.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Apter, ‘The Blood of Mothers’, p.73.

[20] Apter, ‘The Blood of Mothers’, p.73.

[21] Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women, (Place of Publication: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p.53.

[22] Oyewumi, p.75.

[23] Apter, ‘The Blood of Mothers’, p.75.

[24] Oyewumi, p.75.

[25] Marc Schiltz, ‘Habitus and Peasantisation in Nigeria: A Yoruba Case Study’, Man Vol. 17, (Wiley: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1982), p. 739.

[26] Konan, p.7.

[27] Schiltz, p.740.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Andrew Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox: Yoruba Kingship and Female Power’, Cultural Anthropology Vol. 6 (May 1991), p.216.

[33] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.216.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.216.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.73.

[39] Apter, ‘The Blood of Mothers’, p. 74.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.216.

[42] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.217.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.216.

[45] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.219.

[46] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.216.

[47] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.216.

[48] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.218.

[49] Apter, Black Critics, p.113.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.219.

[52] Apter, Black Critics, p.112.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.219.

[55] Barber, p.739.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (London: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp.13-132.

[58] Latour, p.130.

[59] Oyewumi, pp. 1-179.

[60] Oyewumi, p.4.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Oyewumi, p.34.

[63] Oyewumi, p.49.

[64] Oyeumi, p.48.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Apter, ‘The Embodiment of Paradox’, p.216.

[67] J. Lorand Matory, Sex and the Empire that is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), pp. 171-215.

[68] Matory, p.207.

[69] Matory, p. 179.

[70] Matory, p.199.

[71] Matory, p.203.

[72] Matory, p.178.

[73] Matory, p.178.

[74] Matory, p.215.

[75] LiPuma, p.59.

[76] Helen Verran, Science and African Logic (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2001), pp.187.

[77] Verran, p.9.

[78] Andrew Apter, ‘Shango’s Wrath and the New Materialism: Reflections on Fieldwork in Nigeria’, (Unpublished), pp.2 – 6.

[79] Verran, p.17.

[80] Verran, p.181.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Verran, p.8.

[83] Verran, 187.

[84] Apter, ‘Shango’s Wrath’, p.5.

[85] Apter, ‘Shango’s Wrath’, p. 5.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Verran, p.190.

[88] Apter, ‘Shango’s Wrath’, p.6.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Ibid.

[92] LiPuma, p.59.

[93] Verran, p.197.

[94] Rea, p.7.

[95] Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell, ‘Introduction’, Thinking Through Things ed. Henare, Holbraad and Wastell, (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), p.3.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 78 (Winter 2016/17), pp. 118-149]

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