Uhunmwun Elao (Ancestral Memorial Head)


By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Unlike the copper alloy heads cast for Oba and Iyoba ancestors, wooden heads (uhunmwun elao) are created to commemorate deceased, high ranking male chiefs of the Edo.

After a chief’s death, a large altar (a semi-circular mud platform onto which altar objects are placed) is created upon which the uhunmwun elao sits (along with a number of other objects and sculptures). The altar serves as a shrine and a point of communication with the deceased chief as well as to celebrate the life and successes of the chief. The ancestor is respected through offerings made to the shrine.

For more, see the The Tribal Eye: Kingdom of Bronze video HERE on the Oba of Benin City.

Distinguishing Features

  • Highly stylised
  • Cylindrical and massive head
  • Recessed eyes
  • Straight line lips
  • Flared flattened nose
  • Oval eyes with coconut shell in irises
  • Six frontal scars / keloids on forehead carved as rectangular cavities (sometimes inlaid with coconut shells)
  • Head band consisting of three rows of coral beads
  • Upper row of larger beads
  • Carved cross-hatched coral headdress
  • Square pattern on top back of head
  • Cylindrical bead collar that comes up to mouth
  • Stringed motif at bottom back of head
  • Topped with a feather on left side of head (feathers are worn by chiefs as a mark of status)
  • "Behind the ear, two long hair braids hang down to the beaded collar then becoming loops reaching down to the base"1
  • "Three locks of hair appear at the temples, under the headband"1
  • Deep cavity in the back of head (for the insertion of a wooden rod which is rattled during ceremonies)
  • Some decorated with metal (brass) sheeting (attached to heads of important chiefs)

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