UK Auction Features International Artist's Collection Of Ibeji Figures Geoffrey Key is widely regarded as one of the most important artists working in Britain today. A collector of African tribal art, his vast collection of Yoruba Ibeji figures will be sold on July 11.
News-Antique.com - Jun 29,2012 - Peter Wilson auctioneers bring exotic
African tribal art to Nantwich saleroom
Leading Manchester, England, artist Geoffrey Key calls them his little army, but a house move has meant his collection of dozens of antique African carved figures and other tribal art has had to go.
When the collection goes on public exhibition at Nantwich, Cheshire, fine art auctioneers Peter Wilson next month, the saleroom more used to selling the artist's canvases for thousands of pounds, it will transport bidders to an exotic and little known corner of collecting: Yoruba art.
The Yoruba are an ancient race of people today making up one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa, predominantly in Nigeria. Their craftsmen are noted for their artistic traditions of ceramics, bronze casting, weaving and sculpting, while Yoruba wood carvers are among the most prolific producers of objects for domestic and ritual use.
Interestingly, the Yoruba people also produce the highest rate of twin births in the world. In ancient times, twins or ibeji, (from ibi = born, eji = two) were believed to be evil, but by the middle of the 18th century, such beliefs were reversed and twins were celebrated and revered. They were awarded the status of minor deities, called Orishas, and their arrival was viewed as an omen of good fortune.
Sadly, however, the death rate among them was high and was regarded as a great calamity which required immediate appeasement. The family priest was required to choose a wood carver to create a figure to house the soul of the dead child. Called Ere ibeji, (ere = sacred) these figures, six to 10 inches high and carved with the features and attributes of the child in adulthood, were cared for as if the child was still alive, the belief being that this helped ensure the survival of the other twin. The practice continues today.
Geoffrey Key started collecting the figures about 30 years ago, drawing parallels with the huge collections of tribal art formed by such artists at Picasso, Braque and Miro. "Without their interest in tribal art there would never have been a Cubist art movement," he said. "Any painter alive and breathing in the 21st century cannot fail to be influenced by tribal art, it's inevitable," he said.
However, private collections of ibeji figures as large as his own are rare, the only other of comparable size being in New York. He was first introduced to them by a photographer who worked on National Geographic magazine, who lived in Bolton. He had travelled extensively in Nigeria and now owns a gallery selling tribal art in New York.
Many examples were acquired from him, together with others from dealers at fine art fairs around the country who were dispersing prominent collections formed in the 1920s and 30s. All are tribal rather than tourist or reproduction pieces and none was purchased at auction.
"They are exquisite things," he said. "I shall be sorry to see them go but you cannot possess everything in