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Sacred Objects and Feminine Mysticism in Yoruba Thought System.

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

Zainabu Jallo

In Conversation with Jelili Atiku, multimedia performance artist devoted to Yoruba philosophy.


I took a data highway from my bucolic corner of the world in Switzerland to the vibrant atelier of Jelili Atiku in Lagos, Nigeria. For two afternoons, the Oníṣẹ̀ṣe-a practitioner of Yoruba traditional beliefs-gave me the audience to discuss a few sacred objects. The two-day conversations culminated into a robust 60-page manuscript. Our discussions saw particular objects of my current research project through the lens of Ifa philosophy, Yoruba cosmological beliefs, Iconic criticism and Object-Ontology. Atiku meticulously and patiently showed me photos and videos of ritual ceremonies where these objects played prominent roles. How heart-warming!

Atiku who identifies as a human rights artist, lives and works in a Lagos municipality called Ejigbo. He positions his art towards preponderant matters of our times. Therefore, his performances are laced with critiques of injustices, ecological concerns and the importance of a unified human community that acknowledges and respects the myriad differences within. His wealth of knowledge received intergenerationally, is sustained through active engagement with Yoruba ritual objects and his own belief in the potency of the materiality of Yoruba philosophy.

This portion of our conversation focuses on his performance, Mama Say Make I Dey Go, She Dey My Back at the 2017 edition of Venice Biennale. At the post-performance round table, Tavola Aperta, he revealed that the objects he chose for the performance were Yoruba sacred objects and his consistent use of them in his performances is a technique of “self-decolonisation”. He went on to say that he created the performance to portray the potency of feminine energy, and body rituals to stimulate possible understandings of this worldview. Atiku’s focus is to generate discourses through Yoruba philosophy and humanitarian values.

Here is a minuscule slice of our conversation!

ZJ I see that the main object from your performance is right behind you there. I was just watching the performance again. It was magnificent! It is exemplary of an intricate performance. The sacred and the spectacular dimensions are interwoven. I think it is the ideal starting point for this discussion as well.

JA I am really happy because the area of your research interests me a lot. What interests me more is the journey of the values of the Yoruba that has gone into diaspora and taken a new form. I also have a lot of things I need to say to the diaspora about home- where things are coming from- and the values of using the same objects as they have been used from the homeland. Right now, we are talking about the Black Lives Matter. So, if you are talking about Black Lives Matter, it is supposed to be the totality of the essence of our black body, black soul or anything you want to call it. That is what makes me really happy about this conversation. So, I’m going to be talking about a lot of things. I’m going to open up into a lot of deeper discourses that can lead to further research and also further questions.

ZJ Thank you, I will dive straight into matters relating to the sacred. I watched the Wiwe -the ceremony where objects are imbued with sacredness- and it was quite fascinating that you had the Wiwe in Otta, Nigeria and then the performance in Venice. In Mircea Eliade’s classic The Sacred and the Profane, he writes about how the sacred could manifest anywhere, in anything, even in inert objects where an object becomes something else, a “wholly other” thing, when they have been imbued with sacredness. A cup is a cup, but when it is infused with sacredness, it becomes "ganz andere", and it continues to remain a cup for every other person apart from those for whom it is a hierophant. I was wondering if this is what Ase means, as the energy of being, of becoming.

JA Ase is sacred energy.

ZJ I would like to link this to the performance at Gropius Bau, Berlin and another, at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Would you say the performances were sacred in any way? Or were they merely artistic performances? Do you make distinctions between art and the sacred? Your veneration chants by the Isar river in Munich seemed quite like the real deal. I don’t want to use the word authentic... it appeared quite compelling. From an outsider’s eye, it looked nothing less than the ceremonies of the Yemoja festival you showed me. Except, with fewer people.

JA Because my body is involved and since my body is involved, I carry that sacred energy and since I carry the sacred energy and put it into anything I do; so, anything I do becomes sacred. Of course, the audience will have the freedom to use any kind of vocabulary to describe it, so they could say, it is secular. I won’t argue it, but to me, it is a sacred performance because I am a sacred body. Let me give you an example from my performance at the Venice Biennale in 2017. During the planning process for the performance, the curator, Christine Macel, told me in one of our conversations that the weather forecast showed that it would rain. And because I was using the feminine energy and I was trying to create that energy, I told her not to worry. I said, in my culture, we talk to nature and when I planned the performance, 72 female bodies were also intended to be part of it. I planned to bring seven people from Ejigbo among them was supposed to be the chief priest and the chief priest was supposed to perform a kind of sacred ceremony in the night the eve of the ceremony. Unfortunately, he could not get the visa, so I went alone, and I performed the night ceremony myself. It was a very simple ceremony in which I went to the front of the lagoon, I dipped my leg in the water and I scooped it with my palm. I put it to my head and I called the name of Yemoja and I said, you are my mother and I am here to use your energy, I am seeking permission and I am asking you to please hold your water. I do not want the rain to fall because a lot of people have come from all over the world to be part of the performance and if it rains it will be an obstruction and I do not want the rain to fall. After the Ìwúre[1], I went to my hotel room and within 3 minutes of getting there, the water of the lagoon overflowed. It spread into the community the whole community was flooded and immediately they began to report it in the news. At the time of the report, they said that for over 15 years, such a thing had never happened. I carry that sacred body and each time I perform, it is always there.

ZJ Intriguing! We were talking about the book, City of 201 Gods by Jacob Olupona yesterday.

JA I have the book myself.

ZJ In there, I see where I have misconstrued aspects of the sacred within Yoruba cosmology in my research. A section of the book states that in the Yoruba world, one cannot separate the sacred from the profane. The demarcations between the sacred and the profane are inconsistent with Yoruba beliefs. They are entangled. Therefore, Eliade’s stark dichotomising of the sacred from the profane does not hold any water in this context. In your Biennale performance, the saintly countenance of the 72 women performers was highly articulated. As you said, if one is suffused with sacredness, whatever they do is sacred as well, was this the case with your co-performers?

JA Thank you so much, I am really impressed by your ability to look into the video of the performance and you have understood deeper what I’m trying to say.

ZJ I looked out specifically for how the sacred objects were used. There was a profusion of symbolism. A white horse, 72 women, several ritual objects, such as the Ọpọ́n Ifa, Iroke Ifa, there was soil in the Igba (calabash), they each had the figurines which they hung around their necks after blowing into them.

Carved from wood, Ọpọ́n Ifa, is a Yoruba divination tray. The diviner, also called a babalawo (father of secrets) deciphers the will of the sacred realm through patterns left by the Ikin (Palm nuts or cowries, in Brazil ) thrown on the tray. The face of Esu (Exu) the divine messenger, continues to occupy the top central position.

46.99 × 47.63 × 4.45 cm

© Ile Axé Omo Oxe Iba L`atan, São Paulo

A Babalawo taps the Iroke Ifa against his tray to call upon a deity. After reading an oracle, the Iroke Ifa is also used to explain the position of the sixteen palm nuts on the divination tray.

This ivory Iroke Ifa depicts a kneeling hunter who clutches a bow and arrow in his right hand and a large crocodile in his left. C.1601-1800, H. 47 cm

©The art Institute of Chicago

A 19th century Igba, an embellished calabash with a lid.

© Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich.

JA I have all of them (objects) I can show them to you afterwards.

ZJ Can you elucidate the objects you used in that ceremony? The reasons behind the choice of objects ... and it seemed the location was very favourable to the performance. There was water all around you!

JA For you to understand the performance better, I want to tell you a story. The curator of Biennale invited me and it was a time the world was politically tense. The reports occupying the news all over the world was the US election and that time we had Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. To me, Hillary Clinton represented the feminine energy and Trump represented the masculine. The masculine was ridiculing the feminine. When he was saying things like, “I grabbed the p**sy”.

ZJ That was obscene.

JA I am sorry to use the word. Now, that was the idea I wanted to reflect on because I understand the sacredness of the feminine, I felt embarrassed. I also felt disappointed and traumatised at what was happening at that time, so I needed to open up a discussion about the importance of feminine energy and I began to look into Yoruba philosophy, the Yoruba pantheon, the Yoruba symbols and I began to accumulate and assemble objects. And one of them is the calabash. The Yoruba believe the whole world is like calabash, what the West refers to as a globe. The Yoruba have used the philosophy of the world as a globe without the influence of the West. And we say this globe is like the womb of a woman. It’s a womb, that is why they say Obirin laiye, this means women are the world. So, this was for me to show the world that instead of ridiculing the source of humanity, you need to embrace it. The masculine, with their political agenda, do not want to recognise it. You see, the problem we are having right now and all over the world is because the whole world is placed in the hands of the masculine, as represented by the likes of Trump. I decided to research into the Yoruba philosophy by using the Ifá, that was why I used the Ọpọ́n Ifá in the performance I created 72 of them and also created Iroke Ifa which brings sounds and also made from the image of the feminine.

ZJ May I take a shot of it? Who are your carvers?

Atiku holding up the divination tray, Opon Ifa.

JA I work with local artisans. I have not mentioned it to you, I work with object ontology, I collaborate with carvers who are traditional carvers. I try to explain to them what I want and some of them had been carving Iroke Ifa before. I got to Osogbo and commissioned it to them and I told them I needed 72 pieces and it was done with my specifications. And I told them I wanted them to be made in likeness to ancient sculptures. I do not want any modernity, just replicating the way it was done in ancient times.

ZJ Interestingly, one of the owners of the religious artefact stores I visited in São Paulo mentioned the importance of strictly aligning to the Yoruba styles of carving. I saw some Oshe Sango and other artefacts like the Agere Ifa (Ajere) that looked exactly like the ones from the 16th century I saw in museums and it was explained to me that this is in a bid to reafricanize, to go back to the original forms, which in a way, stays true to their origins. Also in Nigeria, you have influences too that take them away from what they were originally...not necessarily because they had travelled, this time from centripetal forces like colonialism and other religions.

JA Exactly!

ZJ Still on the sacred, there is this logic that an object is already sacred from when the wood is carved depending on who is chiselling it. Would you say the objects had already attained their sacredness from the carvers who are devotees themselves?

JA I will illustrate that with a straightforward logic. A woman has the egg for fertilisation in her body; it is there during intercourse between the female and the male. They begin to activate those eggs, that is what it means when you have an ordinary wood that has its own sacredness when it is carved. It is still the same thing, but when the Wiwe is brought into it. It is activated.

The sanctification ceremony called Wiwe, where objects are cleansed with sacred leaves © Jelili Atiku

ZJ You conducted a veneration ritual in Venice before the performance, why was it crucial to have a sacred ceremony for the objects in Otta? The objects were being washed…sanctified with leaves before they were taken to Venice. Was the location significant for the Wiwe?

JA I think it is just for the naturalness of it, the nature of things for example if you are moving from Brazil to Nigeria you are not going to walk naked from Brazil to Nigeria to wear clothes. So, it is the same thing. If I am bringing objects from Nigeria, I need to instil them with the energy that is the way it is. I need to bring them in their originality from the place they are coming from into the place I am going to use them. And it is also to emphasise the importance of a collaboration between the spaces. I put my body into my performance, my body is coming from this space and I must carry it with all the materials that I need to use. I must carry it along with the other objects that were in the performance as well.

ZJ What does the soil beneath the calabash signify?

JA As a human, one of the rituals you perform every day is a connection with the Earth, you walk on it and in Yoruba when you are making Ìwúre the first atonement is to realign yourself to Earth and the performance does that by bringing the Earth into it. We used the calabash to scoop out water from the river and the water also symbolises the most potent energy. That is the energy that you and I, when we were in the womb, were being connected to and that is the water that is in our mothers. The water to me is feminine. The Earth also to me is a feminine energy that we are bound to. The necklace, which is like a small figurine of a female body represents the outer part of the feminine energy which the women are connected to and the women breathed into it with their energy.

ZJ I see.

JA The idea is to replicate their power, like, this thing is a replica of me. The energy of me has gone into it. For example, those we call Ologun that is the people who have mastered the power of nature, if they get hold of this (referring to a necklace is wearing) it is like they have got hold of me. So, the energy in me has been replicated. The red tee shirt you are wearing, your energy has been transported into it so if I lay my hand on it and I give it to Ologun if I want to control you I can do it because I already have a part of your energy through the shirt. So, this is the power indigenous Yoruba have understood as the bilocation of energy.

ZJ Riveting, to say the least! I wouldn’t want to be controlled, let alone in that way (laughter). I think of this idea of the energy and it corresponds with some ancestral spirituality of indigenous Brazilians. I’m curious about the central sculpture you had for the event. I know that it also connotes everything you have said, given the feminine physiognomy, I do not recognise it as Yoruba. Is it something you designed yourself?

JA Yes, it is something I designed myself, but it is influenced by the D’mba Mask of Baga people of Guinea to symbolise the mystical essence of female energy, of universal motherhood as a vision for affective presence in the existence of humanity.

ZJ Right.

JA It is the head of a woman is motherhood and why I choose that was because I want to have the dialogue with the global village, borrowing from different elements and borrowing from Africa more heavily. I made this to be more pronounced because this sculpture is in most of the prominent museums all over Europe and America. I chose it because in 2016 I went to the Rietberg Museum in Zurich and saw it live, before then, I had seen it on paper, in literature. I saw it live where I touched it and felt it. I felt the energy of my ancestors. I altered it and added 72 pieces of female figures to it.

A 19th Century D`mba mask

© Musée Barbier-Muller.

photographed by Luis Lourenço

Atiku wearing the D`Mba inspired headdress during the Venice performance.

ZJ But you kept the Yoruba ritual objects true to their original form.

JA Oh yes. Can you see it? (moving the sculpture closer to the screen)

ZJ That is remarkable! It seemed quite heavy during your performance. It looks lighter now, the way you hold it effortlessly. With objects for your performance does the kind of wood matter?

JA What I use is white wood. We call it Igi funfun. The durability of it is starting to wane. It went through several transportations and I think they poured some insecticide into that and it is withering away.

ZJ Is there any reason that there are 72 sets of objects? Same as the number of women in the performance.

JA Yes. In Odu lfa there are 256 Odu Ifa, I reference the one that talks specifically about the different power and energy of women and this is the 72nd of the Odu.

Divination bowls at Linden Museum Stuttgart © Zainabu Jallo

ZJ I saw this, (referring to the image of the Ọpọ́n Igede Ifa above) It wasn’t like a calabash, but a shallow bowl with four sections and a cover. The cover has the face of Esu with zoomorphic forms. The cover looked like the Opon Ifa .

JA It was carved wood?

ZJ Yes it is.

JA That is the same as the one I showed you. The one that the Babalawo in training was carrying. Okay, yes. Let me play the video again. (Plays video) You see, the sculpture is divided into two. The upper one is the cover, so if it opens, you will see the inside of it.

ZJ Is it divided into four parts as well? With this one I am referring to, there four sections and a round section in the middle.

JA Yes, in Yoruba cosmology the world has four corners and the centre is the middle where Esu comes out from most of the time. His abode is in the centre of the world, and that is where we believe Esu is summoned from.


In a 2012 collaboration between Kean University and Newark Museum, the exhibition Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art emphasised that Yoruba objects are “created for ceremony and ritual...[as] means of engaging the daily, yet sacred relationship to Earth and the spirits of a greater universe.” A Yoruba terminology used to describe an artist, Onisé Onà, is well suited to Jelili Atiku. Within Yoruba philosophy, there is no art for art’s sake. The Onisé Onà is charged with translating ancestral values into visual allegories with the sole agenda to bolster these values amongst humankind.


Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane ; The Nature of Religion. Harcourt, Brace, 1959.

Olupona, Jacob K. City of 201 Gods: Ilé-ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination. University of California Press, 2011.

The Newark Museum. Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art Selections from The Newark Museum Collection, Kean University, 2012.

[1]According to Atiku, “Ìwúre is a sacred connection of one’s or other persons’ energy to the spiritual energy of Ase. It is a sacred way of conjuring goodness or positivity”. For more information about the deity Esu (Exú in Brazil) see the article, Looking for Exu in Stuttgart: In Conversation with Sandra Ferracuti HERE

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