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Bohlens Give Monumental African Sculpture to UMMA

Mother and Child

Mother and Child
Niger Delta
late 19th-early 20th century
UMMA, Gift of Robert and Lillian Montalto Bohlen, 2006/2.72

Devoted UMMA supporters and major African art collectors Robert M. and Lillian Montalto Bohlen of Brighton, Michigan, have generously donated a magisterial Urhobo maternity figure from the Niger Delta region of West Africa to the Museum. Carved in wood and over five feet high, this arresting free-standing piece portrays a woman of titled rank, possibly a queen, seated on a stool, breastfeeding her baby. Other standout details include an elaborate ceremonial hairstyle known as ibgetou worn by important women in the society; ritual scarification on the face, arms, and breasts; and a large necklace or garment adorning her chest. Dating to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, the work was created by the clan artist Akpo Jivi of Orhokpokpo, a central town in the region.

In 1976 Urhobo scholar Perkins Foss referenced the UMMA piece in the journal African Arts (volume 9, number 4), stating it “merits special consideration as the work of an exceptional artist.” Foss describes the sculpture as an example of Urhobo “statuary-for-the-spirits.” For the Urhobo, spiritual forces embody the natural world; in this case, the piece was created for Ohahe, the spirit (edjo) that derives its magical powers from the silk cotton tree of the same name. It would have originally been encountered in the sacred inner room of a small shrine.

The Urhobo live primarily in the Delta State of Nigeria and today represent the fifth largest ethnic group in that country. Traditionally the Urhobo nation was ruled by kingship or clan. Though their origins haven’t been determined, the Urhobo are culturally related to their neighbors, including the Bini, Igbo, and Isoko.

Mr. Bohlen is Chairman of and serves as the Chair of UMMA’s capital campaign. The Bohlen’s gift will take pride of place in the future African gallery of the expanded Museum of Art when it reopens in early 2009.