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University of Iowa News Release


Aug. 11, 2010

Photo: Ere Ibeji, image of Yoruba twins from the collection of J. Richard Simon, to be displayed at the University of Iowa.

UI professor’s collection of 300 Yoruba twin figures featured at IMU

Yoruba people of West Africa have the highest rate of twin pregnancies in the world and in this culture, they perceive twins — “ibeji” — as spirited, unpredictable, fearless, and agents of good luck. In Yoruba culture, when a twin dies, the mother commissions the carving of a six- to eight-inch wooden figure—called an ere ibeji, or twin soul — to embody the twin’s spirit for generations to come.

The University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) opens the fall semester with the exhibition, "Ere Ibeji: Yoruba Twin Figures from the Collection of J. Richard Simon," on view Sept. 2 through Oct. 17 in the Iowa Memorial Union’s Black Box Theater.

The exhibition includes more than 300 ere ibeji selected from the collection of J. Richard Simon, UI emeritus professor of psychology and industrial engineering, who taught at the UI for 42 years. Simon has generously promised his ere ibeji collection to the UIMA so that it can be an educational resource for scholars and students.

The retired professor's commitment to student interaction is exemplified by the fact that UI graduate and undergraduate students wrote all of the explanatory wall labels for the exhibition during a seminar in spring 2009. In addition, UI student Megan Otis, a curatorial assistant at the UIMA, helped with the major exhibition planning.

"This is meant to be a study collection available to students," Simon says. "I’m proud of the collection, and I want to share it with as many people as possible."

With a longtime interest in tribal art, Simon became enthralled by ere ibeji after visiting the UIMA and seeing an Ibeji pair in the Stanley Collection. He recalls being "struck by the artistic quality and beauty of the figures. The carving was so fantastic." Even more, the unique cultural significance of the ere ibeji intrigued him. In Yoruba families, these figures function as more than art objects. For the Yoruba, an ere ibeji contains a living spirit and is handled with care to pacify the soul of the deceased twin.

"After the death of a twin, its ere ibeji figure is offered the same loving care that Yoruba lavish on living infants and especially on surviving twins," says Christopher Roy, curator of the exhibition and UI art history professor and Elizabeth M. Stanley Faculty Fellow of African Art. "To honor the spirit of the dead twin, the ere ibeji is given food, clothing and jewelry, and rubbed with red and blue dye. When the face of the small wooden figure becomes dirty with food it is cleaned with handfuls of fine sand, which softens the facial features over time."

Simon purchased his first ere ibeji while on sabbatical in England, where he met the world’s major collector of these figures, who provided Simon with key expertise. With that knowledge and a newfound passion, Simon continued to acquire ere ibeji from London and New York art markets.

"I thought I’d like to have one or two, and then I discovered there were different styles from every village," he says. "So then I thought I’d like one from each of approximately sixty villages. After that, I thought I’d like to have one more than the British Museum’s collection … it became an obsession."

The Black Box Theater, located on the IMU's third floor, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Entry is free and open to the public.

For more information on the UI Museum of Art, visit or call 319-335-1727.

Photos: Click on photo below or visit this website for additional images:

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Steve Parrott, University Relations, 319-384-0037,