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Shea Butter Jar (Bwéeru or Wéké Gumgia) or Shrine Jar

A work made of terracotta.

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  • A work made of terracotta.


Late 19th/early 20th century


Baatonu (Bariba) or Yoruba
Republic of Benin or Nigeria
Coastal West Africa

About this artwork

The Baatonu (plural, Baatombu) homeland lies to the northwest of Oye, the once powerful Yoruba empire, and the two regions share important economic and cultural ties. Today Baatombu and Yoruba often live side-by-side, and potters from the two groups may work in close proximity to each other, making pots that look very similar. The Baatonu and Oyo Yoruba also share similar pottery techniques, using a convex mold to form the base of a pot and then completing it with coils.

This vessel has the egg-shaped form that is typical of Baatombu jars, and its wishbonelike motif is reminiscent of a tattoo worn by Baatonu women and symbolic of courage. If indeed Baatonu, it is likely that the jar was commissioned by a mother to give to her daughter upon marriage as a blessing for domestic happiness and comfort. Such vessels are presented filled with shea butter, a household staple used in food preparation, as lantern oil, for skin care, and for medicine. The substance actually soaks into the jar and imparts the yellowish stain visible here. Once empty the treasured container could be used to store grain or valuables.

But it is also possible that a Yoruba potter made this piece, with its distinctive pattern of raised bands and dots rendered in strikingly high relief. Maude Wahlman photographed a jar with a similar pattern west of Ile-Ife, in a region historically linked to Oyo. The jar’s pattern was said to be derived from Ifa, a form of divination. Set under a tree in the potter’s compound, the object formed a shrine dedicated to Olokun, goddess of the sea, where potters could make periodic offerings. It was also the site of an annual festival to celebrate the deity, a practice that is followed in other parts of Yorubaland when potters commemorate the deities most closely aligned with pottery. If this is the case, the jar’s beautiful patina would be indicative of the occasional application of offerings over years of use. [See also 2005.241].


Currently Off View


Arts of Africa




Shea Butter Jar (Bwéeru or Wéké Gumgia) or Shrine Jar


Benin (Object made in)


Made 1875–1925




31.8 × 29.2 cm (12 1/2 × 11 1/2 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Keith Achepohl

Reference Number


Extended information about this artwork

Object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge. To help improve this record, please email . Information about image downloads and licensing is available here.


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