This terracotta vessel came on the market in NY in 1999 together with a very similar example. The current owner acquired this one and suggested Robert Rubin to acquire the other*, which he did. (*sold by Sotheby’s in 2010)
Possibly, both figures thus once belonged to the same shrine. Marla C. Berns in 1989 wrote an excellent article on these vessels and the ceramic art in the Gongola valley. This article contains some wonderful field-photos of such shrines.
Mbirhlen’nda is the spirit, regarded as best able to protect and sustain health and prosperity. The dense application of small clay pellets on mbirhlen’nda may be sculptural equivalents of the rows of raises “dots” resulting from scarification incisions. However they may more literally refer to the skin diseases the spirit is said to inflict on those who disobey codes of Ga’anda behaviour and morality. Like ngum-ngumi, mbirhlen’nda protects Ga’anda civilisation.
Part three of Central Nigeria Unmasked. Arts of the Benue River Valley goes into more detail on the sculptural ceramic vessels of this region. Read more about it here or watch a slideshow with more fieldphotos of Marla C. Berns here.