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Staff  (oshe Shango)
Date: Late 19th-early 20th century
Medium: Wood, indigo, glass beads
Dimensions: H x W x D: 41.4 x 9 x 11.9 cm (16 5/16 x 3 9/16 x 4 11/16 in.)
Credit Line: Purchased with funds provided by the Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program
Geography: Nigeria
Object Number: 88-1-1
Search Terms:
mother and child
Exhibited: Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts

This staff was carried in ceremonies and dances to honor Shango, the Yoruba orisha (god) of thunder and a deified legendary king of Oyo-Ile (Old Oyo). The woman with child is an archetypal Yoruba theme that is considered particularly suitable for Shango-related imagery. Her nudity and kneeling pose suggest humility before a deity in a ritual setting. Following Yoruba artistic convention, she is portrayed as a physically mature but youthful woman, capable of bearing children and counterbalancing the hot-tempered virility of Shango. Children, like the one carried on her back, are considered to be blessings given from the god in return for devotion. The master artist who carved this particular staff achieved a subtle and sophisticated integration of specific required cult iconography into a coherent work of art. Most figural staff, or oshe Shango, consist of three sections--a handle, a female figure and a superstructure depicting two stone axes. Of nonfigural staffs, many have only a shaft and the axes, which represent the thunderbolts hurled by the god to punish wrongdoers who have aroused his anger. Carrying goods on the head is commonplace in Africa, and priestesses literally bear images of the deity on their heads. To avoid the compositional awkwardness of the usual axe blade superstructure, the innovative carver of this staff replaced it with a distinctive hairstyle that refers to Shango. Spiritual power is thought by the Yoruba to almost literally spring from the head. The woman's shaved hairline emphasizes the head as a channel for the god's possession and allows for the insertion of medicines, magical substances associated with Shango. The swelling forehead is suggestive of spiritual possession or a trance state. The two hornlike plaits recall the double axes as well as the ram, who is specifically associated with the aggressive male nature of Shango. The sound of two rams fighting, the impact of their horns, corresponds to the thunder of the god. A final cult reference is provided not by the sculptor but by the staff's owner, who added the red and white beads that are Shango's colors. This staff has often been acclaimed as a masterpiece by an artist whose work gives definition to Yoruba art while expanding its boundaries. It has been suggested that it was carved at the turn of the century by a member of the Igbuke Family Workshop of Oyo, but little more is known about the artist's life and work. He has employed classical Yoruba proportions that emphasize the head and the eyes, and the stylization of details such as ears and toes within a naturalistically rounded body fits Yoruba stylistic canons. Balancing smooth forms and surface detail, warm wood and indigo pigment, the artist controlled volume and space to make an exceptional sculpture.

Wood staff in the form of a kneeling female figure with a child on her back atop a cylindrical shaft. The larger figure has a two horned hairstyle with blue pigment.

Leon Underwood, collected in Ogbomosho, Nigeria, 1945


René d'Harnoncourt, New York, before 1947 to 1968


Private collection, United States


Entwistle, London, 1988


Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 4, 2017-ongoing



African Cosmos: Stellar Arts, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., June 20-December 9, 2012; Newark Museum, February 26-August 11, 2013; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, August 23-November 30, 2014; Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, Atlanta, January 31-June 21, 2015



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America's Smithsonian: Celebrating 150 Years, organized by The Smithsonian, Los Angeles Convention Center, February 9-March 10, 1996; Kansas City Convention Center, April 10-May 19, 1996; Rhode Island Convention Center, Providence, August 21-September 19, 1996; St. Paul Civic Center, October 16-November 14, 1996, Houston, Texas, December 6, 1996- January 28, 1997, Portland Oregon, April 3 - May 6, 1997, Birmingham, Alabama, May 29-July 9, 1997, San Jose, California, July 31- August 25,1997



Die Kunst der Yoruba, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, November 7, 1991-March 8, 1992



Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, Center for African Art, New York, September 20, 1989-January 7, 1990; The Art Institute of Chicago, February 10-April 1, 1990; The National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., May 8-August 26, 1990; The Cleveland Museum of Art, September 26-December 9, 1991; New Orleans, LA: The New Orleans Museum of Art, January 11-March 24, 1991; The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, April 23-June 16, 1991



Masterpieces of African Art, The Brooklyn Museum, New York, October 21, 1954-January 2, 1955



African Negro Sculpture, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, September 24-November 19, 1948


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National Museum of African Art, 1987-1997: Celebrating 10 Years on the Mall. 1997. Museum brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, no. 1988.



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Trowell, Margaret. 1954. Classical African Sculpture. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, no. 18A.



Trowell, Margaret and Hans Nevermann. 1968. African and Oceanic Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, p. 126.



Underwood, Leon. 1947. Figures in Wood of West Africa. London: John Tiranti, no. 19a, b.



Willet, Frank. [1971] 1985. African Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, no. 211.



Wingert, Paul S. 1948. African Negro Sculpture: A Loan Exhibition. San Francisco: M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, no. 34.



Wingert, Paul S. 1950. The Sculpture of Negro Africa. New York: Columbia University Press, no. 34.


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