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
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