This attractive piece is a Shango dance wand – or Ose Sango – from the Nigerian Yoruba group. It is a use-polished handle supporting a platform upon which is standing a woman dressed in a loincloth, cupping her bare breasts with her hands. She displays traditional incised scarifications to the forehead and cheeks, with a high hairstyle. The face and head are very well-carved, with oval, lidded eyes, a broad nose and a mouth set in a half-smile. Details are less fine beneath the neck, but the rendering of feet, hands, fingers and even nipples is clear and effective. The hairstyle is surmounted by a large bow-shaped block seemingly attached to the head by a central band from base to apex.
The Yoruba peoples of Nigeria have what is probably the longest extant artistic tradition in Africa. The nation state is comprised of numerous subsections that were joined historically by the rise and collapse of the Ife (12th to 15th centuries) and Benin (13th to 19th centuries) polities. Each of the sub-kingdoms – including Oyo, Ijebu and smaller units towards the west – had their heyday, and are loosely united through language and culture, although they still retain a measure of independence in terms of their artistic traditions. It is extremely hard to summarise the nature of Yoruba society given the large area they cover and the inevitable variability of their customs.
The Yoruba – being a large, complex society – is sedentary, agriculturist and hierarchical. They are ruled by hereditary kings known as Obas, and their access to the supernatural world is supervised by a very complex arrangement of priests (i.e. Olowa) and spiritual intermediaries. Their cosmology is arranged in terms of the tangible realm of the living (aye) and the invisible realm of the spirits and the hereafter (orun). Their relationship is sometimes described as being that of a gourd with tightly-interlocking upper and lower halves, or as a divination board with a raised rim and a depressed centre. The creator of the world is Olodumare (or Odumare, Olorun, Eleda or Eleemi, depending on the area), who is the source of all ase – life force. Orun is populated by all manner of spirits (iwin, ajogun, egbe and oro), gods (orisa) and ancestors (ara orun), all of whom influence the living. They can all be reached, appealed to or appeased through human intermediaries such as the babalawo (diviner). Most Yoruban artistic heritage is designed to thwart evil spirits, and to placate or honour those that bring good fortune to the populace.
Shango (or Sango) was the fourth Yoruba king of Oyo-Ile. He is said to have harnessed lightning to defeat his enemies, and had numerous rather colourful character traits that led to a mixed public opinion. When forced to commit suicide, thunder and lightning threatened to destroy the city; his ex-subjects interpreted this as an act of retribution and deified him as the god of thunder, hoping to appease him and also to harness some of his power. Latterly, Shango became associated with twins (Nigeria has the world’s highest prevalence of twin births), rainfall, and for punishing miscreants with lightning strikes. His symbol is the double-headed axe, although dogs, rams (his preferred sacrificial animal) and kneeling women holding offering bowls/cups are also strongly associated with him. Finally, he is associated with art, music and beautiful women, so it is perhaps little surprise that he is such a popular deity (orisha) in the Yoruba pantheon.
The woman is a worshipper of Shango, or perhaps his favourite wife, Oya (goddess of tornadoes and the River Niger), judging from her high coiffure. Real-life devotees of Shango own dance wands such as this that are carried in formal procession by the cult group member who becomes possessed with Shango's spirit. Iconography of these items is typically formalised, but there are regionalisations as well as personal diversity among carvers. Some of the figures on these wands carry a pair of merged thunderbolts (edan ara) on their heads, surmounted by the double-headed axe that symbolizes Shango himself. The polished wood handle was gripped by the worshipper during a dancing ritual to honour the god.
This is a striking and attractive piece of African art.