Art of Africa

angola cross

Esu dance staff, early 20th century
Nigeria (Yoruba)
Wood, hide, cowrie shells, coins, fiber
8 x 18 inches in diameter
Gift of Cecilia and Irwin Smiley 1985-32-5

Serving as dance staff, priestly insignia, and altar sculpture, this Yoruba object honors the deity Esu, divine mediator and transformer of destinies. Esu, also known as Elegba, plays a pivotal role in the Yoruba pantheon of orisa, or "spirit beings." As spirit messenger and intermediary, Esu bears offerings and prayers to the god of divination, Orunmila or Ifa. The Ifa system of divination reveals the cause of and solutions to the problems that arise in one's life journey. One of the praise names of Esu is the Roadmaker, who opens the way through correct ritual. As an activator of forces that transform and reshape, Esu is unpredictable and can create confusion, deception, and conflict.

This dance staff is a superb example of African "accumulative sculpture," a composite of materials and objects designed to merge aesthetic impact with ritual efficacy. When set in motion by a priest dancing in homage to Esu, the multiple strands of cowrie shell-money and other attachments visually accent the musical beats and the dancer's movements. Even when the staff is resting on an altar, its kinetic nature is suggested in the fluid strands of cowries, coins, and shells symbolizing the flow of wealth that homage to Esu can provide. It is unusual for these staffs to have their component elements preserved intact and therefore their full iconographic dimension accessible to informed reconstruction. Each object has a particular meaning or reference, from the carved flute seen at the left back (an allusion to Esu's messenger role) to the stuffed and ornately braided medicinal packet at left-center (indicating spiritual and temporal powers). Invoking the dynamic relationship of earthly and metaphysical powers, the sculptor offers a visual pun in the formal interplay of Esu's knifelike hair braid, the rigid tube sack of medicine he holds out for display, and the thrust of the elongated phallus. In Yoruba cosmology, the head is the seat of spiritual or individual power.

Text by Anita J. Glaze, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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