This outstanding sculpture is a Shango wand ï¿½ or Ose Sango ï¿½ from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. It is essentially a platform with a polished wood handle beneath, supporting a kneeling woman, her head surmounted by a large, bow-shaped double-headed axe. The quality of the carving is exceptional and naturalistic. The figure is unusually large and well-proportioned, with prominent breasts, well-modelled limbs and extremities, which hold a Shango wand and a club. The columnar neck supports a head which was clearly carved by a master artist. It is very elongated and serene, with a domed forehead, a long, fine nose, pursed lips and a rounded jawline. The heavily-lidded eyes are very large and almost round, with careful rendering of eyelashes. Each cheek is marked with three horizontal scars, while the ornate bilobate coiffure is demarcated by a band which runs around the head, behind the finely-carved, triangular ears. Unusually, the double-headed axe is fully carved in three dimensions, with two facets on both front and back.
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 ï¿½ including Oyo, Ijebu and smaller units towards the west ï¿½ 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 ï¿½ being a large, complex society ï¿½ 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 ï¿½ 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 worldï¿½s 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.
These figures are often somewhat rudimentary, as the aesthetic qualities of Ose Shango are always secondary to a rough approximation of the main elements (a figure, edan ara and the axe head). However, this is an exceptional piece, in which the sculptor has taken considerable pains to produce a genuinely beautiful ï¿½ and rare ï¿½ rendering of this iconic form. It has evidently seen considerable use and care, and has a superb glossy patina.
This is a beautifully rendered and important piece of African art.