Yoruba Shango Dance Wand


1890 AD to 1930 AD


14.5″ (36.8cm) high x 6.25″ (15.9cm) wide





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This serene 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 holding a skull. The female figure at the centre of the piece is a woman blessed by Shango (not to be confused with Ova, his wife). In most of these wands, her face is depicted rather like that of an Ibeji twin figure, yet in the current case the face is very prognathic and almost comically ugly. It may even be a portrait. The cheeks are very faintly scarred with three vertical lines. In most variants, she carries a pair of merged thunderbolts (edan ara) on her head, but in the current case her arms are dedicated to the grasping of a skull that is clutched to her chest. The figure is dwarfed by the double-headed axe that symbolizes Shango himself. The figure is clothed in what appears to be a high-necked, long- sleeved dress with the vestiges of painted decoration, and a necklace that almost resembles a collar. The axe itself appears to have been bound around the midline with a double rope halter, secured together at the front and on the back. The skull seems to have retained the lower jaw, displaying a full set of bared teeth. The wand retains evidence of painting. The front of the axe is chequered in black and white, the back is white with a sideways diamond motif. The figure is largely unpainted but retains traces of pinkish-red paint on the hands, the soles of the feet, and on the upper reaches of the dress. The dress is finished with small spots of white paint. The base is plain with three grooves cut along each side, some of which retain traces of the same paint as mentioned above.
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.

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.

The polychrome effect of the piece is heightened by a dark yet variable patina, with extensive use wear on the handle. While not easily demonstrated, it is probable that this piece is a response to colonialism, and is carved and painted in innovative styles while still retaining the essence of the original work. This is a striking piece of African art.

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