Museum for African Art, New York, Animals in African Art: from the Familiar to the Marvelous, March 31, 1995 - December 31, 1995; additional venues:
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, February 2 - April 1996
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, May 18 - July 14, 1996
The Mint Museum, Charlotte, September - December, 1996
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, February 2 - April 27, 1997
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, permanent exhibition, April 28 - September 30, 1997
The Oyo Shango Female Shrine Sculpture from the Bloch Collection
This splendid Yoruba sculpture is said to have been on the shrine for orisha Shango in Koso, a suburban hamlet to the west of the crowned town of Oyo. Koso is where the royal shrine for Shango is located, where the priests of Shango are initiated who in the past oversaw the organization of the Shango cult in the provincial towns thereby providing the religious basis for the Alafin's authority during the period of the Oyo Empire (ca.1790 - ca.1836). The facial markings on the sculpture are of a type called abaja, which, as the Yoruba historian Samuel Johnson observes, "are those of the Royal Family of Oyo" (1969: 106). Furthermore, her hair is styled in the five-cone pattern worn by queens and other women of royal stature.
In the pantheon of Yoruba gods, Shango is often referred to as the god of thunder and lightning. His attributive names, oriki, by which he is addressed in praise songs, disclose his essential nature. Shango is the one who has fire in his mouth and his eyes and scorches the metal rooftops; who does not answer when he is greeted; who is as tough as a dried yam; who strikes indiscriminately with his thunderbolts; who shatters trees and uproots the great iroko tree; who plunges a hot iron into his own eyes; who overturns the table of traders; who adds stones to the light load of a person; who tosses the stubborn into boiling water; who pursues kings and commoners. However, Shango has the oogun, "medicine," for remedying the suffering of women whose infant children repeatedly die, who are abiku, "children born to die." He is also the one who gives his beauty, the power to conceive, to the woman with whom he sleeps. And he is said to be the "father" and protector of twins.
To be a follower of Shango is to suffer the power of an unpredictable deity. It is to bear the burden of the ancient cults of the god, who hurls them with crackling lightning in the midst of thunder-storms. As lightning is said to be drawn to an object, yet strikes with apparent caprice, so Shango descends upon the world of humankind. His followers nevertheless praise him with the song:
The dog stays in the house of its master
But does not know his intentions.
The sheep does not know the intentions
Of the man who feeds it.
We ourselves follow Shango,
Although we do not know his intentions.
It is not easy to live in Shango's company...
I will pay homage to you, my father.
Acting without paying homage ruins one's efforts.
Acting, after paying due homage brings one success.
We see the marks on our palms but we do not know who made them there.
In an oriki chanted by Ade Aniku in Olorionishango's compound in Ila-Orangun there is a play on the Yoruba term ori, the word for "head." There is an initial reference to her physical head, ori ode, and subsequently to her inner head or personal destiny, ori inu, as a devotee of Shango.
The head that is eating eba,
The head that is eating fish,
The head that is eating snails,
Shango, to you I return
The head that is eating ram.
Olodumari mi! (My Almighty One!)
Shrine sculptures and ritual artifacts must be seen in the context of hearing the chants, prayers, and praise songs uttered by devotees and in witnessing acts of worship. The excellence of this shrine sculpture is that it is a superb expression of what it means to be a devotee of orisha Shango. The Yoruba would say that the artist who created it possessed an "inner eye," oju inu, that is, insight into his subject matter. The devotee stands poised before her lord. Her physical beauty, ewa, is manifest in her coiffure, her erect body, composed face and the fullness of her breasts. She has no need for external adornments beyond a single strand of coral beads around her neck and the wrapper around her waist. Her long arms and strong hands hold a ram with ease and grace. It is her offering to her lord, her act of homage. She possesses and is possessed by the ashe, the authority and strength of Shango.
In the pantheon of the Yoruba orisha each deity has his or her appropriate offering or sacrifice. There are the orisha funfun, the gods of "whiteness," such as Obatala and Oshun, who receive, white pigeons, food made of grain or yam flour, the clear liquid of snails, water drawn from sacred rivers and pools whose followers wear white cloth, brass bracelets and light colored beads. In contrast, Ogun, god of iron, the orisha of war and the hunt, feasts on the blood and flesh of the dog. It is a beligerent and carnivorous animal. His devotees wear red tunics and praise their god as one who can become intoxicated on the blood of the enemy and even turn in his frenzy upon his own followers. The ram of Shango also fights, but is a herbivorous animal. He prefers the foods of the orisha funfun, but is capable of killing. Hence, Shango's followers also eat the flesh of the sacrificed ram. His worshipers wear necklaces, bracelets, and tunics covered with red beads and cloth and white cowrie shells. There are times when blood must be shed in the defense of one's town or in establishing one's authority over the lives of others or in giving birth to a new life.
The quality of this carving of a Shango devotee is not only to be discerned in the artist's insight into his subject matter but also in his "eye for design," oju-ona. The sculptural program is organized around the prominence of the long, vertical line that moves from the five-cone coiffure to her neck and down her lean body to her strong straight legs. It is echoed in the length of her arms which reach down to the ram and in the grouping and exaggerated length of the legs of the ram. The prominence of the vertical line is balanced by the diagonal line in the thrust of the woman's jaw and in the projecting breasts, and is repeated again in her lower arms. The vertical is also broken by the simple horizontal line of the beads around her neck, the fold of her belt beneath her breasts and the horizontal pattern on the border of her skirt. The delicate geometric pattern on her skirt repeats a similar pattern which the artist uses in his image of the ram's coat.
It is said that this sculpture was one of three on the Koso shrine. The other two were equestrian figures. We could not verify the source of this claim. However, the presence of two or more figures on a Shango shrine would not be unusual. Leo Frobenius' well known photograph taken in 1910 of the Agbeni Shango shrine in Ibadan shows numerous sculptures. There were eighteen on the palace Shango shrine of the Timi of Ede which Ulli Beier photographed in1957 and Eliot Elisofon in 1970. Other shrines photographed by Beier in the town of Ilobu had two or more sculptures usually of male equestrian figures and standing or seated female figures. When I photographed the Koso shrine in 1972 there were no sculptures on the shrine. I was told by an elder of the compound that there had once been sculptures, but they were no longer on the premises. Whether they were hidden away for safe keeping or had been sold or stolen I did not learn.
My initial response to identifying the carver or the workshop in which the sculpture was created was to study Beier's and Elisofon's photographs. The checking around the almond shaped eyes and the definition of the ear would surely provide clues to an answer. The facial marks and the coiffure clearly suggested the Oyo region, but this is not always a valid approach. The facial marks may refer to where the person being memorialized (if such were the case, which is doubtful) may be those appropriate to a region other than Oyo from which the person came and were the marks and style requested by the person who commissioned the carving. The hatched marks and shape of the eyes were used by many carvers in the Oyo, Oshun and Igbomina areas. The design of the ear could reflect the work of some carvers to the southwest of Oyo, such as in the Ibarapa region. One must never forget that objects and ideas travel and so, too, do carvers who move from one town to another as they gain fame and are called upon or from the necessity of needing to find employment of their skills other than in the workshop of their masters.
Whatever the answer to the questions of carver and workshop, it is surely the case that in this sculpture we have the work of a highly skilled carver who was a master of his tools, ifarabale, and who was endowed with artistic imagination and sensitivity, imoju-more.
John Pemberton III
Crosby Professor of Religion, Emeritus
Amherst College, March 2011
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