Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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5 / Cosmology and Belief

Dance Vest with Esù Staff Figures
Dance Vest with Esù Staff Figures
Artist / Origin Yoruba artist, Igbóminà Region, Nigeria
Region: Africa
Date 20th century
Material Wood, cowrie shells, leather, and pigment
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 20 in. (50.8 cm.) (with mount), W: 9 in. (22.86 cm.)
Location Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Credit Courtesy of the Newark Museum, Gift of Bernard and Patricia Wagner

expert perspective

Babatunde LawalProfessor of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University

Dance Vest with Esù Staff Figures

» Yoruba artist, Igbóminà Region, Nigeria

expert perspective

Babatunde Lawal Babatunde Lawal Professor of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University

The Yoruba in Southwest Nigeria and neighboring countries trace the origin of the universe to a Supreme Being called Olódùmarè. Now unlike some cultures where the supreme being is venerated directly, in Yoruba culture, Olódùmarè is venerated through a host of deities called òrìsàs. Most of the òrìsà are personified in sculptures, human sculptures, not only to emphasize their essence, their human essence, but also to sensitize them to humanistic values, to enable humanity to use human language, music, and poetry to communicate with the divine. Art serves as a kind of body for the òrìsà as well as a bridge between the known and the unknown, between the physical and the metaphysical. So that the concept of humanity is very profound among the Yoruba in the sense that concept embodies the notion of creativity. That links the self to creation.

Now because the artist undergoes both practical and spiritual training, because of the belief that the creative process is a kind of ritual linking the present to the archetypal action of the artist, the indigenous arts education system has both technical and ritual aspects. The technical has to do with the artists being trained to essentialize from nature, to continue the tradition as perpetuated by the master, and then hand it over to subsequent generations of artists. Artists were trained to follow tradition and at the same time introduce elements of change. In fact, the Yoruba word for tradition is àsà which derives from the root verb , ‘to select.’ You select elements from the past and add new ones from the present in such a way that elements from the past still become recognizable. This ritual aspect has to do with the rituals associated with the creative process. The creative process involves three òrìsà. One: Obàtálá. Obàtálá is the creator of the archetypal imagination. That is the imagination of the process belongs to Obàtálá. The tools needed for fabricating, materializing, belong to Ògún, the spirit of warfare technology. Then Èsù. Èsù is the divine messenger coordinating the activities of the deities. Èsù is associated with the gateway linking the inside, the spiritual, with the outside, the physical. It is associated with the crossroads where elements of the north, south, east and west converge. So Èsù is a catalytic force responsible for vision.” 


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