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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

Additional Resources

Abiodun, Rowland, Henry J. Drewal, and John Pemberton III, eds. The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1994.

“Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art.” In Featured Exhibitions. Newark Museum Web site. http://www.newarkmuseum.org.

Lawal, Babatunde, Christa Clarke, and Carol Thompson. Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art, Featuring the Bernard and Patricia Wagner Collection. Exhibition catalogue organized and co-published by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Newark Museum, New Jersey, 2007.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1983.

Visona, Monica, et al. A History of Art in Africa. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Dance Vest with Esù Staff Figures

» Yoruba artist, Igbóminà Region, Nigeria

The Yoruba people, numbering about twenty-five million, make up one of the oldest and largest African cultural groups.

Although divided into numerous subgroups, a common language and shared religious beliefs connect them. In Yoruba religion, art plays a critical role, considered a bridge between the physical and the metaphysical.

According to Yoruba belief, there are, in addition to a supreme creator god called Olòdúmarè, over 400 gods and goddesses (òrìsàs), each with its own personality and specific area of power. Olòdúmarè is neither worshipped directly nor represented in art. Instead, shrines are created in honor of the òrìsàs and sculptures and other objects are created to facilitate communication through them. The spirit of a god or goddess might be called upon to inhabit a statue, giving human form to the òrìsà or representing the patron who commissioned it. A dance staff or divinatory tray might act as a magnet for attracting the spiritual forces of the òrìsà. Likewise, during ritual performance, masks are believed to help draw the “inner head,” or spiritual essence, of the divine into the body of a participant.

The dance vest pictured here is comprised of several carved figures representing the god Esú, also called Eshu or Elegba. The òrìsà most frequently anthropomorphized in art, Esú has a contradictory nature. He is the intermediary between humans and the other gods of Yoruba pantheon as well as the one who brings chaos and conflict. Because of his role as messenger, Esú is often depicted on trays used in divination rituals. He is also found at liminal places such as doorways and crossroads due to his identity as an agent of change, The Esú sculptures seen here are enveloped in cowrie shells. Esú’s association with cowrie shells has a long history, although the precise reason for the linkage of the deity and these symbols of wealth is unclear.

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