Art Through Time: A Global View
Cosmology and Belief Art: Dance Vest with Esù Staff Figures
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.
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 sà, ‘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.”
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.