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Kaô Kabeisilê: An Iconic Criticism of the Ceremonial Staff, Oxé Xangô.

Zainabu Jallo

In Conversation with Adenike Cosgrove founder of ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA,

a resource platform where collectors, dealers and scholars of African Art intersect.


A 2019 xylographic depiction of Xangô by the artist, Davi Rodrigues Casaes

Cachoeira, Brazil .

Notes on Orthography and Pronunciation

Yorubá, a widely spoken language in Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Southwestern Nigeria can be found in liturgical continuities of Yorubá-derived religions in the Americas such as Candomblé. In Brazilian Candomblé, Portuguese spellings are used for Yorubá words.

The consonant “x” parallels phonetically with the subscripted Yorubá “ṣ” or “sh”

Examples:

Continental Yorubá Brazilian Yorubá

Oṣun Oxum

Oriṣa Orixá

ṣango Xangô

For this conversation, I follow the Brazilian orthography and Adenike follows the continental Yorubá Orthography.

For example, I say Orixá, Adenike says Oriṣa.

Prologue

Kaô Kabeisilê! (Hail his majesty!), this is the salutation for Xangô, one of the deities of Yorubá origin within Brazilian Candomblé. Xangô, also known as Ṣango in continental Yorubá, is one of the prominent Orixás in Brazil. The deities referred to as Orixás are said to be associated with specific elements of nature and for Xangô, lightning and thunder are his principal natural elements. He is referred to as the deity of justice and also said to be charming, sensual and fond of pleasures. His three spouses, are Iansã the fiery deity of the storms, Oxum the goddess of femininity and freshwaters, and Obá, the warrior queen. His devotees speak of his character traits as tenacious, “the feeling of defeat is one that does not exist in his personality…despite being famous for his repressive and authoritarian character, he manages to distinguish between good and evil.”[1] Like all other Orixás, Xangô can be described from a historical and a divine perspective. He is a feared and revered Orixá, virile and violent, but also vigilant. One of the many myths around the deity refers to him as:

“The tempestuous mythic third king of Yoruba, Shango is an Oyo deity. He is the thunder god and his consort is the whirlwind…Once upon a time, as myth would have it, Shango was recklessly experimenting with a leaf that had the power to bring down lightning from the skies and inadvertently caused the roof of the palace of Oyo to be set afire by lightning. In the blaze, his wife and children were killed. Half crazed with guilt, Shango went to a spot outside his royal capital and hanged himself from the branches of an ayan tree. He thus suffered the consequences of playing arrogantly with God’s fire, and became lightning itself.” (Farris Thompson 84/85)

Xangô throws his fireball through lightning rays, called edunara, a stone that represents his body. They are deeply buried in the place where the soil was struck by lightning. Once extracted, they are placed on a carved wooden pestle called odô, consecrated to Xangô, through rituals. According to Candomblé tradition, the blood of a sacrificed animal is then, spilt on the Edun Ará to imbue them with sacred energy. Xangô’s food offering Amalá, is prepared with yam flour served with a sauce made with okra and oxtail. Devotees dedicate Wednesdays to him and dress in colours associated with Xangô; red, white and brown. Xangô’s symbol is the double-edged axe and the scale, a symbol of justice.


For the Xylographic artist, Davi Rodrigues whom I met in Cachoeira, Bahia in 2019, the charm of Xangô is his closeness to the other Orixás. His depiction of Xangô (introductory image) attempts to capture his "force and good strength". Rodrigues goes on to say that Xangô has a "bond with metal. As you can see [referring to his drawing], there are two little axes. They depict strength...energy, intense and unintense at the same time. The axes are symbolic of war. Xangô is a warrior. A strong Orixá with powerful colours and such a magnificent dispersion of force, of conquests, of fortitude. I can attest to these as I have benefitted from such conquests in my life"[1]


The Yoruba lore holds that the Oxé Xangô was first carved from the àyàn tree on which Xangô committed suicide. In a ceremony, Xangô is venerated through a dance pattern called the Alujá, or roda de Xangô, which demonstrates his conquests, power, and dominion. The dance movement is conducted via different drumming tempos where his devotees make the gestures of picking up lightning stones and throwing them to the ground. The dancer proudly brandishes the Oxé, in motions that suggest striking; "sometimes striking for good or striking for evil" [2].

A demonstration from the workshop Objetos Rituals Em Transformaçao Cultural, (July 2019). organised in collaboration with Vagner Gonçalves da Silva at the terreiro Ilê Asé Omo Ose Igba Alatan in São Paulo.


In researching museum collections, I have come across several Oxé Xangô, mostly from 18th-20th century West Africa. Given the spatial and temporal dimensions they have traversed, I observed that there are consistencies of materials used, scale; height, depth, width and an umissable double axe head through the centuries. I caught up with Adenike Cosgrove of ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA, who is a collector and expert of Yorubá art to talk about the Oxé Xangô from the perspective of indigenous Yorubá connotations.

A collection of seized Candomblé sculptures and ritual objects at a time when Candomblé was criminalised. Among them are two Oxé Xangô ca. 1900. Published in Nina Rodrigues`, Os Africanos no Brasil (1932).

ZJ: Is the Oxé Xangô an artefact you have encountered?

AC: Definitely! On ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA there is a dedicated article on this.[2] I am Yorùbá, so obviously I am very interested in Yorùbá culture. Through the site, we work to analyse the use and distinguishing features of works classic African art and I think that our analysis of Ṣango staffs starts to answer some of the questions you ask. Osé Ṣango staffs always have two axes at the top of the head, reminiscent of thunder celts / neolithic stone celts that the Yoruba believe to be thunderbolts hurled from the sky through lightning by the Orisa, Ṣango.


ZJ: Right.

AC: Associated with the worship of the god of thunder and lightning -Ṣango- and representing his destructive power, Oango staffs are carried by worshippers and followers as a sign of devotion to the god.

ZJ I have seen these stones you talk about. They are also referred to as Edun ara, and I believe that is what they are also called in Yorubá and Pedra do Raio in Portuguese and within Candomblé Pedra de Xangô. In Brazil, he is often referred to as the son of Iemanjá, the deity queen of the sea and mother of all of humanity. In terms of hierarchy, as I understand with the deities in Brazil, there are no stark hierarchies amongst the Orixás except for the supreme beings. However, the order of reverence in ceremonies the Orixás’ entrance to the party always follows the same sequence called the xirê order. Beginning with Exu, Xangô is somewhere in the middle and it ends with Oxalá. It has more to do with duties rather than status and it is fascinating that it transcends worship, to a way of quotidian life. It is interesting how this continuity is sustained in Brazil. Especially with the form of the Oxé Xangô as well.


An odô at Ilê Asé Omo Ose Igba Alatan, Sao Paulo. (2019) ©Zainabu Jallo

AC Among the Yoruba, Ṣango is said to be the one of the ancient kings of Oyo, a Yoruba city in Western Nigeria, who brought devastation on his capital city and its royal family by misusing his magical powers and creating severe thunderstorms. He is now viewed as one of the most powerful and feared Orisa with many shrines set up in his honour.


Images of Xangô devotees across Yorubá-speaking regions of West Africa between 1946 -1965 in Pierre Fatumbi Verger`s Orixás: Deuses Iorubas na Africa e No Novo Mundo

(2018 edition).


ZJ The Xangô cult is very popular in the New World, both in Brazil and the Antilles. In Recife,

its name even serves to designate the set of African cults practiced in the state of Pernambuco.

AC There will, of course, be continuity in the veneration of Ṣango due to the slave trade that saw the capture of Africans – including the Yorubá – with many shipped to the South America and the Caribbean.

ZJ Right, even post–abolition, there was a transatlantic continuity made possible through back and forth travels and trade. In Candomblé Lojas (stores), I found that carvers now meet the demands of devotees to retain classical Yorubá proportions and the stylization of figurative features in tune with Yorubá aesthetic standards.


AC That is right, so it would make sense that there are similarities between the worship of Ṣango in the Caribbean and Nigeria. And the iconography of the staffs is similar too! There are usually three parts to ose Sango staffs – the upper part, the shaft which is typically not carved. Then you have the middle part which can be a variety of figure forms – a kneeling woman or a man holding his own Ṣango staff or it could be just a standing female. And on the top of the staff is the double axe.That said, there are some Ṣango staffs that have no central figure and will instead have faces carved just below the double axes.

ZJ: The axe head on an Oxé Xangô is the most consistent part. I have seen a couple of nonfigurative sculptures with the shafts attached to the double axes left plain. Others have complex configurations such as the Oxé Xangô with quadrupole faces. Have you come across any like that? I have been on a quest to find out the significance of that after I found one at the Völkerkunde Museum in Zürich. It’s got four faces on it, two on each side and these additional heads stacked unto another, distorts the idiosyncratic image of the ones we are used to seeing. I haven’t been able to find out what this could signify.

©Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich

AC: I don’t know the significance of the four faces, to be honest. And I really don’t want to guess. (Laughter) But typically, it would be a kneeling woman representing the Ṣango devotee, or twin figures reduced to two faces, or a priest as a standing figure. And an interesting thing to note when you are looking for age, especially in Yorubá figures, is a lip plug. If the figure has a lip plug inside the bottom lip, that’ll signifying old age.

ZJ: That`s intriguing! And with the phrase “African Art”, here comes my recurrent question for experts and researchers of indigenous…religious artefacts. How would you describe art? In this case, "African art" as you call it. Do you suppose it is somewhat subtractive to refer to such objects as art? When there is a lot more to the object than its artistry, beauty if you may. So, when you refer to African art, how would you describe…define what it encompasses?

AC: That’s a very good question. First of all, I think there are two different fields here. There’s contemporary art, made by Africans and those of African descent, which is what the market calls ‘African Art’. Calling it African art raises awareness of the work which has only recently been gaining traction in the global marketplace. We are calling it African Art because it is so underrepresented, it’s so under-appreciated. And so, by shinning a light on this particular group of objects, artworks, whatever you want to call it, it is starting to raise awareness elevates the work onto that global stage. On the historical side, the awareness of some of these objects too has been really low. And you are absolutely right, it was not created for art’s sake alone, it was created to be used to be revered… but it was also made beautifully, and in some cases, commissioned by patrons to be made by the best artists.


As a dance staff, the Oxé Xango is carried by devotees during ceremonies. Here Mãe Senhora of Ilê Axé Opô Afonja, Salvador, Brazil. Captured by Pierre Verger in1948.


A carved Xangô wielding his Oxé © Flora Xangô, São Paulo, Brazil. (2019) image: Zainabu Jallo

ZJ: I discovered recently, from the exhibition catalogue of Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art (2007) that there is a Yorubá word for an Artist, called Onisé Onà. An Onisé Onà is charged with translating ancestral values into visual allegories with the sole aim of fortifying these values amongst humankind. Not solely for the purpose of admiration...this is secondary.


AC: Ṣango devotees would seek out the best artists to carve their staffs, but like you said it wasn’t made for just putting on the wall and looking at, it was for worship. If you look at Christianity, for example, you have beautiful artwork in churches, you have beautiful crosses, beautiful paintings. You can appreciate the beauty of the work even if it wasn’t created just for its sake but for some higher purpose. I think it elevates it so much more. It makes the form so much more powerful because of the purpose behind it.

ZJ In a similar discussion with a curator, she insists that “life is better when things are made beautifully. If any object is worth making, why not make it beautiful anyway” But then, it is typical that an object is seen and understood differently when it is transferred from its original milieu. This brings to mind the Bangwa dancing queen, where Bangwa delegates are declaring that “Bangwa Queen is not a work of art but, rather, is sacred” [4]. Representation of such objects is often contested.

AC Exactly. But I think we also call it art to make it accessible. We humans like to label things and if we don’t have labels, if it is not accessible, then people find it harder to appreciate the thing.

ZJ That`s quite a persuasive assertion, "we call it art to make it accessible". Thank you for the conversation.

Epilogue

Xangô is described as one of the most geographically auspicious African deities in the Americas as “the success or failure of African deities in their new world milieus was also determined by their cultural relevance”. (Voeks 55) He became significant amongst the enslaved population in Brazil aligning with his attributes of defiance, courage and fortitude. He became the patron Orixá of plantations and the first few Candomblé terreiros in Brazil.

Besides seeing the Oxé Xangô as an artefact produced as a consequence of a string of iconological reactions, its emergence in popular culture, from Hugo Canuto’s comic series (that led to Xangô`s comparison to Thor) and filmic depictions of his complex and incongruous character traits in A Força De Xangô (1977), the symbolism connects beyond the historical and divine. An Oxé Xangô a is therefore not a hard object to miss, as a dance wand, on sacred altars or as part of ethnographic material in museums.


WORKS CITED

Campfens, Evelien. “The Bangwa Queen: Artifact or Heritage?” International Journal of Cultural Property, Vol. 26, No. 1: 2019, pp. 75–110.

The Newark Museum. Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art Selections from The Newark Museum Collection, Kean University, 2012.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. Vintage Books, 1984.

Verger, Pierre, and Nóbrega Cida. Orixás: Deuses iorubás Na África e No Novo Mundo. Fundação Pierre Verger, 2018.

Voeks, Robert A. Sacred Leaves of Candomblé: African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil. University of Texas Press, 2003.




[1] From an interview with Davi Rodrigues in his studio in Cachoeira, Bahia. (Sept.2019)

[2] Toninho de Oxum, Ilê Asé Omo Ose Igba Alatan (June 7, 2019)

[3] https://www.imodara.com/discover/nigeria-yoruba-ose-sango-sango-staff/

[4] Campfens, Evelien. “The Bangwa Queen: Artifact or Heritage?” International Journal of Cultural Property, Vol. 26, No. 1: 2019, pp. 75–110.

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