Pair of Figurative Staffs (Edan) – African Art in Depth

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

 “The Ogboni society is one of the many numbers of councils and associations that assists in how Yoruba kings rule” (Visonà 242). In particular, Ogboni is one of the most prominent associations, which consists of both male and female elders. The Pair of Figurative Staffs (Edan) were made by the Yoruba people, but are associated with the Ogboni society.  

Within the Ogboni society, “Edan serves as public symbols of power and presence” (Visonà 243). Edan can also be seen by and exposed to non-members, which is unlike some other forms of artwork used within this particular society. They “refer to the male and female founders of the community and express the cooperation between men and women in society and the need for a balance of power between them” (Visonà 243). It is clear that the representation of men and women are essential to the Ogboni society. By creating Pair of Figurative Staffs (Edanthere is no surprise in their devotion for the male and female body and the ability for the male and female to come together and procreate. Yet, these figures are not just figures, they are a symbol for the unity between male and female and represent something greater than just being hung around the necks of members.  

Categorizing Pair of Figurative Staffs (Edan) is a hard task to attempt. These figures are symbols honored by the Ogboni society and have various uses. Yet, they still needed to be categorized. It is clear that these figures are not a painting or picture, so it only seemed right to classify them as a sculpture. A sculpture due to the fact that these figures are used not only to be hung around the necks of the elders, but also to stand as a symbolic symbol of unity during disputes. These figures have more in depth meaning that goes into the idea in which the Ogboni society was trying to portray. Their sizing and all that goes into the makeup of the sculpture play a huge role in allowing the audience to interpret a similar meaning to what is being displayed.  

The Pair of Figurative Staffs (Edan) were created sometime during the nineteenth century and are about sixty by twenty-seven point nine by nine point two centimeters in proportion. If these figures were any smaller, the amount of detail put into it, would be jumbled. The details in the makeup of the female and male figures would be lost. It would be too compact in too little space. If the figures were any bigger, they would be too heavy, and these figures are used to suspend around the necks of the elders. The size is perfect, and the figures are loose. One can tell the looseness from the way in which the chains dangle from the figures and the figures themselves are able to dangle from the chain that loops around one’s neck.   

These figures were made from tools and equipment of brass and iron structure. The sculpture depicts a male and female in a sitting position. The female is holding a baby, while the male is smoking a pipe. The proportions of the figures relate to how they are used and displayed in society. The two figures – male and female – are connected by a chain, which is then hung around an elder’s neck. The chain linking the male and female symbolize “the union of male and female, a force of primordial unity invoked in times of disharmony among community members” (Yale University Art Gallery). In other words, if there is a dispute amongst members of the community, this sculpture may be put out on display in order to summon peace and unity and bring civility between the members. However, there are more than just argumentative purposes in which these figures are used.  

These brass figures are suspended around elders’ necks “as an emblem of office” (Visonà 243). They serve almost like a “badge of membership and an indicator of status within the organization. It may also convey messages and protect its owner” (Visonà 243). These staffs are “commissioned for a new member at the time of his or her induction into the society” (Visonà 243). With this brief explanation as to what and how this figure is used, now it is time to delve into the overall appearance, structure, style and form of the figure.  

Form and style are important in evaluating art. Form in art is the way in which the visible elements of an artwork that come together to unite. Style in art is the way the form and composition of an artwork combine to make it more distinctive; however, style is not technique. This particular sculpture was difficult to identify in terms of form and style, as a result of its complexity.  

A Pair of Figurative Staffs (Edan) has an interesting form. The sculpture is of a gray coloring and has a humanistic shape. The lining that makes up the figures is detailed and intricate. The lines are irregular more so than straight, and some are jagged. The texture, which refers to the physical touch of the artwork, appears rough in some aspects, and smooth in others. The roughness stems from the three-dimensional-looking lines on the figures as well as the chains that attach each figure and dangle from the figures by their legs. The irregular-shaped arms appear to smooth to the eye. These characteristics are useful in referencing the style.  

The composition is how the artwork is aligned to display a message to the audience. With this sculpture, the figures which are male and female, sit side by side. They are connected by a single chain. The woman is distinct because she holds a baby in her arms, whereas the man is smoking a pipe, and appears to have facial hair. Yet, to some, the facial hair on the male figure could be a necklace, along with a necklace on the female figure. With a more in depth view of the sculpture, it looks as though both of the figures are wearing necklaces and the male figure does not have facial hair.  

Aside from the in depth appearance of the figures, as a whole, the idea of unity is painted. Unity between the male and female body, and unity amongst the elderly. As for form, the lining on the face, the gray coloring of the piece overall, and the humanistic shape, give the artwork an elderly appeal. In addition, the overall appearance of the artwork falls between naturalism and abstract. The figures have a humanistic quality and look to them. The male figure in particular has what looks like a beard on his face. Both the male and female figures look to be wearing earrings, as well as a hat atop of their heads. In addition to those humanistic features the male and female figures to seem to have breasts and nipples. These characteristics are what give the sculpture a more realistic view. Yet, the abstract appearance stems from the face. The face looks almost animalistic: like that of a dog. This abstract appeal gives the figures a more sacred vibe. Often times, cultures depict their deities in an animalistic form, which explains the Yoruba people for using an animalist face on the figures.  

Symbolically, in African art, the males’ heads are generally made to be bigger than the women’s head. From interpretation, this could indicate male dominance, but it allows the audience to distinguish the genders; knowing that the males have a larger head. From this, it is clear that the male figure is on the right based off the fact that the head is shaped bigger and the obvious clues that indicate that this figure would be male. The perspective from which this sculpture must be looked upon is linear rather than aerial. The linear perspective comes from the frontal details on the figures. One cannot determine what the sculpture is or is trying to explain from an aerial view point. The frontal features depict a male and female, both of whom have overlapping components which add to the detail in explaining the unity. The baby in the female’s arms overlaps with the arms of the female in a way that gives light to the care and tenderness that a woman possesses. The overlapping components also help to define the spacing arrangement of the sculpture. The bland coloring makes the figures solid. The figures are not see-through and have a definitive color. In addition, the figures are connected by a chain, yet each figure has its own definite space. The female stands out alone from the male with emptiness in between. The chain is that bridge of unity, connecting the two forces – male and female. To finalize the message of unity would be the representation of circles, ovals, and the chains enhance the meaning of what the sculpture stands for. Circles and ovals are round and represent everlastingness. Each figure has many oval or circular forms that help to support the structure. The chains, which are clearly depicted in the sculpture, portray the idea of unity by their continuous connections. 

The value of light versus shadow greatly affects this sculpture. For the most part, the sculpture is more depicts more light than shadow. Light because the sculpture is thin and the features are more in depth. More light than shadow enhances the value and makes the sculpture’s features more distinguished, such as the face. The dull coloring, gives a hard exterior appearance, but the coloring in itself, is simplistic. This simplicity gives the sculpture a more natural expression and highlights the idea of procreation. The idea of male and female union is portrayed and the female figure is holding a baby, which indicates the idea of creating new life.   

The Yoruba people take great pride in honoring their community members. The Ogboni society is just an enhanced group of elders that honor both male and female. Pair of Figurative Staffs (Edangive way to an in depth unity that the male and female body share. The figures have common similarities, while also displaying their differences in subtle ways. The figures are placed in honor of the new members of the community who also cherish the idea of the bond between the male and female, as well as during member disputes. The style and form that compose the sculpture help to bring out the overall idea of unity and everlastingness. From researching these figures, the a new sense of honor was exposed by the Yoruba culture through the Ogboni people in the way that the male and female are both equally important.  

 

 

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