COVID-19 Update: All SAM Locations Currently Closed »

Object of the Week: Dancewand for Sango

2020 has unleashed epic storms—a pandemic hurricane, tornadoes of lost jobs, and whirlwinds of racism. Meanwhile, in the center of Seattle, a new monument has appeared, offering the vision of a goddess named Oya, who offers to make way for changes in 2021. 

Oya comes from a culture—the Yoruba of Nigeria—that has long seen storms as cultural texts. She is related to a kneeling woman at SAM who holds a bowl and supports two thunderbolts on her head. This woman is a devotee of Sango, a deity who resides in the skies as a champion of justice who hates liars, thieves, and wrongdoers; who claps thunder and throws lightning down to strike them.[1] Sango is tempestuous but can also be generous, and he may choose to send his explosive energy to women who care for children and others. In this sculpture at SAM, the devotee kneels to pay tribute to the earth as an omnipotent witness, remaining calm to balance Sango’s bolts, and was once carried by a priest or priestess in a sacred drama filled with a unique soundtrack. Sango employs thunder—the loudest sound that nature makes—and his powerful presence is evoked in a distinctive way. If you’ve never heard bata drumming, below is a clip recorded in Nigeria; the video takes you to a family of drummers who fill the air with the intensity of a storm with frenetic crescendos that boggle the mind and ignite the spirit. [2]   

Oya is Sango’s consort. Her winds clear the path of opposition, helping him remove any obstacles to change. You can feel her presence in playful winds, or in more dangerous tornadoes and hurricanes. This year, she has risen to public glory at 24th and Jackson, in Seattle’s Central District. A creative couple—Marita Dingus and Preston Hampton—gave her new form, inventing a swirling body of metal ribbons that suggest her windy demeanor, while her face of concentrated composure looks for places where she can sweep aside trauma and deceit to make way for healing. 

Here is the couple’s explanation of how Oya came into focus:

So, how can Oya help us at the end of 2020?  In Yorubaland, she is known to be fond of black-eyed peas. When Yoruba were forced to move to America, Cuba, and Brazil as slaves, they brought black-eyed peas, called ewa, with them. In a turn of language, ewa puns with wa, the essence of existence. Eating them in America was coded secret devotion. Today, it is understood that eating black-eyed peas at new years can bring good luck.[3]

You may join in Oya’s quest to stir up radical shifts of being in 2021. Cook some black-eyes peas and talk about what changes you’d like to see, then visit Oya, or stand in her winds, and send her your words of hope for new paths to be found. Goodbye, 2020—let Oya’s breeze of blessing and winds of transformation unfurl in the New Year. 

Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art


[1] Babatunde Lawal is a Yoruba scholar whose work on Sango sculpture and explanations of the larger context for understanding Sango is highly recommended. Here is one talk by Professsor Lawal: Stellar Connections: Explorations in Cultural Astronomy – Pt. 4, Babatunde Lawal – YouTube
[2] Performance by Ayan Agalu, “May the spirit of drumming carry one aloft,” March 2017, Erin Osun, recorded by Andrew Frankel. 
[3] Franck Kuwonu, “Black-eyed peas: A taste of Africa in the AmericasUN | Africa Renewal, December 24, 2019.
Image: Dancewand for Sango, Nigerian, wood, 19 7/8 x 7 9/16 x 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.91. Winds of Change: We Are Still Here, 2020, Marita Dingus and Preston Hampton, Jackson Apartments, Seattle, Washington.

Object of the Week: House of the Head

This summer, thousands of people are stepping into Infinity Mirror Rooms filled with lanterns, polka dots, pumpkins, and 115 mirrors. As of this week, 90,000 visitors in Seattle have seen infinity in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors. Every Infinity Mirror Room makes the most of mirrors. What you may not realize is that mirrors have a long history in art and you can seen some of that history in SAM’s other galleries. The oldest mirror on view is from the 3rd century BC, an Etruscan bronze with an incised back depicting a woman who only wears a cap, necklace, and fancy shoes. Three figures stare at her, as if wondering if she forgot to put on a dress—but it happens to be a scene of seduction by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.  (48.36)

There are other small mirrors incorporated into sculptures on view: the Box of Daylight Raven Hat (91.1.124) on the 3rd floor and SAM’s very own mirrored room, which suspends 1,000 porcelains in a gilt rimmed infinity in the renowned Porcelain Room. On my walk through the galleries, however, one mirrored object calls out for attention. It only has four mirrors and is not an attention grabber—unless you happen to be tuned into art of the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. (93.157)

What looks like a small temple, or a crown, has an unusual name and concept to back it up. In Yoruba, it is called an ile ori, or House of the Head. One’s ori is not only your head, but your destiny. Before a person is born, he or she must visit the molder of spiritual heads to choose a destiny and personality which guide one’s character and fate. It is inside you, invisible to others, and is your “inner head,” which is embodied by a small abstract sculpture that is kept hidden in its own house. As seen in this house for the head, it has geometric shapes and numerical calculations, like any residence. Cowrie shells coat the entire surface, befitting the head of a wealthy person. Mirrors embellish the openings, flashing to signal the presence of a significant head held inside. When you want to “get your head together,” this house allows you to concentrate on how to align your thoughts with your destiny.

As I look at this quiet shrine, it leads me back to admire what the Yoruba Supreme Being, Odumare, stands for. He is the Prime Mover and Infinite Intelligence who created himself/herself and the universe. One Yoruba diviner and professor, Kola Abimbola, says the Yoruba have a GPS for life with a system and oracle known as Ifa. In search of more GPS and a dose of Yoruba confidence and creativity, I took a spring vacation in Nigeria. I was there to witness friends becoming chiefs and in the process, a spirit from the otherworld sat down to enact a hilarious conversation about the joys and pitfalls of raising children. Here she is making her point, offering her own version of Infinite Intelligence.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: House of the Head (Ile Ori), 20th century. Nigerian, Yoruba, cloth, mirrors, cowrie shells, leather, Gift of Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam, 93.157. Mirror with scene of the Judgement of Paris, 3rd century BC., Etruscan, Bronze, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.36. Sketch of scene on the mirror back Egungun Mother in Erin Osun, 2017, Photo: Pam McClusky.

Object of the Week: Crown (Ade)

Delicate beadwork, strung together in pleasing patterns and color combinations, blankets the surface of a Yoruba crown, or ade, made to be worn only by a king, or Oba. The great care and effort applied by the crown’s makers remain evident for us to see and appreciate.

Minute beads are artfully arranged over every inch of its surface. The crown, standing about one and a half feet tall, has an imposing presence even on its own. It comprises three sections, or registers. On the lowest register, a circular face looks out toward the viewer. His countenance is marked by big, protruding white eyes; triangles and a prominent “V” that suggest his forehead; vertical and horizontal bands that make for decorative cheeks; and a black mound that forms a nose. On either side of the face, diamond patterning alternates between blue, beige, gold, blue-striped white, and turquoise beads. The patterning leads around the crown to a second, identical head on the back that we can’t see as the piece is installed.

Crown (Ade) (detail)

A rung of horizontal beads separates the lower register with the faces from a second, higher register, marked by the striking verticals of four peaks, or towers. Three outer towers originate, at their base, in horizontal bands, progressing upward in alternating chevrons of white, blue, and pink beads, capped by more horizontal bands—looking a bit like wine bottle necks. The three outer peaks encircle a central tower that bears lively color bands of gold, green, pink, sky blue, and navy blue, culminating in a half-dome of swirling, intertwined gold and green beads.

Atop the central tower, and the tallest feature of the crown, rests a figure of two birds fused together at their mid-sections, one head facing toward us, and the other facing opposite. The whole piece is visually remarkable and worth admiring at close range for a good while.

Crown (Ade) (detail)

Many years now after its completion, the crown continues to exude reverence—aimed by its makers at its wearer. For the Yoruba, the crown transcends its widely applied role as a decorative accessory: It embodies the essence of kingship, marking the king as a mediator between heavenly and earthly realms. Consider that if the king is absent, and the crown is placed on his throne, the king’s subjects observe the same strict level of protocol as if the king himself were there. That is a tremendous amount of respect to accord headwear, and it’s a level of respect that has driven artists to produce wonderfully crafted pieces like SAM’s Yoruba Crown.

It was not only meticulously but thoughtfully done. Symbolic meaning lives in the patterns, colors, and imagery. Certain colors are associated with certain gods in the Yoruba pantheon, while the frontal face may represent Ododuwa (Odua), the mythic father of the Yoruba. By donning this crown of fabric and glass beads, the wearer boldly, visibly communicated that he could trace his lineage back to the mythical founder of the Yoruba kingdoms.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Crown (Ade), Yoruba, 19th-20th century, cloth, glass beads, fiber, height: 17 in.; diameter: 8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb, 91.251, Photos: Natali Wiseman.

SAM Art: Who presides at places of change? This man.

This is a gentleman who tempts fate. He likes to preside at places of transition, where he can push people to recognize the need to change directions. He carries a sword to cut through difficulties and a flywhisk to invoke his authority to make things happen. Esu is prepared to bring the insights of the gods to bear on earthly dilemmas, such as changing jobs and moving on.

After 37 years, Michael McCafferty retired from his work at the Seattle Art Museum on April 20, 2012. He was the lead designer for galleries in the downtown Seattle Art Museum, the Olympic Sculpture Park, and the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and oversaw the installation of several hundred exhibitions. He was offered the following praise salute on his last day:

Master of the delicate dance

Required to give art the chance

To fly through the air and land at our feet

May Esu guide your fate in all that you meet.

Standing Figure of Esu, early 20th century, Nigerian Oyo State, Yoruba, wood, iron, 19 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 6 1/4 in., General Acquisition Fund in honor of Michael McCafferty, 2012.11. Currently on view in the African art galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.

SAM Art: Sango dancewand, lecture on Wednesday

Sharp drumming, sounding like a lightning strike, signals the arrival of Sango’s devotees to a festival in his honor. Dancing to the piercing, cracking sounds and staccato rhythms, the devotee will wave wands such as this to illustrate Sango’s hot temper and punishing justice.

Sango, the Yoruba thunder deity, may be wild and belligerent but he can be assuaged by the attentions of female devotees. Showing her alliance with Sango’s moral fire, this woman’s head is adorned with the double axe, the god’s visual sign. She kneels before his authority to present an offering. Such generosity is considered a noble gesture of morality and ensures that Sango will consider blessing her with children and wealth.

Women Who Tame Thunder: Yoruba Sango Staffs
Pam McClusky, Curator, Art of Africa and Oceania
Members Art History Lecture Series: New Perspectives

December 7, 2011
7–9 pm
Plestcheeff Auditorium, SAM downtown

Open to SAM members and their guests. For tickets, click here.

Members: $5.00
Guests of members: $9.00

Dancewand for Sango, Yoruba, Nigerian, wood, 19 7/8 x 7 9/16 x 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.91. Currently on view in the African art galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.

SAM Art: Dance Wand for Sango

Shango is a Yoruba deity who harnesses bolts of lightning and thunder and uses them to reward worshippers and punish deceit. Oral praise poems say he is the one “who destroys the wicked with his truth, leaves in confusion the contentious man, and dances in the courtyard of the impertinent.”

Double axes adorn this woman’s head to show her alliance with Sango’s moral fire. She kneels before his authority to present an offering. Such generosity is considered a noble gesture of morality and ensures that Sango will consider blessing her with children and wealth.

“Dance wand for Sango,” date unknown, Yoruba, Nigerian, wood, 19 7/8 x 7 9/16 x 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.91, Photo: Susan A. Cole. Currently on view in the African Art galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.