OBJECT: Linked Standing Male Figures

art-1
[Image Description: Wooden figure of two standing people, attacked to a solid base. They are connected by a wooden monkey atop their heads.]
Linked Standing Male Figures, unknown, Danford Collection of West African Art and Artefacts, Image © Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham

Name: Linked Standing Male Figures
Artist: Unknown
Location: West Yoruba Region, possibly Dahomey (R. du Benin)
Accession Number: BIRRCD0028
Collection: The Danford Collection of West African Art and Artefacts

This is a 35cm wooden sculpture, stained with indigo, of two male Shango worshippers, from the Yoruba culture in Nigeria, dressed in tunics and wielding staffs. Shango is the Yoruba god of thunder and lighting, son of goddess Yemaja who was patron of birth, and “was once the fourth king of Yoruba, immortalized after death”1.

The wood was likely carved with the ‘adze’ cutting-tools “and knives made of iron. In various countries of Africa it was mainly ancestral or cult figures that were worked in wood, but only very few pieces of carving more than 100 years old have survived”2.

The monkey figure in the sculpture is likely linked to the Yoruba belief that animals can masquerade as humans by removing their skin. Monkeys, among other abilities, are believed to be able to become an ‘abiku’ which are spirits of dead children. These spirits torture living children to a pre-teen death, thus creating more abiku.

In terms of spirituality and supernaturalism, it is through ‘Yoruba spirit possession’ (òrìsà: gìgún) that we can note gender being a social construct that varies in different cultures. The possession ritual is often linked to women and, with the majority of Shango priests being female, the remainder who are male, or otherwise, adopt women’s clothing and accessories to fulfil the required ritualistic and gender role.

The Yoruba verb for possession roughly translates as ‘to mount’ which does not apply directly to humans but is more akin to the act of male-on-female animal mating. In this sense, gods such as Shango mount the female priest in a way suggestive of rape as the god asserts metaphorical, and spiritual, dominance over his subject. Through this act, priests of both sex are then referred to as ‘bride’ (iyawo) of the god.

It is only through colonisation, as the West impose their gender constructs onto other countries, that gender boundaries and constraints begin to develop. This results in making the cultural-norm of ritualistic cross-dressing within the Yoruba people seem foreign to stereotypically Western gender-norms.

However, in terms of sexuality, the African government use the argument of colonialism to claim that homosexuality is an imported Western concept. This allows for a loophole for active discriminate such as Robert Mugabe, as he governed Zimbabwe, referring to homosexuality as ‘un-African’ and that gay people were worse, or lower, than animals. This militant homophobia was likely a form of diversion tactic from the country’s other problems.

Yet such extremes can be further noted with Goodluck Johnson’s ‘Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act’ in 2014 that bans all manner of homosexual relationships and activities. Despite its controversy, the act was apparently backed by 98% of the Nigerian population.

Footnotes:
[1] “Shango.” Encyclopedia Mythica, Encyclopedia Mythica Online, 05 April 2001, <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/s/shango.html&gt;
[Accessed February 06, 2017].
[2] Gerald W. R. Ward (ed.), The Grove Encyclopaedia of Materials and Techniques in Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

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