StaffArtist(s)PendeArtist NationalityPendeObject Creation DateEarly to mid-20th centuryMedium & SupportwoodDimensions
36 13/16 in x 2 3/8 in x 2 3/16 in (93.5 cm x 6.03 cm x 5.56 cm)Credit LineGift of Margaret H. and Albert J. CoudronSubject matter
This wooden staff featuring a carved human head at its finial is attributed to the Pende, who resided in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each Pende clan would have owned a muhango
), a staff bearing figural carvings that would be handled exclusively by the designated clan orator (ngambi
) as he pleads his clan’s case in front of a tribunal overseeing legal disputes. Here, the image of the human head invokes the aid of a deceased clan ancestor’s spirit as well as his memory of legal precedent. The snake, seen crawling upward from the lower end of the staff, links the subterrestrial with the terrestrial, the dead with the living.
While speaking, the orator would grasp the staff by the carved finial on top and plant it in the ground in front of the tribunal. The staffs would be left there until a decision had been reached; the verdict would be communicated by rubbing white chalk on the “winning” staff. Staffs were sometimes also sprinkled with goat’s blood and palm wine by the victorious party. Upon the orator’s death, the staff would temporarily be placed in the granary of a young woman and would then be transferred to a newly appointed speaker in an elaborate ceremony. The staff, therefore, was the symbol of the orator’s authority and status, par excellence.
Because the Pende believed that orators’ staffs were imbued with formidable, spiritual powers, Catholic missionaries viewed them as subversive and disposed many of them in the Kwilu River during the 1940s and 50s.
De Soushberghe, Leon. L’art pende
. Académie royale de Belgique. 1959
De Sousberghe, Leon. Deux palabres d’esclave chez les Pende
Roy, Christopher. “Staff.” http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/uima/id/18932Physical Description
This curved wooden Pende staff features a finial depicting a human head bearing simple facial features and a cap-like coiffure composed of vertical lines. The staff’s handle is in the shape of a narrow loop that connects the front of the figure’s head to the back of its head. A slender serpent carved with a snake-skin pattern slithers upwards from the lower end of the staff.Primary Object Classification Wood and Woodcarving Primary Object TypestaffAdditional Object Classification(s)SculptureCollection AreaAfricanRights
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staffs (walking sticks)
symbols of office or status