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Staff

Accession Number
2001/2.73

Title
Staff

Artist(s)
Kongo

Artist Nationality
Kongo (culture or style)

Object Creation Date
Early to mid-20th century

Medium & Support
wood with beads, cloth and twine

Dimensions
26 11/16 in x 1 9/16 in x 1 3/4 in (67.79 cm x 3.97 cm x 4.45 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Margaret H. and Albert J. Coudron

Subject matter
Among the Kongo peoples, carved, wooden staffs were the prerogative of the elite, namely, chiefs, healers-diviners, and orators. Known as an mvwala, a staff was much more than a walking stick; it communicated the owner’s identity, status, and power through nuanced messages conveyed in its iconography, adornments, and accessories.

Both ends of this staff have been wrapped in pieces of cloth. One end features a schematized, anthropomorphic face, while the other is adorned by strands of multi-colored beads. This staff most likely belonged to an nganga, a clairvoyant healer-diviner and spiritual medium. By communicating with invisible spirit beings, he could diagnose and remedy both physical ailments and societal conflicts. The nganga would specially craft medicinal preparations (bilongo) for his clients.  Sometimes his staff would have also contained bilongo to protect him from the harm of retributive forces.

Bilongo may have been held under the cloth of this staff. Additionally, the anthropomorphic face likely represents the spirit of a deceased diviner or an ancestor, whom the nganga appealed to for inspiration. After the successful resolution of the client’s dilemma, a votive offering such as beads, such as those seen here, would be presented to the staff. Thus, a staff’s physical appearance would change over time through the gifting of such accessories, reflecting the dynamic use and potent efficacy of the object.

Reference:
Staffs of Life: Rods, Staffs Scepters and Wands from the Coudron Collection of African Art. Ed.: Allen F. Roberts. Iowa City: PASALA: The Project for Advanced Study of Art and Life in Africa and the University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1994.

Physical Description
This wooden staff has pieces of cloth wrapped on both extensions. One end depicts an abstract anthropomorphic face, while the other appears to function as a handle and is embellished with two strings of black and white beads and a loop of blue and white beads.

Primary Object Classification
Wood and Woodcarving

Primary Object Type
staff

Additional Object Classification(s)
Sculpture

Collection Area
African

Rights
If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit http://umma.umich.edu/request-image for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form. Keywords
ancestors
beads (pierced objects)
diviners
power
spirits (beings)
staff
staffs (walking sticks)
symbols of office or status
votive offerings
woodcarving

& Author Notes

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