Close Looks: "Ògbóni/Òsùgbó Rattle"
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This is a metal rattle, just over 16 inches tall, 7 inches wide at the widest part, and about 2 inches in depth. It is decorated extensively on both the front and back with the same elements on both sides. I’m going to begin describing the upper third of the rattle, then proceed to the middle third, and finally the lower third.
The upper third: On both the front and back there is a human head wearing a symmetrical headdress. The stylized facial features are symmetrical as well; the bridge of the nose along the central axis is flanked by eyebrows that connect to the bridge of the nose and form high arcs at the top of the brow, ending just above the midpoint of the eyes. The almond-shaped eyes and eyelids project further outward from the face’s surface than the eyebrows do, and they tilt upward at an almost 45-degree angle to the vertical lines of the nose. The cheeks below the eyes are concave and ornamented by forms that are also almond shaped, a little longer than the eyes, and positioned at a downward angle that balances the upward angle of the eyes. The tip of the nose and nostrils project outward from the concave area of the cheeks, above the curving shapes of the lips. From either corner of the mouth extend U-shaped halves of a mustache. The eyebrows and mustache are made of thin strands of metal laid side by side.
An elaborate headdress attaches at the top and the sides of the figure’s head. At its very top, there is a rounded mass of coiled braids, held up from the top of the head by an armature of paired metal tubes, wider at the base of the braids and narrower below. Below them there is a conical area at the top of the head, covered with parallel horizontal bands of what might also be braids. The sides of the headdress are made of two S-shaped forms, attached at the top near the conical area of the head and at the bottom to the sides of the face, between the temples and cheeks. The outer edges of the S-shaped forms have a raised border and both ends are decorated with circular studs.
At the lower end of each S-shape hang metal chains, two on each side, each chain with nine or ten oval loops. Two of the metal chains have small bells at their ends. The chains are suspended from five circular loops organized in a curve that mimics the curve of the bottom of the S. The innermost of the five loops on each side are attached to the sides of the face with a pair of cylindrical struts, each of them decorated with thin, parallel metal bands.
The middle third: Just beneath the figure’s chin and running just a bit longer than the length of the suspended chains, is the columnar form at the rattle’s center. The column has three sections, each framed by clusters of three parallel bands. The upper section of the column is decorated with a pattern of overlapping angular bands that form diamond shapes, with circular metal studs in the center of the diamonds. The middle section is not ornamented. The lower section has decoration that overlaps with the rattle’s lower third: four thin strands of metal weave around three circular metal studs.
The lower third: This decoration has several components. At the center there is a symmetrical human head, smaller than the one in the upper third but with similarly configured facial features. Instead of a moustache, this face has a columnar beard extending downward from the chin. The body attached to the head has the shape of a stylized fish tail, with symmetrical tail fins curving outward at the bottom. The surface of the body is decorated with linear patterns organized into an X shape that reads a little like a schematic form of a human body – with V-shaped appendages that could be arms and curved forms at the bottom that could be legs. Around the outside edges of the fish tail there is a border formed by two mostly vertical bands of metal connected by mostly horizontal bands. In some ways this border echoes the circular loops from the rattle’s upper third. Here, however, the open spaces have trapezoidal or rectangular shapes rather than circular ones.
From either side of the human head in this lower third other forms protrude. Here, unlike in other parts of the rattle, the forms are not symmetrical. On the right, the form is the profile head of a bird, with a circular eye and a large beak extending downward. On the left, the bird’s tail feathers extend outward, reaching a length comparable to that of the bird’s head on the right side. Some of the metal appears to be missing just beneath the bird’s tail feathers. A form that looks like a sideways V may be meant to represent part of the bird, it may represent something else, or it may have a structural purpose, to support whatever form would have been visible there in the rattle’s original state.
While there are some areas where it appears that some metal is missing, the rattle also has many areas where the composition intentionally leaves open spaces. In several places, it’s possible to see inside the rattle and confirm that those parts are hollow. Even though the rattle is only two inches at its maximum depth, when seen from the side there is quite a bit of variation in the surface. Some areas (like the human noses) project further and others (the upper figure’s cheeks, the support for the braided topknot, and the central column) recede. The surface has some areas that are shinier (for example, the central columnar section, which was where it was held in someone’s hand). Other areas have a greenish patina and still others appear to have some red dirt encrusted in them.
This ritual rattle (ìpawó asé) is a fascinating example of innovative variations on Ògbóni/Òsùgbó society themes. Atop the staff is an iconic image of the serene, wise face of an elder. While similar visages are emblazoned on staffs, bells, and other ritual objects, the fleshy nose and markings on this face are distinctive. The artist has preserved the elder’s canonical headgear — a snail shell-like cap symbolic of transformation and renewal, but it is surmounted by what appears to be a European style crown and framed by serpentine forms. More surprising is the composite figure at the base of the staff with a human head and delicate strut-like appendages supporting a large bird, signifying metaphysical power to change and create new things. The figure’s lower body sprouts a fishtail in place of human legs, as a reminder that the Earth goddess Ilé, worshipped by Ògbóni/Òsùgbó members, dominates both land and sea. While the fishtail is a commonly used motif, here it is particularly powerful aesthetically and metaphorically.
– Susan Cooksey is the former curator of African art at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida and the curator of Peace, Power & Prestige: Metal Arts of Africa.
Unidentified artist, Nigeria, Yoruba culture, Ògbóni/Òsùgbó, late 19th century, copper alloy, 16 1/4 × 7 in. (41.3 × 17.8 cm). Charles and Isabel Eaton Fund, 2020.24.2.
This piece hails from the Yoruba of Nigeria and it dates to the 19th century. The Ògbóni is an indigenous fraternity or a cult as some will call it. The exact date of the launch of the organization is not clear but its earliest mention is in 1884. Today, the society still exists and continues to perform a range of political, cultural, religious, and economic functions.
The artefact is made of brass. And over the centuries, it has had a few corrosions in some parts of it. There are two distinct parts of the artefact. Starting from the top part of the figure: The first thing that strikes visually are the four (4) chains. Two chains on each side of the top (two face) of the artefact which symbolizes the ears and or where the ears should be. One chain on each side has spherical balls bolted to the ends like earrings. These chains look like earrings and could have significance to slavery or the chains that bind members of the Ògbóni Fraternity. The “ears” have five “piercings” each with the chains running down two of the piercings. The rattle has two faces like a coin but with similarities on both ends. It has two eyes, a nose and mouth and “tribal marks”.
These two “tribal marks” are also visible on both sides of the cheeks. These “tribal marks” are common in West Africa and often symbolizes belonging to a particular ethnic group or clan. On top of the head is what looks like a traditional Yoruba crown with parts that runs down on both sides to form the ear.
Below the head is the midsection that looks like a “neck”. The “neck” has details and symbols carved on it. The “neck” is divided into three parts. Each section is divided by three set of lines. The top and lower sections of the “neck” has symbols on them. The top section has diamond shapes with ball points sticking out from the diamonds. The lower section has a shape that looks like the alphabet “A”.
The bottom part of the artefact has a face as well. The second section has horns and “tribal marks” as well. Below the “mouth” are two holes. The sides have intriguing shapes that supports and connects the head to the torso. The right side has what looks like a paraphernalia. Below the “lower face” is a base that looks like the torso with a giant “X” detailed on it. There is a triangle shape below the “X” as well. There are significant differences in the facial compositions. The “upper faces” look younger than the “lower faces”. Which could symbolize an older person, group or parent supporting the younger person, group, or ward by putting them on their head or above it. Which might also mean their needs come first. The detailed nature of this artefact indicates finesse craftsmanship of African artist at the time.
– Nancy Akomaniwaa Andoh is an Africanist from Ghana who believes this art inspires hope and connects us to generations of African history.
- Describe the line, shape, form, texture, and use of space.
- What adjectives would you use to describe the faces on this rattle and the forms that surround them? How would you characterize the facial expressions you see?
- Look as closely as you can and notice the metalwork. How do you imagine this was made?
- This is a ritual rattle used by the Ògbóni/Òsùgbó society. If you were to hold this object, what would it feel like and how might it sound?
- Read Susan Cooksey’s description above, paying close attention to the transformational symbolism of the “snail shell-like cap” and goddess Ilé’s domination of land and sea. In what ways do these symbols reflect humans’ connection to their environments? What connections can you draw between humans, earth, and water in the very production of the metal itself?
- Learn more about this object in the Ackland’s About the Art guide.
- Read more about arts of the Yoruba from Susan Cooksey at the Harn Museum of Art. The exhibition Peace, Power & Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa will be on view at the Ackland Art Museum January 28 through April 3, 2022.
- View other examples of Ògbóni/Òsùgbó rattles from the High Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Learn more about Ògbóni/Òsùgbó rattles and make connections through the Dallas Museum of Art’s collection and resources.
- Explore the University of Iowa’s online resource “Art and Life in Africa”.
- Join us for a variety of in-person and virtual public programs expanding upon the context of the Ògbóni/Òsùgbó rattle in the Ackland’s exhibition-related programs for Peace, Power & Prestige, including a talk by Susan Cooksey. Find details on our calendar.