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Staff with Snuff Vessels

Date:
19th–20th century
Geography:
South Africa
Culture:
Zulu or Nguni peoples
Medium:
Wood
Dimensions:
Length x Depth: 41 3/4 x 1 3/8 in. (106 x 3.5 cm)
Classification:
Wood-Sculpture
Credit Line:
Gift of Noble and Jean Endicott, 1993
Accession Number:
1993.381.6
  • Description

    There are over 75 Zulu terms for different kinds of sticks, a reflection of their relative importance in Zulu culture. In Zulu society's highly stratified hierarchy, sticks were carried by commoners and high-ranking officials alike. Various forms of sticks were used for walking, dancing, hunting, combat, and even executions.

    The short staff topped by a bulbous finial is a Zulu club, or iwisa. The cylindrical shaft terminates off-center in a spheroid ornament with rounded, vertical ribs and two opposing shallow circular concavities on the top and bottom. These indentations were originally filled with fat to be rubbed in the body during ceremonies. The short shaft and heavy finial make this iwisa an effective weapon. The entire staff is carved from a single piece of hardwood. Among the Zulu, woodcarving is the exclusive domain of men. The surface of the staff has been polished with fat and displays a rich patina obtained after years of usage.

    The tall staff topped by an elaborate chain-finial is a walking stick, also known as an uzime or an uboko among the Zulu. Generally, elderly men and women used long walking sticks such as this to provide assistance in negotiating steep inclines as well as for defense against wild animals and snakes if encountered in the tall grass. The attenuated, cylindrical shaft of this staff terminates at the top in a flat-sided half-link connected by a free-carved oval link to a heart-shaped snuff bottle with a boss-headed plug on its bottom end. Snuff containers, like staffs, were an important element of everyday Zulu life. The taking of tobacco, either as snuff or for smoking, was a formal part of many major feasts and considered an important communal event. Among the Zulu and other southern African ethnic groups, tobacco has associations with procreation, creating favorable conditions for growth and fertility. By extension, tobacco is also linked with the powers of the ancestors. Tobacco was always shared with others and rarely taken alone. Pipes and snuff containers were therefore public artifacts in the sense that they were used in communal activities. They were sometimes worn as decorative extensions of the owner's costume or, in this case, integrated into a walking stick. Like the club, this walking stick is also carved from a single piece of hardwood and exhibits a rich patina reflecting years of frequent use.

  • Provenance

    Noble A. and Jean Endicott, New York, until 1993

  • See also
    Who
    What
    Where
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
316792

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