Artefact of the Month

South African Animal Head Staff. Natural Ethnographic Object?

August, 2017


What can we “read” from an object that comes to us with little-to-no information attached?  From something about which all that is known is that it was purchased in 1896, the year of Hungary’s millennial celebrations, and that it came with the several thousand objects and several hundred photographs collected from missionaries around the globe for the National Museum’s Ethnographic Mission Exhibition?

This staff, which comes from Grahamstown in South Africa, is likely made of Thamnocalamus tessellatus, the only type of bamboo native to the area and a material that local cultures use in constructing huts, animal pens, and handles for various objects.  In Africa, as elsewhere, sticks have traditionally served not only as weapons and walking sticks, but also as bearers of various indicators:  marks of rank or political power, or images of ancestors, cosmological beings, or even exceptional people.  For diviners, sorcerers, healers, and hunters, staffs were ritual objects used in communication with the supernatural that had the power to protect their owners.  Some staffs served as reminders of the past, their forms offering references to the historical, spiritual, and ideological associations of their bearers.

The South African staff is an example of a phenomenon known to all cultures, whereby an object created by nature is used as an implement or in some other function with little or no alteration to its original form, that is, a desired form or motif is lifted by humans from a shape provided by nature.  To quote a Hungarian farmer from the village of átány, “A farmer’s eye sees everything, and what he sees, he cut off.”  In the various forks and curves in a tree’s branches, for example, Hungarian farmers saw tools:  hooks, fruit pickers, and pitchforks, to name but a few such implements from the peasant armory.

Natural objects are also frequently imbued with symbolic meaning, as is the case with an object currently on display for the exhibition Two Continents: One Soul.  The piece in question, a section of branch collected by Emil Torday in 1908, was used by the leaders of the Ngongo people as a sacred staff.  The shaft of the staff features the spiral imprint of a climbing vine, the staff itself having symbolised the chief of the group, and the vine the council that provided him aid. 

The matter of what we see in a given material and what we associate with various colours and forms is what leads us to appropriate natural objects and, ultimately, to transform them into art.  Even the most pristine of natural objects is changed when it is brought into the home for safekeeping, if in no other way, then by being cleaned.  In both the fine, and applied arts, we see various “works” extracted from nature in starring or supporting roles, whether as a material expression of the thoughts and images they inspire, or as a means of framing other content.

The maker of the South African staff seen here was inspired by the rootstalk, or rhizome, of the bamboo plant, which can manifest itself in a variety of interesting shapes.  In this case, the stalk of the plant reminded him of an animal’s head, its root a pricked ear.  The animal’s face was shaped by cutting a little slot for the mouth, adding a nostril, and inserting glass eyes, rendering the work life-like and unique and giving the animal a degree of individual expression.  The glass eyes are likely of European origin:  the Grahamstown Natural History Museum, which opened in 1855, would almost certainly have used similar eyes in the process of stuffing display specimens.  Similar black-and-white glass eyes of a type associated with birds can be seen on late-19th-century figural staffs, and interestingly, are still recommended for use in staff-making. 

What is clear is that the head of this stick could never have been used as a support; rather, its length of 146 cm suggests that it was gripped below the head and served as either a walking stick or a type of sceptre.  It is also possible – particularly given the glass eye and the spike that covers its lower end – that the staff was produced for sale or trade to members of the colonial occupation. 

Today, the “face” on the staff strikes a humorous chord, but did its maker feel the same way?  Did those in his environment?  Do you?

Edina Földessy


Animal Head Staff

Grahamstown, South Africa

Material of the Ethnographic Mission Exhibition, 1896

Museum of Ethnography; 25327