Purchased through the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Jaffe Hall Fund, the William B. and Evelyn F. Jaffe (58, 60, & 63) Fund, and the Hood Museum of Art Acquisitions Fund; 2006.13
Embellished with sculptural references to the female body, this rare and beautifully carved wooden post epitomizes one of the few types of large-scale sculpture found in eastern Africa. Variously described as initiation posts, house posts, or funerary markers, these abstractly designed sculptures are used in cultures as far north as Ethiopia and as far south as Madagascar. Yet the lack of research on posts, such as this example, from the various cultures of northeastern Tanzania presents a vexing challenge to scholars interested in reconstructing cultural histories, practices, and knowledge now blurred or even erased by the impact of colonialism, widespread religious conversion, and globalization.
Based on early missionary and colonial descriptions from the nineteenth century, these tall and elegantly sculpted posts could be found in villages of the matrilineal Kaguru, Luguru, Kwere, and Gogo cultures of northeastern Tanzania. While some scholars suggest that the bifurcated crest on the posts corresponds to a young woman's hairstyle (also seen on female figurines used in girl's initiation) and the breasts represent fertility, the matriclan, and the female principle, others argue that clefted posts occurred in most houses as supports for horizontal crossbeams and may not be ritually important. For these matrilineal cultures, present-day interpretations of ritual use or significance are difficult to verify, as the posts no longer exist in situ due to the prolonged impact of Christianity since the late nineteenth century.
The female characterization of the Hood's post strongly suggests ritual use and metaphoric associations with ideologies of womanhood. In my own research in the northeastern highlands of Tanzania, symbolism of gendered identities was often embedded into sculptural arts, including tall posts that were used to mark sacred and therefore ritually dangerous spaces such as initiation settings, shrines, graves, or the courtyards of healers and diviners. In the late 1990s, when I conducted research among the Shambaa peoples—who are culturally related to the Luguru and Kaguru—posts adorned with symbols were placed in sacred spaces. The gendered aspect of many such symbols helped guide the spirits to protect specific members of society who were particularly vulnerable during ritual processes, such as women, children, and young initiates. However, until more research can be completed on these enigmatic sculptures, their cultural significance remains speculative, supported only by colonial descriptions and scholarship on related cultural groups. Now joining the Hood's small but significant collection of east African sculpture, this exceptional post opens up new opportunities for research on Tanzanian sculptural arts and their cultural histories.
Curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections
Last Updated: 11/14/06