Spirit Embodiments

By Barbara Thompson
Friends of Usambara Society, Tanzania (formerly Stanford University; University of Iowa)

Tanzania; Shambaa artist

Figural medicine container

Wood, horn, fiber

H. 35.56 cm (14")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1990.670

Although figurative sculpture has received the most art historical attention in the past, power objects are also composed of more "ready-made" containers such as horns, ceramic vessels, baskets, shells, and bottles. The accumulation of symbolic and medicinal elements during the making of a power object refers to particular metaphors that are associated with the embodied spirit. For example, horns of various wild animals are often used throughout Africa as containers for medicine. The horn serves as a metaphor for the wilderness and all its enigmatic powers. By extension, horns, such as this Shambaa fea, can also refer to the healing properties of medicines derived from the wilderness. Due to their essential role in the arts of healing, horns are frequently used as emblems of power and mark the identity of healers, ritual specialists, and other powerful individuals.

Shambaa healer with his medicine gourd. Kwesimu, Lushoto District, Tanzania, 1996. Photo by Barbara Thompson.