Instruments of Sound

African Staffs in the 20th Century

Modern-era European colonization of Africa began in the early 1900s, a time when interest in other cultures and the past was becoming increasingly popular. The Belgians and the French began collecting art, and African art began to appear in museums across the world. Because most African art is wooden and deteriorates faster than other materials, many of these artifacts date no earlier than the 1900s, or the years of this colonization period.

One popular art form collected during this time was ceremonial or authoritative staffs, which were used in almost every African tribe. Often the staffs represented the hierarchy among the chiefs of the tribe, who might carry a staff to show their rank as distinguished elders. The ornamental faces on the staffs can represent spirits, chiefs, or the chief’s ancestors. They are as much a religious symbol as an authoritative one. The staffs can be crafted of wood, iron, brass, gold leaf, and other metals. More expensive and valuable materials were used on staffs for more powerful carriers. For example, in the Chokwe tribe, brass was the metal of authority, and the staffs or ornaments decorating the staffs were made from brass.

Staffs in the Congo, as pictured to the right, are speaker staffs, or linguist staffs, and are held by the speaker. First seen in Africa around 1900, staffs were given to chiefs by colonial officers to allocate representatives in the colonial government. A speaker might have several staffs with different carved images to convey the best meaning within his speech. In Ghana, staffs were made of wood and gold leaf and would generally illustrate specific proverbs such as "it is when one undertakes a worthy enterprise that one gets assistance and encouragement" (Corbin, pg 150). Some staffs were characterized by their naturalism, and the faces of the figures on the staffs would appear as realistic as possible.

Often, these ceremonial staffs would have an ancestral figure that might represent the portrait of the ancestor, or the faces might resemble the carrier. Whenever a staff was decorated with a female figure, it was generally used to show specific traits within the carrier. For instance, in a wooden staff from Angola, the expression, high forehead, and bodily ornaments revealed the positive qualities the leader might have possessed at the time he carried it. A large forehead meant wisdom, while ornaments around the figure were meant to show social achievement. Among the people of the Luba tribe, women’s bodies are considered to be carriers of spirituality and divinity, so female figures adorning the staffs are highly valuable.

The staffs pictured here are from Africa in the early part of the 20th century. While most of them are from the Congo region, some come from other countries in central Africa. Most of them are made of wood, but a few of them have brass ornaments and hence an increased value within the tribes of Africa.


2007 African Art. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Electronic Resource.

Visona, Monica B., Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, Michael D. Harris, Rowland Abiodun, and Suzanne P. Blier 2000 A History of Art in Africa. Prentiss Hall.

Corbin, George A. 1988 Native Arts of North America, Africa, and the South Pacific. Westview Press, Colorado.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (Metropolital Museum of Art)

Text by Stephanie Tanner Photos by Chiara Della Cava spring 2009

congo staff 1Congo Staff

congo staff 2Congo Staff

congo staff 3Congo Staff

congo staff 4Congo Staff

western african staffWestern African Staff

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