Esu figure in the arts of Africa gallery

Working with Esu: Context & Conservation

Part 1

Esu figure in the arts of Africa gallery

Esu figure with long necklaces of cowrie shells strung on hide straps

Figure 1: Esu Figure Before Treatment. Yoruba artist, Eshu Elegba Figure, 1900s. Wood, leather, and cowrie shells; 31 in. x 24 in. x 7 in. Denver Art Museum: Gift of Maureen and Dan Nidess, 1985.296

African woman holding an Esu figure with four faces

Image of Woman Holding an Esu Dance Vestment. Pemberton 1975

Greetings from the Martin Conservation Laboratory at the Denver Art Museum! My name is Céline Wachsmuth, and I am a graduate intern from the UCLA/Getty master’s program in the conservation of cultural heritage. At the DAM, I am expanding my knowledge and experience in objects conservation.

Earlier this year, the conservation lab was abuzz with activity in preparation for the DAM’s reopening of the arts of Africa gallery. Many incredible objects were selected for display, including one impressive figure of a Yoruba orisa named Esu (you might see the English spellings orisha or Eshu, but for this article we have chosen to use the Yoruba spelling). It’s made of a carved wooden piece, depicting the orisa kneeling and playing the flute. Around his neck are three necklaces with 16 beaded hide strands attached to the center necklace. The strands are threaded with cowrie shells, a shell from a type of sea snail that can be found incorporated into many African arts.

As impressive as this figure is, the condition issues associated with the figure were also great. Before I could begin treatment, I undertook a thorough condition report and researched more about who Esu is. Conservators have to consider not only the physical well-being of an object but also the intangible well-being. To do that I needed to understand more about Esu’s cultural context. The internet and academic papers are a good starting point for gathering information; however, I supplemented my research by reaching out to the curators of Native arts and started conversing with Adekunle Adeniji, Anderman Family Curatorial Fellow for Arts of Africa (2021–23), who shared his knowledge of Esu with me.

Esu is a Yoruba orisa commonly referred to as a trickster god. Esu is a ubiquitous figure with shrines in marketplaces and around many villages in West Africa. While not an inherently evil or malicious deity, as no Yoruba orisa is entirely bad or good, Esu can sow discord and disorder in the world and also can ensure everything is business as usual. Esu’s dual nature extends to his physical presentation, and carvings can depict him as male or female. I will refer to him using he/they pronouns as the figure in the DAM’s collection is male presenting. Esu figures also are often carved with two faces, one in front and one behind, showing their presence in both the physical and ethereal realms, a feature seen on the carving in the DAM’s collection. The photo to the right shows a woman carrying an Esu dance vestment with Esu depicted alternating as male and female.

Because of the association with tricks and dissonance, Western translations have often wrongly referred to this orisa as evil. Adekunle shared with me that when Christian missionaries first came to Africa and tried to convert African peoples to their faith, they wanted to translate the word “devil” to “Esu.” This negative connotation remains for many. In a 2016 interview published in the online magazine of African literature, Brittle Paper, orisa priestess Omítọ̀nàdé Ifáwẹ̀mímọ́ says, “This is a grave misconception of who Èṣù is in the Yoruba tradition. The Èṣù Láàlú we worship in tradition is totally different to Satan/Shaitan in their Bible or Quran. … He stands for justice and equity.”

As a powerful and influential orisa, Esu would have received many offerings during their use life (the period of time when the object was still actively used in daily/ritual settings). To honor this, I also left offerings for him while he was in the laboratory. Offerings included small shiny trinkets, coins, metal shavings, and other inert, inorganic things colleagues wished to contribute. I did not include any organic offerings, such as food or flowers, as these tend to invite unwanted guests, such as insects that like to snack not only on food and flowers, but also objects made out of things like wood and hide, like Esu is. These were all placed in a sealed glass container. I greeted Esu every morning and would say goodnight in the evenings. I put together offerings to be placed underneath his display case, collaborating with the curators and installation team to make this happen. When you go see Esu on display in the arts of Africa gallery, be sure to stop by and have a chat with them. Say “hi” for me!

Stay tuned for part two of this series detailing Esu’s conservation treatment.