Untitled (Root Snake)

Media - 2016.38.82 - SAAM-2016.38.82_1 - 127022
Copied Unidentified, Untitled (Root Snake), 20th Century, painted wood, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson, 2016.38.82

Artwork Details

Untitled (Root Snake)
20th Century
2 34 × 17 58 × 29 14 in. (7.0 × 44.8 × 74.3 cm)
Credit Line
The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson
Mediums Description
painted wood
  • Object — art object — sculpture
Object Number

Artwork Description

From Africa to Haiti to the American South, snakes are powerful characters in belief and lore. Their imagery abounds in stories and art forms, from canes to toys to sculptures inspired by gnarled tree roots. Snakes live everywhere in rural America, but the fear these reptiles instill, particularly the venomous varieties that thrive in southern climates, has long been both real and symbolic.

For cultures the world over, a coiled snake is a sign of ill fate—peril awaiting unseen in the grass. In Africa and its diaspora, iron is a revered material that can activate spiritual power; the blacksmith, a master of transformation and supernatural power. While it is unknown whether the maker of the snake trivet was an African American, blacksmithing was a prominent trade skill for Black makers in the United States, both before Emancipation and after, and the symbolism embodied in both the material and act of shaping it suggests this possibility.
(We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection, 2022)