LETTERS TO MY NIECE
This is a blast from the past!
In the Spring of 1990, there was an exhibit at the African Museum in Washington, D.C. when I lived three thousand miles away in Nevada but every Tuesday, my family would pick up a copy of the previous Sunday Washington Post which, as you know, dear, has been my sort of hometown newspaper for over three decades. While the Sunday edition provided good read and emotional satisfaction, I still missed the often-good pieces from Monday through Saturday. I almost missed The Yoruba: Stripping away the masks” from the Post’s Monday, May 21, 1990 edition if not for a friend who sent a copy to me.
As the Yoruba continue to get pulled down by the scorched-earth PDP politics of hate, violence AND selling the family heirloom, and as the entire black race remains at the bottom of the ladder in almost every sphere of human development, this essay should be heartening to you and your friends. It was written by Paul Richard, a Post staff writer. Check it out from Post’s archival essays on the web because that’s where you can actually see three examples of the incredible artifacts of centuries back, including the visage of an Ife bronze head and the painstaking work on a half body terra cotta. The work of a proud people who left their world richer than they met it is a far cry from the pestilence that is fast devastating Yorubaland today.
The insatiable power grabbers who are amassing billions they supposedly will leave for descendants they know not what would befall should note, as I once warn on this page, that the Yoruba have an incredibly long collective memory and will make these children and subsequent descendants pay for the despoliation of our land and values by their forbears. That assumes that these looters will not taste of their despoliation while alive. The loots will not shield their children from whatever becomes of Yorubaland but will, at best, send them into perpetual exile which, as we all know, these people cannot stand.
Here, dear, is an edited version – for length – of the essay. I have the unedited version that I hope to scan and send someday:
“When people of importance die – in the city of Owo in Yorubaland in what is now Nigeria – they are buried ceremoniously not just once, but twice. The corpse is buried first. Then months or even years might pass before the second Ako burial, a ritual involving an effigy – a wholly naturalistic, painted life-sized statue that is meant to look alive. It is not at all abstract. It wears the clothes of the departed, his necklaces, his bracelets and the badges of his rank. The expression of its face, its pose and toes and fingers, meticulously recall the completely individual, carefully remembered look of the deceased.
Nowhere else in Africa does the sculptural tradition more mysteriously suggest the lifelike three-dimensional portraiture of Europe, yet Ako figuration owes nothing to the West. Realistic statues of extraordinary beauty were well-known in Yorubaland centuries before the first Westerners appeared.
The oldest artifacts displayed in “Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought”, the striking touring show now on view at the National Museum of African Art, are portraits of the purest sort. Each depicts an individual. You can almost see them breathe. While some are terra cotta, the largest, most impressive – cast 800 years ago – is a regal head of bronze.
Eurocentric art historians take comfort in the thought that naturalistic sculpture comes from Egypt, Greece and Rome, from the scientific West. Western art is clear, it imitates the real with wonderful fidelity, at least so runs the argument. Africa is different. Its carvings and its masks are overlaid with symbols, with figurines whose bodies are peculiarly proportioned, with creatures that are part animal, part human, with antlers and tusks. The great art of Europe is admirably perceptual (or was until Picasso, and his fellow modernists, started looking south). The traditional art of Africa is conceptual instead. Westerners, even when idealizing, depict humans as they really are. Africans can’t do that. They’re too conscious of the spirit world, and of their many gods. Africans invent.
The implication is, of course, that Africans – should they ever wish to master truly lifelike portraiture and other realistic arts – will have to turn Europe. The Yoruba exhibition takes that specious argument and turns it upside down.
Yoruba art begins with portraiture. Yoruba metalworkers were making lifelike statue long before their counterparts in the Near East and in Europe were capable of casting a life-size human figure out of molten bronze. The old imagined battle between the perceptual and the conceptual – which is better? Which came first? – dissolves in this exhibit.
The artists of Yorubaland were equally at ease with meticulous representation and conceptual abstraction, and were so from the start. Or what appears to be the start. Because African archaeology is still in its infancy, these awesome heads of bronze, of stone and terra cotta, like the painted caves of the Pyrenees, appear to have no antecedents. We cannot speak with confidence of the culture that produced them. We can only declare this: Yoruba sculpture was amazing 900 years ago, and it’s been amazing ever since.
Few contemporary cultures are capable of boasting Yoruba’s continuities. Thousand-year-old masks of stone are still worn today by young Yoruba dancers. Ancient art is honored there, as are ancient gods.
The present and the past do not battle in Yoruba art. Instead they are inseparable. Almost every object in this show seems to somehow vibrate at the boundary where then and now connect, where the mythic meets the everyday, where the always-hidden impinges on the seen.
The people of Yorubaland see the cosmos as consisting of two distinct, connected realms – aye (the tangible and visible world of living beings) and orun (its invisible companion, the ever-present Otherworld of spirits, ancestors and gods). The works of art on view are vehicles of power that help these worlds connect.
It is therefore not surprising that many of them offer images of merging – of creatures that are half beaked bird and half prawn, or half human and half fish. A woman who is wrapped around a small ceremonial vessel from the city state of Ife, the central city of Yorubaland, has a human’s feet and face, and the sinuous and flexible body of a snake. Such imagery conflates the commonplace and the magical, the apparent and the hidden.
Concealment, in various ways are crucial to Yoruba art. Yoruba kings wear beaded crowns, conical in shape in which various holy medicines are carefully secreted. “The one who wears the crown,” the catalogue informs us, “must never look within. To do so is to risk blindness.” Some of the most beautiful objects in this show are publicly displayed only on the most auspicious of occasions. One carved figureine of Esu that Hermes-like divinity, a messenger of the gods who guards boundaries and crossroads, has his attributes of power carefully concealed by a sheath. A metal saff of Oko, the deity of the farm (a staff forged out of hoes contributed by the farmers of the region) is similarly concealed by an elaborated beaded sheath.
There are objects here that call to mind Central America and Asia, Brancusi and Picasso, and the bronzes of the Renaissance. On some important level, museum exhibitions of traditional African art always leave the viewer guessing. To reveal their full power, these carved masks must be worn, these old drums, must be played, these costumes swirled by dance. Frozen in their cases, such objects, although striking, feel but half alive.
It is in its superb catalogue that the Yoruba exhibition towers over most African displays. Written by scholars Henry John drewal and John Pemberton III, with contributions from Rowland Abiodun, the volume is vastly more than a description of choice objects. Full of splendid photographs, it is also a compendium of Yoruba history, archaeology, thought and metaphysics.
Were you ever at Ife Museum while at O.A.U.? Make that long-promised trip to the African Museum in D.C. this winter when there’ll be less tourists. Even if there’s no traveling exhibit, there’s always a feast down there. And do not worry your pretty head, dear, about the supposed “hard times ahead” in Nigeria due to fall in oil prices because the average Nigerian has always been on hard times – even when oil sold for over $140: Obun r’iku oko ti’ro mo: a case of – pardon me, dear – Yar Adua’s government, like a normally dirty woman, blames her husband’s death for not bathing!
Because you’re always well, I try to think I’m well!
First posted in my column in The Nation on Sunday, November 2, 2010
The unedited scanned copy follows. TOLA, May 23, 2012.
****Well, well, well, the scanned doc is not going through. I’m sending this in and will attempt again tomorrow morning.