Enoch Olujide Gbadegesin, Yunusa Kehinde Salami and Kola Abimbola

A collection of critical essays on Professor Segun Gbadegesin, one of the most preeminent figures in African philosophy, is by no mean an insignificant feat. This is all the more so because the volume has the objective of achieving a multidisciplinary interrogation of Gbadegesin’s philosophical oeuvre. This is a herculean task because Gbadegesin’s philosophical outputs straddles philosophy of culture, bioethics, social and political philosophy, ethics, and African philosophy. With his African Philosophy: Traditional Yorùbá Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (1991), Professor Gbadegesin effectively brought deep philosophical insights into significant issues in Africa’s postcolonial malaise. The 16-chapter volume has a sufficiently wide array of significant scholars whose different perspectives provide a wide context within which to situate the brilliant scholarship of Segun Gbadegesin. These chapters all attempted to unravel the core of Gbadegesin’s multifaceted philosophical framework. While some confronted some basic elements of his work, like chapter four (human personality), seven (work), and nine (destiny), other chapters took the thematic concerns of, say, communitarianism and ethics as the springboard for further reflections on corruption, nationalism and nation building, citizenship, religion, personhood, leadership, race, justice, gender and the nature of African philosophy. However, with this distribution of chapters, there is a cogent doubt whether the book actually does critical justice to the imperative of critically engagement with Segun Gbadegesin’s philosophical corpus.

Segun Gbadegesin, alongside Kwasi Wiredu, Paulin Hountondji, Anthony Appiah, V. Y. Mudimbe, Barry Hallen, the late Odera Oruka, Sophie Oluwole, Claude Sumner, Olusegun Oladipo, Kwame Gyekye, Peter Bodunrin Dismas Masolo, and many others, constitute the first and second generations of African philosophers that took to task the severe and several racial and colonial philosophical assumptions and ideologies that became the basis for the denigration of Africa. These philosophers were also inexorably drawn into the evolving and prolonged predicament of Africa on the cusp of postcolonial development. And since coloniality ensures that the postcolonial is really not postcolonial, then there is a continuing imperative of unraveling Africa’s future possibilities at several levels—conceptual, empirical, ideological— through a deep understanding of her dilemma of self-definition and development. Gbadegesin’s adoption of bioethics as an area of interest, for instance, outlines a philosophical interest in a significant and unfolding dimension of the logic of science and technology which have been denoted as being inevitable to Africa’s being in a modern and globalizing world. But since this is so, Gbadegesin would seem to reason, then Africa cannot afford to arrive at a technological modernity with it guard down. And his philosophical strategy, also adopted by most African philosophers, is to dig deep into indigenous philosophical insights and cultural dynamics as a counterpoint to understanding the offerings of compromised globalization. Gbadegesin’s intellectual forte is the Yorùbá culture and its deep and complex philosophical understanding of the cosmos, the society and the human person.

But apart from juxtaposing the indigenous Yorùbá philosophical insights and problematics to the understanding of philosophical problems and fundamentals, Gbadegesin and other African philosophers are also caught in an ongoing discourse about the recovery of African agency and the reinvention of the continent, caught within the complexities of modern and global exigencies. One way of rendering this postcolonial problematic is as an individual-community relationship. And this often betrays a fundamental misrepresentation, especially of the precolonial African societies, that has unfortunately been re-presented in this new volume. This false juxtaposition, what Appadurai calls “metonymic freezing”, seems to place a monolithic “Africa” that is essentially communal to a monolithic “West” which is individualistic, without any critical attempts at complicating or unraveling the historicity of individual-community dynamics within these two contexts. Within this context, therefore, it was easy for Enoch Gbadegesin, in outlining Gbadegesin’s interrogation of Western healthcare system, to write in the Introduction: “Gbadegesin balances up his argument by pointing to the possibility and desirability of reconciling the concept of autonomy with the Yorùbá practice of community in healthcare contexts, through a modification of the requirements of the former. That is, the Yorùbá social practice of community can accommodate a slight modification of the requirement of autonomy in its ethics of healthcare. Thus provided the individual patient is autonomously not against the involvement of family members or even faith groups in reflecting and taking decisions about a course of treatment, we can aver that the autonomy of the patient is not compromised. By the same token the wellbeing or flourishing of that patient is not negatively impacted when such members are involved” (4). It would also seem to me that at some uncritical ontological level, the ubuntu philosophy also shares in this romanticization of the African communal spirit.

In a recent essay (Afolayan, 2017), I alluded to the tension even in Gbadegesin’s understanding of the individual-community relationship. What is called “extreme communitarianism” seems outrightly wrong because it totally excludes individual agency from communal dynamics. It does not seem to depict any coherent sense of the working of socialization and inter-group dynamics in any society. Individual retains agency which could be deployed in some creative, and even surreptitious, ways no matter how harsh and relentless the communal imperatives are.

The task of African philosophy in this regard should not be deemed to be a celebratory approbation of all things African without a keen eye to their complexity and complicated trajectory in a global world. Globalization by its very conceptual nature introduces several ideological and intellectual complexities that challenge the postcolonial mandate of the African philosophers to rethink and reinvent their conceptual repertoire for rescuing the continent. The individual-community relational dynamics stands right in the midst of the ongoing scholarship in Africa to excavate the proper understanding of the African subject. For instance, the idea of Afropolitanism cuts right to the core of who can be regarded as an African in a global world of consumerist capitalism, migrational flux, and diffused cultural influences. African philosophy must necessarily continue to evolve as a worldly philosophical framework with the capacity to hold African and global lifeworlds to intense critique, for the sake of Africa’s being in the world.

Adeshina Afolayan
Department of Philosophy
University of Ibadan


Afolayan, Adeshina (2017), “From the Cosmos to the Society: World as/and
Philosophy,” in Toyin Falola and Akintunde Akinyemi (eds.) Culture and Custom of the Yorùbá (Austin, Texas: Pan-African University Press), 877-889.
Gbadegesin, Segun (1991), African Philosophy: Traditional Yorùbá Philosophy
and Contemporary African Realities (New York: Peter Lang).

Cambridge University Press, New York, 2014, 386p. Four essays presented
at a Roundtable on the book during 2016 African Studies Association
(ASA) conference.

Ẹlẹ́nu Rírì ati Àmù Ìyá Rẹ̀.1

Mọyọ̀ṣọ́rẹ Òkédìjí
University of Texas, Austin

Ar̀ òko ̣ yi ̀i ́ sẹ aỳ eẁ ̣ ò i ̀di ́ abájo ̣ ti ́ ọ̀ro,̀ ̣ er̀ ò at̀ i ́ i s̀ ẹ Ẹ̀èbó fi mú oṃ ú laý à aẁ oṇ oluẁ ádi ̌ at̀ i ọ̀moẁ ̣ e ́ iṣẹ-́ ọnà aláwọ ̀ dúdu ́ ju as̀ ạ ̀ adúlaẃ ọ̀ lo,̣ niẃ ọ̀n ig̀ ba ̀ ti ́ eḷé ̣nu riŕ i ̀ ló ni aà m̀ ù i ỳ á rẹ̀.2 Kaỳ eé fí ̀ yi ̀i ́ ni ó sẹ Ọ̀ jọ̀gbó ̣n ag̀ bà Rowland Abió ́ ̣ duń ti ́ wó ̣n fi oju ́ suǹ nùkuǹ wo ọ̀rọ̀ suǹ nùkuǹ lat́ i ko ̣ iẁ e ́ i ̀jiŕ or̀ o ̀ niṕ a àkójo,̣ àkoś o ̣ at̀ i iruẃ á èdè li ́lò niń ú iṣẹ-́ ọnà aẁ oṇ adúlaẃ o,̀ ̣ paà ṕ aà ́ jùlo ̣ iṣẹ-́ ọnà aẁ oṇ Kaá à ŕ o-̀ ̣ o-o-̀ ji ́ire. Kóko ́ or̀ ̣ ọ̀ ti ́ o ́ jeỵ o ̣ niń u ́ iẁ e ́ Bàba ́ Abió ́ ̣ duń , lé ̣ hiǹ iẁ ádi ̌ ti ́ wó ̣n sẹ fuń ǹkan aà ́dó ̣ta oḍ uń , ni wi ́ pe ́ o ́ sẹ pat̀ àki ̀ lat́ i niŕ an aẁ oṇ i ̀jiǹ lẹ̀ ọ̀rọ̀ ti ́ o ́ jẹ́ iyèkan at̀ i oṃ o ̣ i ỳ a ́ isẹ ́ oṇ a ̀ aẁ oṇ Yorùba ́ niǵ bat̀ i ́ a ba ́ n ́ peri ́ aẁ on isẹ ́ oṇ a ̀ is̀ ẹ̀ǹbaý e ́ woǹ ̣ yi.́ Ar̀ òko ̣ sékéle ́ yi ̀i ́ jiŕ or̀ o ̀ wí pé ́ akólòlo ̀ i r̀ an Yorùbá ti ń pe baba lat́ i oj̣ ó ̣ alaý é ti daý e.́ Ig̀ bà wo ni, at̀ i eè ś e ti ́ woṇ wa ́ bẹ̀rẹ̀ as̀ ạ ̀kasạ ̀ lat́ i maá fi oẉ ó ̣ os̀ i ̀ juẃ e iṣẹ-́ ọnà ilẹ̀ Kaá à ŕ o-̀ ̣ o-o-̀ ji ́ire? Ǹjé ̣ o ́ dájú wi ́ pé aẁ oṇ Yorùbá ni ́ as̀ ạ ̀lò eẉ à èdè tó sẹ̀ lé ̣ńké ̣ jọ̀ fuń aỳ eẁ ̣ ò iṣẹ-́ ọnà wọǹ yí ni ́ ẹ̀kuń ré ̣ré ̣? Bi ́ ó bá jé ̣ beé ̣̣̀, emi ni aẁ oṇ ojúloẃ ó eẉ à èdè woṇ yi ?́ Baẃ o ni a sẹ lè mú woṇ lo?̀ Ǹjé ̣ a tilẹ̀ lè ko ̣ igilango ̣ Yorùbá si ́lẹ̀ ni ́ ọ̀nà ti ́ ó kuń ojú iẁ ọ̀n, ni ́ ẹ̀ kuń ré ̣ré ̣ at̀ i ni ́ ohuǹ ti ́ ó fa og̣ boń ̣ yo ̣ fuń ag̀ beý ẹ̀wò aẁ oṇ isẹ ́ ̣ oṇ a ̀ ti ́ o ́ gbaḿ uś ẹ ́ wọ̀nyi ?́ Ki ́ ni er̀ o ̀ aẁ oṇ ag̀ ba ̀ oniś ẹ ̣ oṇ a ̀ bi ́i Bàba ́ Lam̀ i ́di ̀ Fákéỵ e ̣ niṕ a àbá ki ́ á maá fi as̀ ạ at̀ i er̀ ò Eè ̀bó sẹ àkaẁ é at̀ i àlaỳ é iṣẹ-́ ọnà aẁ oṇ Yorùba?́ Ǹjé ̣ ó bà ni àbi ́ ó ti bàjé ̣ tań porongodo, ti ́ asọ ̣̀ ò si ̀ le ̀ ba ́ Oṃ ó ̣ye ̣ mo?́ ̣ Iẁ oǹ ̣ yi ̌ ni iẁ ọ̀nba kóko ́ dié ̣̀ niń u ́ i ̀fomi-jomi-tooro-ọ̀rọ̀ ti ́ ó jeỵ o ̣ niń ú ar̀ òko ̣ yi ̀i ́ niṕ a pabambari ̀ ọ̀rọ̀ ti ́ Baba Abió ́ ̣ duń sọ̀ kalẹ̀ niń ú iẁ é tuntun yi ̀i.́

Iẁ e ́ ti ́ Ọ̀jọg̀ bọń Rowland Abió ḍ uń ko ̣ ni a ̀ ba ́ pe ̀ ni ́ Eḷé ̣nu Riŕ i ̀ lo ́ Laà m̀ u ̀ Iỳ á a Rẹ̀.3 Kaỳ eé fí ̀ ni ó jé ̣ wí pé´ èdè gẹ̀eś ̣ i,̀ faransé ati potoki ́ feé ̣ ́ ̣ dó ̣gbó ̣n fi èdè woṇ gba iṣẹ-́ ọnà aẁ a alaẃ ọ̀ dúdú ló ̣wó ̣ wa. Bi ́ kò bá si ̀ ni ́ i ̀di,́ obiǹ – rin ki ̀ i ́ jé ̣ Kuḿ ólu.́ Ohun tó sẹ ilá ti ́lá fi ko,́ où n ló sẹ ikaǹ tó fi wẹ̀wù ẹ̀ je.̀ ̣ Ohun tó dé ti ́ ó fi jé ̣ wi ́ pé èdè Gẹ̀é ̣si ̀ at̀ i èdè aẁ oṇ alaẃ ò ̣ funfun ni a fí ń tuḿ ọ̀ iṣẹ-́ ọnà aẁ a Kaá à ŕ ó ̣-o-o-̀ ji ́ire, at̀ i iṣẹ-́ ọnà aẁ oṇ eè ỳ aǹ dúdú yòókù ni ́ ilẹ̀̀ Afí ŕ i ́kà ni ́ i ̀di.́ Dié ̣̀ niń ú aẁ oṇ i ̀di ́ wọ̀nyi ̀i ́ ni mo fé ̣ mé ̣nu bà ni ́ sọ ́ki ́ niń ú àpilẹ̀kọ yi ̀i.́
Kì í kúku ́ sẹ wi ́ pe ́ aẁ a Yorùba ́ kì í tàkurọ̀so ̣ niṕ a iṣẹ-́ ọnà at̀ i aẁ or̀ ań yi ý a ̀ ki ́ o ́ toó ́ di wí pé ́ aẁ oṇ eè ̀bo ́ de ́ si ́ ori ́lè ̣ ède ̀ wa. Am̀ ó ̣ lat́ i ig̀ ba ̀ ti ́ wó ̣n ti de,́ at̀ ip̀ a ́ at̀ i ̀kuú ̀ku ̀ ni eè ̀bo ́ fi ́ fé ̣ fi ède ̀ gba àkàtà ló ̣wó ̣ aki t́ i.̀ Bi ́ a ba ́ ti ibi is̀ ạ ń a ́ ki ý e ̀ sọ ó g̀ uǹ , a o ́ ri ́ i dáju ́ wí pé ́ ède ̀ eè ̀bo ́ o ̀ sẹ e ́ ronu ́ láis̀ ì ̣na,̀ tàbi ́ ja ́ si ́ kot̀ o,̀ tàbi ́ ká koḷu gegele, bi ́ a bá fé ̣ so ̣ ot̀ i t́ ọ́ or̀ ̣ ọ̀ lórí as̀ ạ ̀ at̀ i iṣẹ-́ ọnà àwọn Yoruba. Gé ̣gé ̣ bi ́ ohuǹ ti ́ Baba Awiś ẹ ̣Wań de ́ Abiḿ boĺ ̣a ́ kó ̣ wa niǵ ba ̀ reẁ ereẁ e, wó ̣n ni, “Ohun ti ́ o ́ ba ́ jo ̣ ara ni a ̀ a ́ fii ́ weŕ a; eè p̀ o ẹ̀pa ̀ o ́ jo ̣ poś i ́ el̀ ̣iŕ i.́”4 Eè ̀bo ́ siś o ̣ ni ́ gbeṛ ef̣ u ò sẹ é tú àdi ̀i t̀ ú ọ̀rọ̀ ti ́ a ta ni ́ kóko,́ ti ́ aẁ oṇ oḷó ̣nà di ̀ bi ́i isụ aǹ a siń u ́ isẹ́ ̣ oẉ ó ̣, isẹ́ ̣ oju,́ at̀ i isẹ́ ̣e ̣ laà ́kaỳ e,̀ ti ́ a n ́ pe ̀ ni ́ oṇ a ̀ ni ́ èdeè Yorùba.́ Ti ́ a o ̀ bá ni ́i ́ tan ara wa je,̣ kò si ́ bi ́ a sẹ lè so ̣ ọ̀rọ̀ kó pọ̀ to,́ kò ni ́i ́ kuń inú agbọǹ . Kò si ́ bi ́ a sẹ lè fi èdè eè ̀bó sẹ ap̀ èjuẃ e at̀ i ar̀ òfò ̣ ti ́ ó lè muń á dóko fuń aǹ -̀ faà ǹ i ́ i t̀ umọ̀ oṇ à aẁ oṇ Yorùba.

Bàbá Lam̀ i ́di ̀ Oḷoń àdé Fáké ̣yé ̣, ki ́ Olódum̀ arè ó deḷẹ̀ fuń woṇ , ni woń ̣
so ̣ or̀ ̣ ọ̀ i ̀jiǹ lẹ̀ kan niǵ bà ti ́ a ń dá woṇ ló ̣ lá pẹ̀ lú iẁ é kan ti ́ mo sẹ oloó t̀ ú rẹ̀ ni oḍ uń 1988.5 Bàbá Fáké ̣ye ̣ wo iẁ é yi ̀i ́ niǵ bà ti ́ mo gbé e fuń woṇ yeẁ ̣ o,̀ wó ̣n ré ̣ri ̀iń . Mo ni ́ kí ló de,́ baba? Baba ni, “Moỵ ọ̀, ọ̀rọ̀ at̀ at̀ a ̀ bi ́ is̀ ọ ḳ uś ọ .̣ Ẹ̀yin alákọ̀we,́ e ̣ roṛ a maá puró ̣ ojúkoroju.́” Mo ni,́ “Baba, ki ́ le ̣ ri ?́ ” Baba dáhuǹ , wó ̣n ni,́ “Eè t́ ijé ̣ Moỵ ọ̀! Gbà raǹ mi ́ ti ṣe wá deḷ é ̣ru.̀ Jé ̣ jé ̣ ni mo gbég̣ ii ̀ ni ́ op̀ oḿ úleŕ ó moj̣ a àlekaǹ . Ta ni ́ wa mọ̀ wí pé ́ eè ̀bó rep̣ eṭe ̣ baý i ̀i ́ ń bé ̣ niń ú igi ose!̀ Am̀ ó ̣ sa,́ gbé ̣nag̀ bé ̣na ̀ ti gbé ̣ igi tań o. O ́ ku ti gbeń ̣ ugbé ̣nu.” Mo dáhuǹ , mo ni,́ “Àki ́i ̀ka,̀ baba.” Baba Fáké ̣ye ̣ waá ́ sị ́ iẁ é oẉ ó ̣ woṇ , wó ̣n ni,́ “Ki ́ ni gbogbo eè ̀bó gbeṛ ef̣ u tó ̣ o ̣ waá ́ ko ̣ kalè ̣ yi ̀i ́ fi jo ̣ iṣẹ-́ ọnà ti ́ mo gbé ̣?” Mo ni,́ “Baba, o ́ kúku ́ joṛ a, lójuú tem̀ i o.” Baba ́ ré ̣ri ̀iń keè -́ keè .́ Baba ́ ni,́ “Ṣe ́ gbogbo eè ̀bo ̀ inu ́ iẁ e ́ yi ̀i ́ sẹ e ́ tuḿ ọ̀ si ́ ède ̀ Yoruba?” N o ̀ ronu ́ lé ̣ẹ̀meji ̀ ti ́ mo fi foḥ uǹ wi ́ pe,́ “Aẃ u,̀ sẹ bi ́ ki ́ wó ̣n kaǹ tuḿ ọ̀ rẹ̀ laś ań lat́ i èdè Oỳ iǹ bó si ́ Yorùbá ni.” Baba ni,́ “Moỵ ọ̀, kò ri ́ bé ̣è.̣ Èdè eè ̀bó kọ̀ jo ̣ Yoòbá o. Bi ́ eè ̀bó bá sẹ é poẁ e, sẹ ́ ó sẹ é pof̣ọ̀? Bi ́ eṇ a,̀ bi ́ og̀ ède,̀ bi ́ aỳ ájó ̣, bi ́ i er̀ em̀ ọ̀ jé ńko,̣ sẹ ́ e ̣ lè fi eè ̀bó ki ori ́ki ̀ i ̀di ́le?́ ” Mo dáhuǹ , mo ni,́ “O ́ kúku ́ sẹ e ́ sẹ , baba. Ni ́ Amé ̣ri ́ka,̀ wó ̣n ti ń fi Oỳ iǹ bó dáfa.́” Baba Fákéỵ e ̣ ni,́ “Bó bá ri ́ bé ̣e,̀ ̣ ki ́ ni “Ilẹ̀e ̣ kaá à ŕ ọ̀, o ò ji ́ire” ni ́ èdeè eè ̀bo?́ ”

Ig̀ bá yi ̀i ́ ni mo tó mò ̣ ibi ti ́ baba ń lo,̣ láim̀ o ̣ ibi ti ́ babá ti ń bò.̣
Bi ́ ède ̀ Yorùba ́ o ̀ ti le ̀ parada ̀ loó r̀ o ́ di ́ eè ̀bo,́ bé ̣ẹ̀ naá ̀ ni eè ̀bo ́ o ̀ lee ̀ parada ̀ di Yorùba.́ Bi ́ a bá ni ́ ká dań an wo,̀ a ò ni ́ ri ́ eeǵ uń mọ̀, mor̀ ̣ iẁ ò laś ań ni araǹ ojú ó maá je.̣ Èkiń i ́ ni wi ́ pé èdè at̀ i as̀ ạ ̀ Yorùba,́ Taý é at̀ i Ké ̣ hiǹ dé ni wó ̣n jé ̣. Bi ́ ọ̀̀kań bá ti yẹ̀ba,́ er̀ e i ̀beji ̀ ni ó ku,̀ èjìrẹ́ ará Is̀ ọ kuǹ ti relé ojú oḷó ̣mo ̣ ò tó o. Gé ̣gé ̣ bi ́ Baba Fáké ̣ye ̣ ti wi,́ eṇ i ́ bá ń fi èdè eè ̀bó tuḿ ọ̀ oṇ à Yorùba,́ ó ti ya Taý é kuŕ ò ló ̣ dọ̀ Oṃ ó ̣ ké ̣ hiǹ de.́ At̀ amó ̣ mó ̣ at̀ amọ̀ ni ó ku,̀ afì bi ́ Baba Fáké ̣ye ̣ bá jé ̣ ọ̀gbẹ̀ri ̀ niṕ a iṣẹ-́ ọnà aẁ oṇ Yorùba.́ Èkeji ̀ ni wi ́ pe,́ gbogbo èdè ni ó ni ́ i ̀di ́ àbájo ̣ ti ́ ó yat̀ ò ̣ si ́ ara a woṇ , ti ́ og̀ bẹ̀ri ̀ ò mo.̀ ̣ I ̀di ́ abájo ̣ ède ́ da ̀ bi ́ oò g̀ uǹ ti ́ oṃ oḍ e ́ ri ́ ti ́ o ́ wa ́ n ́ pe ̀ ni ́ ef̀ ̣ó ̣. Bi ́ a fi ewe ́ ède ̀ han àlejo,̀ a o ̀ gboḍ ọ̀ ja ́ a le ́ e ló ̣wó ̣; a si ̀ lee ̀ ja ́ a le ́ e ló ̣wó ̣, ki ́ a ́ mó ̣ so ̣ oó ̣ ko ̣ ti ́ n ́ jé ̣ fuń un. Adi ́fa ́ fuń ag̀ bè ̣ to ́ lóko, ti ́ o ̀ ló ̣ kó;̣ bi ́ oko ́ ba ́ kuń ńko,̣ kiń i ag̀ bẹ̀ yió ̀ fi ro o?́ Ni t́ ori ́i kiń i ?́ Ni t́ ori ́i lé ̣na,̀ lé ̣na,̀ là ń fo ̣ èdè Yorùba,́ gég̣ é ̣ bi ́ Baba Abió ́ ̣ duń ti wi ́ niń ú iẁ é yi ̀i.́ Baba Abió ́ ̣ duń ni ́ eṇ à lo paradà tó doṇ a;̀ oṇ à naá ̀ tuń wá pawó ̣ da,̀ ó deṇ a,̀ ó di or̀ ̣ ọ̀ huǹ -nu-̀ huǹ -nu.̀

Ki ́ ni eṇ à ti ́ ń be ̣ niń ú èdè Geè ̣́ ̣si ?̀ Ri ̀ki ś i ́ ni. Alaǵ bẹ̀de ̣ èdeè Gẹ̀é ̣si ̀ ò ri ́ bébà oṇ à Yorùba ro.̣ Bi ́ eǹ i ỳ aǹ bá ti ber̀ ̣ è ̣ si ́ ni ́i ́ so ̣ èdè Gẹ̀é ̣si,̀ oluẃ a rẹ̀ ti kó siń ú pańpé ̣. E ̣ jé ̣ ki ́ á ti ibi peḷeḅ e ̣ mú ọ̀ọ̀ lẹ̀ je,̣ ká ti ibi i s̀ ạ ń á ki ý è si ́ oò g̀ uǹ . Kiń i i t̀ umọ̀ “art” ni ́ ède ̀ Yorùba?́ I ̀beé r̀ e ̀ sákála ́ yi ̀i ́ ko ̀ keŕ eḿ i ́ raŕ a.́ Ni ́ àkó ̣ kó ̣, i ̀beé r̀ è yi ̀i ́ dàbi ́i ig̀ bà ti ́ eǹ i ỳ aǹ ń fi eṛ an jẹ̀ko.̣ A lè wí pé ́ “oṇ a”̀ ni i t̀ umọ̀ “art” ni ́ Yorùba.́ Am̀ ó ̣ ti ́ a bá fi laà ́kaỳ è wo i ̀beé r̀ è naá ,̀ a ó ri ́ i wi pé inú pam̄pé ̣ ni i ̀beé r̀ è yi ̀ i ́ ti ni si.́ Ki ̀ i ́ sẹ i ̀beé r̀ è ti ́ ó waý é raŕ a,́ ni t́ ori ́ i ̀beé r̀ è ẹ̀de ̣ ni. I ̀dáhuǹ ti ́ ó ye ̣ i ̀beé r̀ è ed̀ ̣ e ̣ beé ̣̣̀ ni ỳ i ́i :́ ki ́ ni i ̀di ́ ti ́ aẁ oṇ Yorùbá fi ni ́ lat́ i ni ́ i t̀ umọ̀ fuń “art?” Ǹjé ̣ eṇ iké ̣ni ti bi aẁ oṇ Geẹ ś ̣ i ̀ ri ́ wi ́ pé ki ́ ni i t̀ umọ̀ “Ig̀ unnu” ni ́ èdè Oỳ iǹ bo?́ Bi ́ a bá ti bi ni wi ́ pé ki ́ ni i t̀ um̀ ọ̀ “art” ni ́ èdè Yorùba,́ ó di wí pé ́ ki ́ á wá maá fi oẉ ó ̣ hoṛ i,́ ki ́ á má a wòke,̀ ki ́ á má a làkàka,̀ ni t́ ori ́ pé ó dàbi ́ ig̀ bà ti ́ ó di dandan ki ́ aẁ oṇ Yorùbá ni ́ i t̀ umò ̣ fun “art” ni ́ èdè abiń ibi ́i woṇ . Am̀ ó ̣, tani ó sẹ ofì n yi ̀i ́ wí pé ́ gbogbo as̀ ạ ̀kasạ ̀ ti ́ aẁ oṇ Geè ̣ ś ̣ i ̀ bá ti dá ni ́ im̀ ọ̀raǹ , aẁ oṇ Yorùbá ni ́ lat́ i ni ́ i t̀ umọ̀ fuń , niẃ ọ̀n ig̀ bà ti ́ ó jé ̣ wí pé ́ eṇ i ̀kan ki ̀ i ́ ka irú eḅ o ̣ bé ̣ ẹ̀ fuń aẁ oṇ eè ̀bo?̀

Ohun ti ́ ó fa irúfé ̣ i r̀ oǹ ú eleý i ̀i ́ ni wí pé ́ aẁ oṇ eè ̀bò koḷoṇ ái s̀ i ̀ aẁ oṇ Yorùba.́ Mo moò ̣́ ̣mọ̀ lo “koḷoṇ áis̀ i ”̀ ni.6 Kiń i ́ n ́ jé ̣ “koḷoṇ áis̀ i ”̀ ni ́ ed̀ e ̀ Yorùba?́ Iró ̣ funfun ni o ́ wa ̀ ni ́ i ̀di ́ ọ̀rọ̀ naá .̀ Kóko ́ inu ́ ọ̀rọ̀ ti ́ a ̀ n ́ pe ̀ ni ́ “koḷoṇ áis̀ i ”̀ ni “kó ̣ ló ̣ni.̀” Aẁ oṇ eè ̀bo ́ wa ́ si ́ oko bàbá mi, wó ̣n so ̣ ó ̣ di “kó ̣ ló ̣ni ̀i” woṇ . O ́ dàbi ́ ig̀ bà ti ́ mo bá wo eẁ ̣ ù ti ́ e ̣ wọ̀ soŕ ̣ uǹ baý i ̌, ti ́ mo wí pé ́ “Ewuu Moỵ ọ̀ ni ỳ i ̌.” Nś ẹ ni e ̣ ó wò mi ́ ti ỳ anu-ti ỳ anu, ti ́ e ̣ ó so ̣ wí pé,́ “Àbi ́ o ti mu sẹ̣̀kẹ̀té ̣ yó ni Moỵ ọ̀sọ́ ̣re?̣ ” Sụ g̀ boń ni t́ ori ́ wi ́ pé èdeè Gẹ̀é ̣si ̀ ni eè ̀bó lo,̀ ti ́ wó ̣n pe ilé baba wa ni ́ “koĺ ̣ó ̣ni,̀ ” ọ̀rọ̀ naá ̀ ò yé wa wí pé ́ ilé baba wa ki ̀ i ́ sẹ koĺ ̣ó ̣ni ̀ baba ńlá woṇ . Am̀ ó ̣ tori ́ wi ́ pe ́ giŕ aḿ ọ̀ Geè ̣́ ̣si ̀ ni wó ̣n n ́ so,̣ kọ̀ pé ̣ ko ̀ jiǹ na,̀ ti ́ wó ̣n fi di “koḷoṇ áiś a”̀ ti ́ ń sẹ “koḷoṇ aiś eś aǹ ,” ti ́ aẁ a eṛ ú Oḷó ̣run naá ̀ si ̀ di er̀ ò ti ́ wó ̣n “koḷoṇ áis̀ i.̀” Aẁ oṇ akoẁ ̣ eé wa si ̀ ti ber̀ ̣ ẹ̀ si ́ ni ́i ́ ko ̣ iẁ é loŕ i ́i “positi-kòloń i á ́ sitoḍ i.̀”7 Or̀ ̣ ọ̀ naá ̀ wá di i t̀ aǹ ài t̀ et̀ em̀ óle,̀ olè ń sá lo!̣ Lat́ i i ̀bẹ̀rẹ̀ ni ó ye ̣ ki ́ á ti ́ so ̣ fuń eè ̀bó wi ́ pe,́ “Alag̀ ba,̀ sẹ ́ kì í sẹ wí pé ́ e ̣ mu sig̀ aá kùkuý e?̀ Ilé baba tem̀ i ki ̀ i ́ sẹ ‘kó ̣ ló ̣ni ’̀ re ̣ oò .” Gbogbo em̀ i ni “positi-kòloń iá ́ sitoḍ i ”̀ o ̀ tilẹ̀ ni ́i ́ waý e,́ tàbi ́ ki ́ o ́ ni ́ i t̀ umọ̀ kankan. Ède ̀ oỳ iǹ bo ́ ni o ́ da ́ “koĺ ̣ó ̣ni ”̀ si ́lè ̣ ni ́bi ti ́ ko ̀ si ́ ǹkan ti ́ o ́ n ́ jé ̣ bé ̣è.̣ Où n naá ̀ ni o ́ si ̀ fa wi ́ pe ́ a wa ́ a ́ bẹ̀rẹ̀ si ́ i ́ sẹ “positikòloń iá ́ sitoḍ i” ̀ lój̣ ó ̣ oǹ i.́ Iró ̣ ni ́ n ́ jé ̣ beẹ́ ̣ .̀ Sụ g̀ bó ̣n iró ̣ yi ̀i ́ yóò jo ̣ oò t́ o ́ bi ́ a ba ́ ń fi èdè Oỳ iǹ bó ronu.́ I ̀di ́ rè é ti ́ oṃ o ̣ Yorùbá kò gboḍ ọ̀ maá fi èdè eè ́bó ronu,́ ti ́ ò bá fé ̣ kó si ́ kot̀ o.̀ Ar̀ osó ̣ dọ̀ ni oḳ ó ̣ èdè Oỳ iǹ bó ń roko.
Oniŕ uú ruú ri ̀kiś i ́ at̀ i ar̀ osó ̣ dọ̀ ni eè ́bo ́ ti fi oḳ ó ̣ ède ̀ woṇ ro ni ́ ilẹ̀ Afirika. Wó ̣n kó ̣ kó ̣ wo ̀ iṣẹ-́ ọnà Afí ŕ i ́ka ̀ suǹ -uǹ , wó ̣n bẹ̀rẹ̀ peḷu “pir̀ im̀ i t́ i ́fu ́ art.” Wó ̣n kọ̀wé lo ̣ jań t̀ i ̀ reṛ e ̣ loŕ i ́i “pi r̀ im̀ i ́ti ́fú art.” Paul S. Wingert (ni ́ 1962)8 ati Douglas Newton (ni ́ 1978)9 ko ̣ iẁ é bam̀ ̀ba-̀ bamba lat́ i wi ́ pé “pi r̀ im̀ i t́ i ́fú art” ni aẁ a eǹ i ỳ aǹ -an Afí ŕ i ́kà ń sẹ ; láip̀ é ̣ woń ni ́ ìwà i ̀kà ni aẁ ó ̣n ń hù bi ́ aẁ oń ̣ bá ń pe isẹ́ ̣ Afí ŕ i ́kà ni “pi r̀ im̀ i t́ i ́fú art,” at̀ i wi ́ pé “ti ŕ ái ́báli ́ art” ni aẁ oṇ yió ̀ má a pè e.́ Láip̀ é ̣ yi ̀i ́ ni Jean-Baptiste Bacquart sẹ iẁ é alaŕ àbarà loŕ i ́i piṕ e iṣẹ-́ ọnàa Afí ŕ i ́kà ni ́ “ti ŕ ái ́báli ́ art,” ti ́ ó fi ok̀ ̣ é ̣ àim̀ ọye aẁ or̀ ań sẹ loś ̣ ọ ̣̀ó ̣.10 Am̀ ó ̣ kè è sú woṇ o! Wó ̣n tuń wò lo ̣ sàkuǹ , wó ̣n ni ́ aẁ oṇ ó ber̀ ̣ ẹ̀ si ́ maá pe isẹ́ ̣ Afí ŕ i ́kà ni “tiradi ś ạ ń ná art.” Alag̀ bà John Picton, ni ́ oḍ uń -un 1992,11 sẹ òp̣ ọ̀ lop̣ ọ̀ àlaỳ é wi ́ pé kò bójú mu lat́ i pe iṣẹ-́ ọnà Afí ŕ i ́kà ni ́ tiradi ś ạ ń ná art. Am̀ ó ̣ bi ́ araý é bá gbó,̣ woṇ ò gba.̀ Woṇ ò yeé ́ pe isẹ́ ̣ Afí ŕ i ́kà ni ́ tiradi ś ạ ń ná art. Eè ̀bó mi ̀i ŕ aǹ a pè isẹ́ ̣ Afí ŕ i ́kà ni ́ i s̀ i t̀ oŕ i ́ká art. Tàbi ́ ki ́laś i ́ká art. Ọr̀ ọ̀ ̣ oóko ̣ ti ́ wó ̣n ó maá pe isẹ́ ̣ Afí ŕ i ́kà ti waá ́ dar̀ ú bi ́ eṣ ẹ̀e ̣ télọ̀. Kò tilè ̣ yé aẁ oṇ eè ̀bó mó;̣ bi ́ ó sẹ wu koẃ ȧ ni kálukú ti ń sẹ . Asọ ̣ ò bá oṃ ó ̣ye ̣ woṇ mó ̣. Ó ti rin i ̀hòhò woj̣ a.̀

Ohun tó sẹ ni ni ́ kaỳ efí ̀ ni wi ́ pé aẁ oṇ ọ̀mọ̀wé ilẹ̀ Afí ŕ i ́kà naa ti wá ń fi oḳ ó ̣ èdè geè ̣́ ̣si ̀ roko si ́ ọ̀dọ̀ aẁ oṇ Oỳ iǹ bo;́ wó ̣n so ̣ oḳ ó ̣o tiwoṇ si ǵ bo,́ won ò lè dá inú rò mo.́ ̣ Bi ́ eè ̀bó bá ti wi ́ naá ̀ ni ó té ̣ wọn ló ̣ruǹ . Bi ́ eè ̀bó bá ni ́ “Jókòó,” woṇ a jókòó; “di ̀de,” woṇ á di ̀de, “loś òó,” woṇ á loś òó. Sẹ bi ́ èdè eè ̀bó ni wó ̣n ń so;̣ as̀ ạ ̀ eè ̀bó ni woń ̣ ń da.́ Eléduà ̀ má so ̣ wá di ajá eè ̀bo.́ Kò pé ̣ kò jiǹ na,̀ eè ̀bó tuń wi ́ pé abala kan ni ń ú aẁ oṇ ayaẁ or̀ ań ilẹ̀e ̣ Afí ŕ i ́kà yat̀ ọ̀ pat́ aṕ at́ á si ́ aẁ oṇ ti ́ aẁ ó ̣n so ̣ ni “tiradiś ạ ń na,̀” ni t́ ori ́ pé aẁ oń ̣abala ti ́ aẁ ó ̣n ya ̀ só ̣tọ̀ yi ̀i ́ lo ̣ si ́ ile ́ ẹ̀kó ̣ i ỳ aẁ or̀ ań . Sẹ ́ ogunlóg̣ oọ ̣ eè ̀bo ́ o ̀ kúku ́ gbà pé aẁ oṇ ti ́ wó ̣n kà kuń tiradi ś ạ ń ná lo ̣ si ́ ilé ẹ̀ kó ̣ i ỳ aẁ or̀ ań . Eè ̀bó bá bẹ̀rè ̣ si ́ i ́ tuń pe abala yi ̀i ́ ni ́ kọ̀nt̀ é ̣mṕ oŕ aŕ i.̀ Bi ́ ó bá wù wó ̣n, woṇ a tuń pe abala yi ̀i ́ ni ́ mó ̣ daá ǹ i ̀ (modern). Woṇ a fo ̣ eè ̀bo ti t́ i ́ bi ́ ọ̀peé ̣̣̀rẹ̀, lái ̀ mú iná dóko.

Ki ̀ i ́ kúku ́ sẹ wi ́ pe ́ iẁ a ̀ i ̀ka ̀ ni ̀kan ni i ̀di ́ abájo ̣ ti ́ ọ̀pọ̀ lop̣ o ̀ aẁ oṇ Eè ̀bo ́ fi ń dá àbá a gbar̀ anm̀ i ́ deḷeŕ ̣ u.̀ Ogunlóg̣ ò ̣ ig̀ ba,̀ bi ́ aà ý á bá ni ́ ki ́ où ń tuń ojú oṃ o ̣ sẹ , i ̀ka ni ́i ́ ti ̀ bọ̀ ó ̣, ti ́ ojú yóò wá di yi ý ẹ̀. Ó mú mi ni ŕ an ikú ọ̀mọ̀wé John Pemberton III, eṇ i ti ́ ó sạ láis̀ i ́ láip̀ e.́ ̣ Mo sẹ alábàápàdé woṇ ni ́ Ilé Ifè ̣ ni 1984, ni ́ ibi ti ́ wó ̣n ti ń fi gbogbo ara sẹ isẹ́ ̣ iẁ ádìí pẹ̀ lú Bàbá Fákẹý ẹ. Bi Pemberton ti ́ ń nar̀ ó ni wó ̣n ń kuŕ ú lat́ i ya fó ̣tò per̀ ̣ e-̀ ̣ pẹ̀rẹ̀, ti ́ wó ̣n ń fi pé ̣ẹ̀ni ̀ haǹ t̀ uŕ ú or̀ ̣ ọ̀ soŕ i ́ ewe,́ ti ́ wó ̣n ń beè r̀ è àlaỳ e,́ ti ́ woń ̣ ń fi asọ ̣ nuju,́ ti ́ oò ǵ uǹ si ̀ bo ̀ woń ̣ , bi ́ wó ̣n sẹ n ́ só ̣ Baba Fákéỵ e,̣ eṇ i ti ́ n ́ feṛ an jẹ̀ko ̣ gbé ̣ Oseé Sạ ǹ go.́

Jel̀ ̣é ̣ńké ̣ ni Baba Fákéỵ e ̣ jókòó, ti ́ wó ̣n n ́ ré ̣ri ̌n muś ẹ́ ̣ leń ̣ u isẹ ́,̣ lái ̀ tilè ̣ woju ́ Pemberton ti ́ ó ti ilẹ̀ Amerika wá á sẹ isẹ́ ̣ iẁ adìí ni ́ Ilé Ifè.̣ Am̀ ó ̣ sạ ́ niǵ bà ti ́ mo ka ar̀ òko ̣ ti ́ Pemberton ko ̣ siń ú iẁ é àkójop̣ ọ̀ aẁ or̀ ań kan ti ́ orúkọ̀ rẹ̀ ń jé ̣ Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination, og̀ ẹ̀dẹ̀ dúdú ni, kò yá bù sań .12 Alákọọ̀ ́kó ̣, emi ni i t̀ umọ̀ oóko ̣ iẁ é yi ̌ ni ́ Yorùba?́ Ki ́ ni ́ ń jé ̣ oracle, rituals at̀ i divination ni ́ ojúloẃ ó Yorùba? Lái s̀ i ́ aǹ i-́ aǹ i,́ Ọ̀mọ̀wé Alisa LaGamma, oloó t̀ ú àkójop̣ ò ̣ aẁ or̀ ań wọ̀nyi ́ lat́ i ilẹ̀ eè ỳ aǹ dúdú ń fi Gẹ̀é ̣si ̀ ronú ni niǵ bà ti ́ ó sạ aẁ oṇ er̀ e inú iẁ é yìí jo.̣ Oḳ ó ̣o ̣ Geè ̣́ ̣si ̀ ni wó ̣n fi ro gbogbo oko ti ́ ń be ̣ niń ú iwe àkójopọ̀ yi ̌. Lat́ i i ̀bẹ̀rẹ̀ ti t́ i ́ dé op̀ in, iẁ é yìí ko ̀ yo ̣ obi ̀ laṕ o,̀ bé ̣ẹ̀ ni ko ̀ wu ́ ni loŕ i ́ ti ́ a ba ́ n ́ fi suǹ -nu-̀ kuǹ ojuú Yorùba ́ wo ̀ o.́ Artifact, aesthetic qualities, ancestral spiritual realm, figurative at̀ i gbogbo kóko ́ ọ̀rọ̀ ti ́ m ́ be ̣ ni ́ oju ́ ewe ́ ki ̌nni ́ ni ̀kan ti to ́ lat́ i mu ́ inu ́ run oṃ o ̣ Yoòba ́ ti ́ n ́ fi ède ̀ abiń ibi ́ ronu.́ Kiń i làbaŕ i ̀i “Dynamic Devices: Kinetic Oracles?” Ko ̀ loŕ i,́ ko ̀ ni ́di ̌. Iconography, pluralistic vision, visual metaphor, human protagonists, abstraction, realism, at̀ i aẁ oṇ i ̀kòkò ọ̀rọ̀ yòókù ti ́ ń be ̣ niń ú iẁ e yìí kò se isụ jinna ni ́ èdè Yorùba.́
Gbogbo pálapàla yi ̀i ́ ni Ọ̀ jọ̀gbó ̣n Rowland Abió ́ ̣ duń ri,́ ti ́ wó ̣n fi wi ́ pe,́ họ̀ó ̣wu:̀ bi ́ a kò bá mo ̣ ibi a ń lo,̣ ó sạ á ̀ ni ́ ibi ti ́ a ti ḿbọ̀! Ọ̀ jọ̀gbó ̣n Abió ḍ u̇n ni,́ bi ́ a ba ́ n ́ sunkuń a ̀ ma ́ a riŕ an. Sẹ bi ́ aẁ a Yorùba ́ ni ́ ède ̀ wa ti ́ a fi n ́ tuḿ ọ̀ aẁ oṇ iṣẹ-́ ọnàa wa? Sẹ bi ́ aẁ oṇ ọ̀mọ̀wé bi ́i Ọ̀ jọ̀gbó ̣n Ag̀ bà Oḷaś op̣ é Oyě laŕ aǹ ti kó ̣ wa lat́ i ko ̣ èdè Yorùbá si ́lè ̣ pel̀ ̣ú ir̀ or̀ ̣ uǹ ?13 Àbi ́ eè ̀di ̀ fé ̣ mú alaś o ̣ kan ni? Sẹ bi ́ Yorùbá ni ́ oẁ e, àdi ̀i t̀ ú ède,̀ orin, àló,̣ i t̀ aǹ , i ỳ er̀ ̣ e,̀ ̣ er̀ em̀ ọ̀ je,́ aỳ ájó,̣ og̀ ède,̀ at̀ i ori ś iri ś i eẉ à èdè ti ́ ó jé ̣ atuḿ ò ̣ fuń aẁ oṇ iṣẹ-́ ọnà woǹ ̣ yi ?́ Ki ́ ló wá fa réderède bi ́i “pir̀ im̀ i t́ i ́fu,́ ti ŕ ái ́báli,́ tiradi ś ạ ń na,̀ i s̀ i t̀ oŕ i ́ka,́ ki ́laś i ́ka,́ kọ̀nt̀ é ̣mṕ oŕ aŕ i,̀ mó ̣ daá ǹ i ”̀ at̀ i gbogbo jat́ ijat̀ i baú n? Eè ś e ti ́ aẁ oṇ eè ̀bo ́ ti ́ wó ̣n mo ̣ i ỳ á Ọ̀sọ́ ̣ ju Ọ̀sọ ́ wá ń dá orin, ti ́ aẁ a om̀ ̣ ọ̀weé Yorùbá ná à si ̀ ḿ bá woṇ gbe ̀ e,́ bi ́ eṇ i ti ́ ko ̀ mo ̣ oju,́ ti ́ ko ̀ mo ̣ ara? Ọ̀ jọ̀gbó ̣n Abió ḍ uń ni,́ i ̀ka ti ́ o ́ ba ́ tó ̣ si ́ imu ́ la a n ́ fi ro imu.́ A ki ̀ i ́ tori ́i gbiǵ bo ́ paja.́ A kì í tori ́i ki ́kaǹ pa ag̀ bo.̀ Eṇ i ̀ kan ki ̀i tori ́i weŕ ewer̀ e pa òbúko.̣ Élé ̣nu riŕ i ̀ ni ó ni aà m̀ ù i ỳ aá re.̀ ̣ Ède,̀ as̀ ạ ̀ at̀ i iẁ a ̀ Yorùba ́ ni o ́ bi ́ isẹ ́ ̣ oṇ a ̀ Yorùba.́ Eṇ i ́ ba ́ bi ́ ni la ̀ a ́ jo.̣ Ọ̀ jọ̀gbó ̣n Abió ḍ uń ni, ó tó gé ̣e.́ ̣ Alubat̀ á ki ̀ i ́ daŕ in. Eṇ i ̀ kan ò gboḍ ọ̀ gbé oṃ o ̣ Oḅ à fuń Ọ̀sụ n. Dié ̣̀ ninu aẁ oṇ i ̀di ́ abájo ̣ ni ỳ i ́i ti ́ Ọ̀ jọ̀gbó ̣n Abió ḍ uń fi ko ̣ iẁ é ti ́ gbogbo ag̀ baý é ń kà ti ́ wó ̣n ń miri,́ ti ́ a si ̀ péjo ̣ jókòó lat́ i ye ̣ wò ni ́ oj̣ ó ̣ oǹ i.́ Baba Abió ́ ̣ duń ki ̀ i ́ foḥ uǹ , wó ̣n ti i ̀ka bọ̀ woń ̣ lé ̣nu ni. Ọ̀rò ̣ ló kó mo kó mo rò de.́

Awọn Ìwé Ìtọkasí

Abimbola, Wande. 1975. Ed., Yoruba Oral Tradition (Ile-Ife: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ife.
Abiodun, Rowland. 2014. Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bacquart, Bacquart. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geography. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
Bamgbose, Ayo. Yoruba Orthography: A Linguistic Appraisal With Suggestions for Reform. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1965.
Bascom, William R. 1973. African Art in Cultural Perspective. New York: Norton.
Cornet, Joseph. 1971. Art of Africa, Treasures from the Congo, translated by Barbara Thompson. London: Phaidon.
Blier, Suzanne Preston. 2015. Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity c. 1300. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Drewal, Henry, and Pemberton, John, with Abiodun, Rowland. 1989. Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thoughts. New York: Center ofAfrican Art and Harry N. Abrams.
Fagg, William, and John Pemberton. 1982. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa, edited by Bryce Holcombe. New York: Knopf.
Joint Consultative Committee on Education. 1974. Revised Official Orthography for the Yoruba Language: Yoruba orthography. Lagos: The Committee. LaGamma, Alisa, and Pemberton, John. 2000. Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination. New York, N.Y. Metropolitan Museum of Art Metropolitan.
Nardo, Don. 2010. The European Colonization of Africa. New York: Morgan Reynold, 2010.
Newton, Douglas. 1978. Masterpieces of primitive Art. New York: Knopf.
Okediji, Oladejo. 1969. Àjà Ló Leṛ u.̀ Ibadan: Longman Nigeria Limited.
Olajubu, Oludare. 1972. Àkó j̣ op̣ ọ̀ Iwi ̀ Eguń guń . Ibadan. Longman Nigeria Limited.
Picton, John. 1992. “On the Invention of ‘Traditional’ Art,” in Moyo Okediji, ed., Principles of `Traditional’ African Culture. Ibadan: Bard Book.
Oyelaran, Olasope. 1977. “Linguistic Speculations on Yoruba History.” Seminar Series, vol. I, Part II. Ile-Ife: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ife: 624- 51.
Wingert, Paul S. 1962. Primitive Art: Its Traditions and Styles. New York: Oxford University Press.
Young, Crawford. 2012. The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 1960– 2010. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.


1 Mo duṕ é ló ̣wó ̣ Michael Afolayan, eṇ i ti ́ ó tuḿ ọ̀ “sọ ́ki ”́ yi ̀ i ́ si ́ èdeè Gẹ̀é ̣si.̀
2 Mo fi ar̀ òko ̣ yi ̀i ́ júba ̀ fuń Oḷádẹ̀ jo ̣ Òkédi ̀ji,́ oǹ ̀kọ̀we ́ i t̀ aǹ ar̀ òko,̣ ere ́ ori ́ i t̀ ag̀ e,́ at̀ i ewi ̀ ni ́ ède ̀ Yorùba,́ eṇ i ti ́ o ́ kó ̣ mi lat́ i ko ̣ ède ̀ Yorùba ́ si ́le.́ ̣ Woń ̣ ki ̀ mi ́ ni ́ i ̀lọ̀ wi ́ pe ́ n ko ̀ gboḍ ọ̀ fi èdè Yorùbá ṣe aẁ àda,̀ ni t́ ori ́ wi ́ pé èdè abiń ibi ́ eṇ i sẹ pat̀ àki ̀ puṕ ò;̣ at̀ i wi ́ pé odò ti ́ ó bá ti sạ ǹ kuŕ ò ni ́ ori ŕ un rẹ̀, gbi ǵ be ̣ ni ́ i ́ gbe.̣ Wó ̣n kó ̣ mi ni ́ oẁ e, i t̀ aǹ at̀ i orin aẁ oṇ Yorubà lat́ i i g̀ bà ti ́ mo ti wà ni ́ jòjòlo.̀ At̀ aǹ dá Og̀ uń , mo ri ́bà o.
3 See Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
4 Èkeji ̀ or̀ i s̀ ạ ̀ ni Awi ś ẹ ̣ Ag̀ baý e ́Wań de ́ Abiḿ bó ̣ la ́ jé ̣ niń u ́ ẹ̀kó ̣ ède ̀ Yorùba.́ N ko ̀ le ̀ gbag̀ bé láéláé ni ́ oj̣ ó ̣ kan niń ú ki ́laá s̀ i ̀ ti Yunifaś iti ̀ Ilé Ifè,̣ ni ́ oḍ uń 1973, ti ́ Awi ś ẹ ̣ ń kó ̣ wa ni ́ Ifa,́ ti ́ baba ́ so ̣ wi ́ pe,́ “Geé ś u ̀ Kirisi,̀ àbi ́ e ̣ ti n ́ pe ̀ e…́ .” Oṃ o ̣ oḍ uń mé ̣tàdiń loǵ uń ni mo jé ̣ ni ǵ bà naá .̀ Ẹ̀rù bà mi ́ ni ǵ bà ti ́ Awi ś ẹ̣ foḥ uǹ yi ̀i.́ N kò gbó ̣ iruẃ á ọ̀rọ̀ baý i ̀i ́ ri,́ gé ̣gé ̣ bi ́ eṇ i ti ́ wó ̣n ti fi ẹ̀sin aẁ oṇ Eè ̀bo ́ pa ni ́ iye ̀ lati piń ni ś iń . Sẹ ni mo ro ̀ wiṕ e ́ ar̀ a ́ yió ̀ sań lójiji ̀ lat́ i pa gbogbo aẁ a ti ́ a wà niń ú ki ́laá s̀ i ̀ naá .̀ Baba Abiḿ boĺ ̣á kaǹ ń dá obi ̀ je ̣ ni, bi ́ wó ̣n sẹ ń ki ̀ wá laý a,̀ ti ́ wó ̣n si ̀ ń kó ̣ wa ni ́ as̀ ạ ,̀ or̀ i s̀ ạ ,̀ at̀ i i ̀laǹ à aẁ oṇ Yorùba.́ Mo ri ́ba,́ mo ri ́bà o, Awi ś ẹ ̣ Ag̀ baý e,́ oṃ o ̣ baba Afàda-́ oẉ ó ̣-e-̣ pàjakum̀ ọ̀.
5 Moyo Okediji, ed., Yoruba Images; Essays in Honour of Lamidi Fakeye, (Ile Ife: Ife Humanities Society, Obafemi Awolowo University, 1988).
6 Don Nardo, The European Colonization of Africa, (New York: Morgan Reynold, 2010).
7 Crawford Young, The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 1960– 2010, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).
8 Paul S. Wingert, Primitive Art: Its Traditions and Styles, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).
9 Douglas Newton, Masterpieces of primitive Art, (New York: Knopf, 1978).
10 Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. 2002. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geography. London: Thames and Hudson.
11 John Picton, “On the Invention of ‘Traditional’ Art,” in Moyo Okediji, ed., Principles of `Traditional’ African Culture, (Ibadan: Bard Book, 1992).
12 Alisa LaGamma, and John Pemberton, Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination, (New York: N.Y. Metropolitan Museum of Art Metropolitan, 2000.
13 Ayo Bamgbose, Yoruba Orthography: A Linguistic Appraisal With Suggestions for Reform, (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1965); Joint Consultative Committee on Education, Revised Official Orthography for the Yoruba Language: Yoruba orthography, (Lagos: The Committee, 1974). Òj̣ ọ̀gbó ̣n Oḷ aś op̣ é Oyě laŕ aǹ ni wóṇ kó ̣ mi ni ́ i ̀koṣ i ́lè ̣ èdeè Yorùbá ni ́ Yunifaś i t́ i ̀ Ile Ife lati 1973 titi di 1977; mo ri ́bà o.

Michael O. Afolayan
Independent Researcher
Òṣogbo, Nigeria


I had the rare privilege of delivering in proxy the original paper of Professor Moyo Okediji at the African Studies Association meeting, where it was first presented on December 2, 2016. Although short in quantity, I consider it to be loaded in quality, contents, intents, intensities, and in its ability to problematize a discourse critical to our understanding of indigenous scholarship and all its epistemological implications that span the entire landscape of the humanities. Indeed, Okediji’s pedagogy is the proverbial Yoruba drum of “ògìdìgbó” which is revealed only to the wise and the prudent, and they are the only two capable of effectively dancing to its rhythm. The paper reminds one of the title of the memoir of Ellen DeGeneres, the famous American comedian, titled Seriously . . . I’m Kidding. Even as a non-apologist of Ellen DeGeneres, or of any other American comedian for that matter, one would find profound meaning to that title, and embrace it as very deep and philosophical. Like in many Shakespearean plays, many truths are expressed in the acts of the jesters, not in the court of the privileged kings and pundits. This is exactly the way I responded to Okediji’s beautiful write-up. It got me thinking. It is a needed shock therapy, an organic rendition of an intellectual exposition of the Yoruba art. This commentary is janus-faced. On one hand, it looks at the unique way in which Moyo Okediji critiqued the work of Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art. On the other, it concurs with Abiodun’s thesis of the indispensability of the Yoruba language and oral tradition in the understanding of the Yoruba art.

In his contribution to the roundtable forum on Professor Abiodun’s book at the African Studies Association in Washington, DC (December 1-3, 2016), Okediji provided his full presentation in Yoruba language, unalloyed (see the first essay in this forum). In order to broaden the scope of his readership and audiences, I chose to translate his write-up to the English language (Appendix 1). However, I used the translation to underscore the challenges of inter-cultural interpretation. The translation process demonstrates the problem of using one language to dissect another language without the depth of knowledge of the cultural make-up of the originator of the text. The attempt provides the data in which we are able to draw conclusions on a variety of issues: One, it highlights the futility of translation of a cultural theme at any level; two, it speaks to the frustration inherent in the imposition of one language over the art and culture of another; and three, it demonstrates the need for a cultural understanding between the originator of a text and the translator as precluding any reasonable translation and/or interpretation of the text. Using my attempt at translating as an example, I argue that at the very best what my effort could produce was an interpretation rather than a translation of Okediji’s text. I then argue that Okediji’s text brings to light the main thrust of Abiodun’s argument, which is that the indigenous language that births the art and culture of a people is the only channel through which the said art and culture could be most accurately interpreted or critiqued. Any attempt at superimposing other languages on the art can only result in a secondary, if not tertiary, interpretation and consequently a watered-down version of the original. The corollary is that such attempt will of necessity tamper with the sacred epistemological authenticity of the language-art-culture continuum.


In his liberation theology, Paulo Freire (1993, 1994, 1997) talks about “naming the world” as central to empowerment and total liberation. His notion of naming the world is the need for the individuals to be themselves, in control of their lives, to know who they are and have a deeper understanding of the space they occupy and the dialogue in which they engage within that space. Those who are able to name their worlds are functionally literate of their own culture, spatially, intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. But the salient question, as Freire would want to ask, is this: how could one name one’s world in the words of another person? This is a contradiction, Freire would argue. In essence, this is what Okediji problematizes in his critique. The critical issue taken up by the paper is whether or not it is at all possible to present and/or critique the art of the people of Africa and do so comfortably in the language or languages of others, especially the art of the Yoruba. Okediji is saying, emphatically, it is not possible. In his “meta-analysis”, he captures the essence of what the seminal work of Professor Rowland Abiodun is all about.


I use Okediji’s problematization as the launching pad for my own perspective on this matter. Indeed, in my endnote, I have reproduced verbatim my translation (or shall we call it interpretation?) of Okediji’s essay (Appendix 1). His contribution effectively illuminates Professor Abiodun’s argument albeit in a humorous but serious way, which he expressed in the context of Yoruba rhetoric. I will follow suit with Okediji by invoking the Swahili saying, Titi la mama li tamu. Literally, it means, “Mother’s breast is what is sweet,” a direct equivalent of Yoruba’s “Ọmú ìyá dùn.” In a more functionally applicative and metaphorically applicable way, it means nothing is more nutritious, beneficial, authentic, or enduring to the health of the suckling baby than the mother’s milk. In other words, the organic quality of the mother’s milk lends authenticity to the rightness of the child’s meal. Let us bring that native intelligence into the ongoing conversation that Professor Abiodun has engendered, and which Okediji has accentuated here. There is no language anywhere, any time, which could deliver a meaningful explanation regarding any aspect of any culture in a healthier and more authentic manner than the language from which that culture emanates. This is a fact that has been proven in literatures of language, culture and anthropology. Indeed, the argument has been advanced that a child will learn a whole lot more when the instruction is based on the language of the mother because not only does it enhance cognition, it transmits the nuances contained within the scope of the culture of the knowledge being transmitted (see Emmitt and Pollock, 1997). The popular Whorf-Sapir hypothesis goes further in extrapolating the matter of the marriage between language and culture (see Ahearn, 2011). It makes it clear that to gain a deeper insight into any culture or a cultural artifact, the investigator must have a deeper understanding, not only of the language, but also even of the grammar of the language. According to this hypothesis, it is inside the language that we find the culture and it is in the culture that we see the language – you cannot have one without the other. Yoruba art and language speak to the seriousness and authenticity of this theoretical framework. Even of more importance and relevance to the ongoing discourse is the indubitable argument of O.B. Yai (1993) on the salience of the connection of language/ oral tradition and a meaningful interpretation of Yoruba art, whether we are dealing with visual, verbal, aesthetic, performing, or any aspect of the art for that matter. In what follows, I provide an extended line of reasoning of Yai to elaborate my position:

When approaching Yoruba art, an intellectual orientation that would be more in consonant with Yoruba tradition of scholarship would be to consider each individual Yoruba art work and the entire corpus as oriki . . . making oriki tutelary goddess of Yoruba art history studies enjoins us to pay more attention to the history dimension of the discipline’s title. This in turn entails that we familiarize ourselves with Yoruba concepts of history and be conversant with the language and metalanguage of Yoruba art history… For a Yoruba intellectual oriki as a concept and a discursive practice is inseparable from the concept and discursive practice of itan . . . An exploration of the concept based on its linguistic analysis therefore is in order. This is no idle exercise, for the Yoruba word itan is invariably translated as “history,” a word and concept with so vast a meaning as to deserve the appellation of “continent histoire” (continent history) in contemporary European discourse. (107) Yai’s point is well taken. It is in perfect alignment with Paulo Freire’s position of “naming the world” and the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis that places language and culture in an unbreakable continuum. An interpretation or appreciation of a Yoruba art form rests heavily on the knowledge of the language and its cultural nuances, including its oral tradition. Dependency on foreign language to interpret the Yoruba art is giving the proverbial baby of the Ọbà River to the riverine goddess of Ọ̀ṣun. The outcome cannot be good. The interpretation cannot be right, all because there exists a converse relationship between the two. There exists a clear contradiction in terms. What is lost in the process of interpretation is critical. In one of his footnotes to the conversation, Yai further elucidates the dilemma inherent in the contradiction, the silver lining being in the efforts of Yoruba art scholars to reverse the trend: We are all victims of the imperialism of writing with its pejorative attitude towards oral cultures. As a consequence, more Africans conduct their research with an implicit assumption of a discursive and metalinguistic tabula rasa in the cultures being studied. The epistemological poverty of this attitude need not be elaborated. Fortunately, Yoruba art scholars are increasingly going against the grains, resulting in more perceptive analyses. (114) Thus, looking through the 386 pages of Professor Abiodun’s book and taking even a closer look at the 146 images in the book, one could not but ask how anyone could possibly understand, or appreciate, let alone appraise most, if not all, of the images, concepts and the poetics imbedded into the work if they are not immersed in the culture and language, especially the oral traditions, of the Yoruba. No doubt, in the absence of the depth of such knowledge this would pose a difficult proposition. In what follows, therefore, out of a preponderance of visual evidence contained in Abiodun’s book, I have picked out two images for further discussion.

The Visual, the Verbal, and the Aesthetic

Let us examine the images on page 86 of Abiodun’s book.

Figure 1a: The Ojomo of Ijebu-Owo wearing his Orufanran ceremonial war costume (front view)
Figure 1a: The Ojomo of Ijebu-Owo
wearing his Orufanran ceremonial
war costume (front view)
Figure 1b: The Ojomo of Ijebu-Owo wearing his Orufanran ceremonial war costume (side view)
Figure 1b: The Ojomo of Ijebu-Owo
wearing his Orufanran ceremonial
war costume (side view)

The front and the side views of the image given the caption, “Ojomo of Ijebu-Owo wearing his Orufanran ceremonial war costume.” The immediate question is how do I see this image or how does anyone appraise it? The average person who is not Yoruba sees a man standing with the regalia of a manof- war or a war commander. The color is red with charms hanging on the clothing. This description should be okay but it falls miserably short of its cultural intensity. As someone literate in Yoruba culture, when I see this image, I am immediately taken to the axiom, “A-bi-gbogbo-ara-kìkì-oògùn” (He whose body is arrayed with the overwhelming presence of charms), or “Ọkùnrin ogun” (Man of war, the macho), or “Lógun l’Ékòó” (He who brings war all the way to Lagos – Lagos, being a euphemism for the sea; an amphibious fighter, a war hero, so to say). In other words, a surface understanding cannot do justice to the analysis of the image; it takes both the visual and wholesale cultural and linguistic understanding to be able to gain a deeper insight into the whole knowledge loaded into the single image.

Similarly, the image on page 169, partially titled “Gbárìyẹ Onígba Awẹ ” is worth being looked into.


Figure 2: Gbárìyẹ̀ Onígba Awẹ́
Figure 2: Gbárìyẹ̀ Onígba Awẹ́


It takes someone with more than just a casual acquaintance with the Yoruba language and culture to appreciate the dance of Baba Labe, the “rainbow coalition” of colors, the name of the clothing, and the totality of the configuration of the image, including the linguistic, the cultural, the aesthetic, the panoramic, etc., to appreciate the art form. For example, as a student of Yoruba language and tradition, the first thing that comes to mind as I see this image is the adage that, “Afóṇ ú-fóṛ a ní ń fi òṣì jó bàtá.” It simply means that the dance to the rhythm of the bàtá drum is not for the spiritually and materially bankrupt. This is quite clear in the image portrayed by the appearance of the dancer, Baba Labe. To the Yoruba eye, this dancer looks prosperous, confident, competent, dignified and spiritually endowed. Besides this, when I see this image, I am also intuitively thinking of the Yoruba praise epithet, “a-gùntásoó- lò” (a full body fellow, whose presence is capable of announcing, carrying or portraying the beauty of clothing). Words and phrases like “gbárìyẹ ,” “onígba awẹ,́ ” “agùn-tá’ṣọọ́-lò,” “k’ẹ́lẹ́nu-sọ́’nu,” etc., that configure this image, are loaded with meaning and located in various grammatical categories of Yoruba language. Those words include, “gbá” (verb), “riyẹ” (adverb), “gbárìyẹ ” (noun), “igba” (200 – number), “awẹ́” (split – noun), “gùn” (tall – adjective), “gùn…tó lò” (split verb), “aṣọ” (cloth – noun).

Apart from these semantic distinctions that are loaded into the image, there are other facets of important cultural knowledge secondarily attached to the identified images. For example, there are words like agbo (the performance circle), ijó (dance), ìran (spectacle), àrà (dazzling performance), àjàò (the flying rodent), etc. These are some of the artifacts of Yoruba epistemology that are necessary for evaluating this image. The name of the clothing style, “Igba Awẹ́” (200 stripes) itself is material for analysis as 200 stripes is the metonymic representation of “many” in the context of Yoruba rhetoric and number formations. It simply implies that there are many stripes that make up the total configuration of the cloth. I wonder how anyone could understand this when such person is basing his or her analysis of the same image purely on the visual impression and textbook knowledge of Yoruba art. The epistemological nuances certainly go beyond the peripheral level of understanding.

Again, in agreement with Moyo Okediji, these are the issues that this book is highlighting and it is for such purpose that it provides an alternative narrative to what we call the “two-by-four” notion of scholarship in the study of Africa. This “two-by-four” notion is the pedagogical anomaly where the source of knowledge production of the scholar is totally dependent on the two covers of the textbook and/or the four corners of the classroom. This may work in some quarters but it is simply not a sustainable model in the study of Yoruba art where the epistemological package is loaded with a compendium of oral tradition, language, cultural codes and data outside the framework of western epistemology. Whether in its semantic or etymological construct or by virtue of its versatility or multiplicity in forms, the Yoruba art is complex (see, for example, Adesanya, 2016, and Famule, 2016). To capture its essences requires a depth of understanding of its cultural framework. No language is capable of getting to the bottom of this framework adequately and meaningfully if it is not Yoruba.

As a lifelong student of Yoruba and a native speaker of the language, my attempt to translate Okediji’s text highlighted certain facts. One, all I could do was approximate Okediji’s text; I could not reproduce the totality of his intellectual thinking. Two, that I was even able to render a version of his text and provide a meaningful textual end-product was possible only because of my knowledge of the cultural frame of reference in Okediji’s writing. Yet, much was lost in translation and the end-product was not the original text, a classical case of the output becoming the mirror image of the input. This limited result would be further limited when the interpreter does not possess the cultural knowledge of the artist or of the art being interpreted.


Having said all that, I conclude this write-up by invoking one of the cultural “scares” of the Yoruba, which is for anyone to be likened to a highway robber who snatches away the goods that belong to someone else, a deep verbal rebuke often reserved for an ungrateful person. Therefore, even in spite of its limited capability to convey the true meaning of the Yoruba art, acknowledgement must still be given to the role of foreign languages, especially the English language, in exposing the Yoruba art to the larger world. Glorious reputations should therefore be accorded the likes of Ulli Beier, Suzanne Wenger, Robert Farris Thompson, Henry Drewal, Margaret Thompson, John Pemberton III, and a host of others who have given a wider exposure to the Yoruba art. In the actual fact, the production of this seminal work of Abiodun is in the English language. But the challenge is staring us right in the face. The narrative needs to change. The Yoruba language, including and especially its oral tradition, and culture are the inseparable window through which we can gain a sneak peak behind the veil of the unquestionably rich, versatile and well endowed Yoruba art and its cultural components. Anything less than that may end up giving us at the very best a caricature of the art. This, in essence, is the primary issue this book has raised and done so in an exceptional fashion.


Abiodun, R. (2014). Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art. Cambridge: Cambridge Press.
Adesanya, A. A. (2016). “Art: Contemporary.” In Encyclopedia of the Yoruba, edited by Toyin Falola and Akintunde Akinyemi. Bloomington & Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
Ahearn, L. M. (2011). Living Language: An introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Emmitt M. & Pollock J. (1997). Language and learning: an introduction for teaching, 2nd ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Famule, O. (2016). “Art: Indigenous.” In Encyclopedia of the Yoruba, edited by Toyin Falola and Akintunde Akinyemi. Bloomington & Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum.
Freire, P. and A.M.A. Freire (1994). Pedagogy of hope: reliving Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, Continuum.
Freire, P. and A.M.A. Freire (1997). Pedagogy of the heart. New York, Continuum.
Okediji, M. (2016). Eḷé ̣nu Riŕ i ati A a mu I ya ́ Re. Paper Presented at the 59th Annual African Studies Association Conference Washington, DC December 1-3, 2016
Yai, O. B. (1993). In Praise of Metonymy: The Concepts of “Tradition” and “Creativity” in the Transmission of Yoruba Artistry over Time and Space, Research in African Literature, 24(4), Special Issue in Memory of Josaphat Bekunuru Kubayanda, pp 29-37.
A Translation of Moyọ Okediji’s “ẸLẹ́nu Rírì àti Àmù Ìyá Rẹ̀” [The Art of Critiquing the Yoruba Art]
Translated and Read by Michael O. Afolayan at the 59th Annual African Studies Association Conference, Washington, DC December 1-3, 2016

Translator’s Preamble

Our elders say, “Duty demands that you honor the one who sends you on an errand, more than fear the one to whom the message is delivered.” The same elders also say, the sense of duty is this: when sent on an errand of bondage, you deliver it with the spirit of the freeborn. Why this preamble? It is because what I am about to deliver on behalf of my colleague, Dr. Moyo Okediji, has been deliberately crafted in the classical language of the people on which the book focuses – the Yoruba. Okediji requested specifically that this critique be delivered in Yoruba unalloyed and that no interpretation needs be offered. As a well-deserved honor to him who sent me, therefore, I will definitely do that. However, two things have precipitated a partial departure from an aspect of the message. One is that I am duty-bound to deliver my colleague’s message with the “spirit of the freeborn,” and two, Okediji’s message is, in most essential ways, the quintessential Yoruba version of what I had prepared to deliver as my own part to the debate. So as not to re-invent the wheel, therefore, I have chosen to follow the Yoruba message with my own literal translation of the context in the English language. With this English version, I have killed two proverbial birds with one stone throw. Come with me as I deliver the message of Moyo Okediji, the Professor of Arts and Art History, from the University of Texas at Austin.

The book, which Professor Roland Abiodun, wrote should be rightly titled, “A person with a smelly or stinking or rotten mouth is still the rightful owner of his/her mother’s water pot.” Figuratively, the fact that a person has some shortcomings or some imperfections does not preclude him/her from being entitled to what belongs to the person by natural right. It is flabbergasting to realize that the English, the French and the Portuguese have attempted to tactfully, and unfairly, snatch away the African art with the use of their languages. As the Yoruba would say at such a time as this, “Without a good reason, a woman does not assume the status of the family superman.” In other words, whatever has prompted the proverbial aging of the okra pod must be responsible for the reddening (that is, aging) of the garden eggs. By this, I mean whatever accounts for the reason the art of the Yoruba or even of other African ethnic groups are transmitted, critiqued or presented in the English language or in other European languages, demands explanations. I crave your indulgence touching on some of those explanations.

The fact of the matter is that it’s not that we, the Yoruba people, do not have our clever ways of making discourses on our arts and crafts long before the advent of the Europeans on our shores. However, since their arrival, it has been with ardent determination that they have endeavored to forcefully take from us our right to use our language and/or languages in the process. Let us face it: it is impossible (for me as Yoruba) to think right in the English language. The use of the English language is a bumpy ride for the Yoruba who is on a journey towards the attainment of an authentic epistemology in their art and culture – one is bound to miss the road, fall into the ditch or bump into the mound, and compromise the authentic facts of the culture and the art of the people. In the words of the Elder, Awise Wande Abimbola, which he taught us in our youthful days, “We par together things that go together just as the shells of the peanuts give a resemblance to the casket of the diminutive rat.” The plain English language is just not capable of unknotting or delivering the loaded Yoruba concepts that the artists tie together holistically in their works of visual, verbal, cognitive, and aesthetic configuration, and which together, are called the Yoruba art forms. Philosophically tied together just like the pieces of yams readied for presenting to one’s in-law, how on earth could they be unraveled except through Yoruba language? Words uttered, regardless of its volume, cannot fill up the woven basket. No amount of poetic or prosaic rendition of the English language is capable of delivering, describing, or analyzing the Yoruba art.

Elder Lamidi Olonade Fakeye, of sweet memory, was the one who engaged me in an essentially deep philosophical discourse when we honored him with a book that I edited in 1988. As I presented the book to him, Elder Fakeye took a quick look at the book and giggled. Out of curiosity I asked him why. “Moyo, let me tell you the truth,” said the elder; “truth is bitter but you Western- schooled elites are a bunch of intense, pathological liars!” “Elder, how come?” I asked in exasperation. The sage responded, “What the heck, Moyo!
How come the one lending a helping hand is carrying more burden than the owner of the load? I am just a wood carver, carving the pillars to sustain the house. Who knows that the mere carving of the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) would generate so much garrulous English utterances? Oh well, the hand-crafter has done his art, let the loose mouth begin its deeds.” “Elder, I doff my hat with humble homage to your age and wisdom,” was all I could say.
Elder Fakeye then opened the book as he held it in his hand and exclaimed, “How in God’s planet earth does my work of art have anything to do with all the bombastic, dry husk English words that you have plastered across the pages of this book?” I responded by saying, “Well, in my mind, they seem to have things in common.” The elderly sage then burst into an uproar of laughter. He then quipped, “Okay, tell me, how could any of these English words possibly be translated or translatable to the Yoruba language or speak to the Yoruba art?”
I did not think twice before I responded that, “It’s no big deal; after all it’s just a matter of translating them from English to Yoruba.”

The elderly man responded by saying, “Moyo, it’s not that easy. The English language has no resemblance to the Yoruba language. If the English language were to be capable of producing the Yoruba proverb at all, would it be capable of uttering incantations? What about code speaks, power utterances, words of enchantments and the guild of hunters’ poetic invocations; talk less of the heroic poetry of the family lineage?” I quickly responded by saying, “It’s all possible these days; after all in the United States, consultations with Ifa are now being done in the English language.” Elder Fakeye asked pointblank, “If that is the case, then tell me how to say, “Ilee kaaaro, oo jiire” in the English language.

That was my eye-opener. I now realized the point the elderly man was trying to get across to me, knowing where he was headed, but oblivious of where he was coming from. Just as it’s mere wishful thinking to imagine the Yoruba language becoming the English language, so it is an illusion to expect the English language to convey Yoruba concepts. The best we can see in that scenario is the metaphoric mask, not the masquerade, let alone the spirit, soul and flesh behind the veil.

First of all, language and culture are inseparable. Once one is out of the picture, what we have left is akin to the carved image of the twin; the blood and the flesh are gone – the soul is no longer present, only the mirage, not the objective reality. As Elder Fakeye noted, anyone analyzing Yoruba art with the English language has taken the soul out of the body; all that is left is at the very best gibberish. This is the declaration from the mouth of the consummate practitioner, Elder Fakeye.

Secondly, every language has its secret codes, which the uninitiated is not capable of decoding. This is like a child confusing the leaves meant for herbal remedies as if they were meant for mere recreational consumption, soul food.

The reality is this: the best the non-native user of the Yoruba language could get is minimal. The proverbial leaf of the language could be shown to non-native users; the actual leaf is hardly ever handed to them. Sometimes, they are handed to them, but the true name of the leaf is never divulged. It’s the tale of the farmer who set out to the farm devoid of the hoeing instrument; he is found wanting if the field is grown! Why are we saying this? It is because the Yoruba language is a set of codes, spoken in codes, and heard in codes, just as Elder Abiodun, the author of this book, has said in this book. Elder Abiodun is saying in this book that it is a set of codes that has transformed itself into the Yoruba art and the art has given birth to unlimited discourses.

The fact of the matter is that when it comes to the English language and the Yoruba aesthetics, the mythical blacksmith is not capable of casting the sheet of paper, he can only burn it. The moment one opens the appreciation of the Yoruba art with the English language, one is entrapped. Let’s go to the basics, like eating the black-eye pudding from its flat end: what exactly is the word for “art” in Yoruba? This plain question is no joke. First of all, it would seem like the simplest form of a question. We can say the word for art in Yoruba is “Ona.” However, on a closer examination, this question is set-up to entrap the unsuspecting. This is not a real question; it is a snare. The ideal answer to such a trick question is “why should the Yoruba have a word for “art?” Has anyone asked the English people to give the meaning of the word “Igunnu” in English language? The moment one is asked to give the meaning of the word “art” in Yoruba, one is dumbfounded, confused and insecure, as if it is mandatory to have a word for art in our mother tongue. The question is, should every idea of the English have its welcome in the context of the Yoruba language when reverse is never the case for the English language?

What actually prompted this way of thinking is that the English people colonized the Yoruba people. I have deliberated chosen the word “colonized” in its borrowed form. What exactly does the word “colonize” mean in Yoruba. The word comes from the root word “colony.” In essence the English people came to my father’s farm and turned it into their “colony.” It’s like me looking at the cloth you are wearing and say, “this cloth belongs to Moyo.” If this were to happen, you would look at me with bewilderment and ask, “Moyosore, are you drunk with the potent liquor of sekete?” But since the English man used the word “colony” drawn from their language to describe our fatherland, we did not get it right that our fatherland is no colony for their forefathers. Since all they said came straight from the grammar of their language, it was not long before they became “colonizers” (rendered in the Yoruba form), engaging in “colonization,” and we, servants of God, becoming the “colonized.” In fact, our scholars have started writing on “post-colonial studies” these days. This is nothing more than an intellectual deceit. This deceit would, however, take on the resemblance of truth when our thinking is based on the English construct. This is the logical explanation as to why the Yoruba should never think in the English language if we do not want to fall into the intellectual (and cultural) pit. Like the proverbial hoe, the English language can only drag the Yoruba art and culture in its own direction.

A great deal of conspiracy and self-serving have taken place in Africa regarding the imposition of the English language. They took a first look at the works and named them “primitive art.” They wrote endlessly on their notion of the primitiveness of the African art. Paul S. Wingert (1977) and Douglas Newton (1978) wrote voluminous books to justify that the African art is “primitive.” Later they admitted that it was wicket of them to conceive of African art as “primitive;” instead, they should see them as “tribal art.” Jean-Baptiste Bacquart did a marvelous book on the so-called African “tribal” art, illustrating the notion with myriads of images. But that did not end it. At one point they decided African art should be conceptualized as “traditional art.” In 1992, Elder John Picton provided arguments against the idea of referring to African art as traditional. However, his arguments were heard but not taken to heart, as they never cease to refer to African art as traditional. Some refer to it as historical art; some as classical art. It seems the confusion must have taken over among Europeans as to the nomenclature or christening of the African art, each one calling it as it pleases.

The astonishing part of it is that even African scholars began using the European perspectives to articulate their own art, forgetting their own indigenous languages of discourse, thinking outside the paradigm of the indigenous. They are content with whatever the Europeans prescribe as the way to analyze their art. It’s like acting on the Europeans’ prompting; after all, their speeches, and thinking and fads are essentially European, becoming pets for the European culture!

Not too long, Europeans now argued that there are certain artists in Africa who are totally different from the group they’ve christened “traditional” because members of that particular group were schooled in art. Apparently, many of them didn’t even believe that those artists they classified as “traditional” ever went to school to learn art. Europeans then started to describe that group as “contemporary.” When it suits them they referred to this group as modern. They would analyze them in their jaundiced fashion, an exercise in mediocrity and futility.

In all honesty, it’s not always only out of evil intent that these Europeans have attempted to hijack our art. The fact of the matter is that an attempt to fix the unbroken art of our people often ends up as the proverbial mother monkey that attempted to fix the face of the baby monkey only to end up poking into its eye and disfiguring the baby’s face altogether. This calls to memory my experience with the recently deceased Dr. John Pemberton III. I met the gentleman in 1984 in Ile-Ife, where he was engaged in serious research with the Elder (Abiodun). With endless snapping and clicking of pictures – left, right and center, Pemberton could be seen multitasking relentlessly. He climbed, stooped and squatted just to capture the right images, while simultaneously scribbling on paper, eliciting a plethora of information, and wiping off perspiration as he focused his attention on observing the master sculptor, Elder (Lamidi) Fakeye.

With ease and unabated satisfaction, the master sculptor Fakeye sat and worked with a smirk on his face and paying little or no attention to Elder Pemberton, who came all the way from the United States to conduct his research in Ile-Ife. On reading the article, however, it left the metaphoric taste of the unripened plantain in my mouth – unsavory in taste, uneasy to swallow. It was published in the book of a collection of images/pictures titled, Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination. My first natural instinct is to query the meaning of the title of this book. I asked what exactly in genuine Yoruba were these concepts of artifact, rituals, and divination? There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Alisa LaGamma, the editor of the collected images in book, and who is from Africa, I must add, was apparently thinking in the English language in his assemblage of these images. Clearly, every intellectual cultivation in this work was performed with the instrument of the Whiteman, (and the result was clear). From the beginning to the end, this book would miserably fail the test of intellectual quality when measured by the standard of the Yoruba language and culture. Concepts such as artifact, aesthetic qualities, ancestral spiritual realm, figurative and all significant concepts on the first page of the book were more than enough to give the stomach flu to a competent user of, and thinker in, the Yoruba language. What in the world, for example, is “Dynamic Devices: Kinetic Oracles?” They seem and sound like gibberishes of no redeeming qualities. All those so-called “Iconography, pluralistic vision, visual metaphor, human protagonists, abstraction, realism,” and the remaining superfluous expressions have no place in the contexts of Yoruba commonplace expressions.

These are challenging issues that starred Professor Rowland Abiodun in the face, prompting him to come up with this book. Armed with the wisdom that a lack of knowledge of the future does not deny one of the existence of one’s past, Abiodun challenges us that the tears of sorrow should not deny us the ability to see. We have our own language for appreciating our own art. Our scholarly teachers like the Elder Professor Olasope Oyelaran have taught us to write the Yoruba language with ease. How dare we then be disillusioned on this matter? Are we not aware that the Yoruba are endowed with proverbs, code words, songs, folktales, stories, divination chants, hunters’ poetry and dirges, incantations, enchantments, invocations, and many more powerful oral traditions that are used to appreciate and interpret art forms? What then would account for the confusing and unacceptable concepts such as “primitive,” “tribal,” “traditional,” “historical,” “classical,” “contemporary,” “modern,” and all sorts of unacceptable classifications in reference to our art forms? How come that Western scholars would be the ones to raise the chorus of our art and we are so eager to follow the refrain in the manner of ignoramuses? Elder Abiodun has insisted on putting the right bird on the right tree, arguing (with empirical evidence) that we cannot be silent or silenced by saying what we know is right about us, and which we are naturally crafted to be able to say. We are the proverbial child, who is the owner of a smelly or stinking or rotten mouth, one who goes about with a smelly mouth, but is still the rightful owner of his/her mother’s water pot. The language and culture of Yoruba are together the mother that gave birth to our art. A child takes after the parents. That is why Elder Abiodun made the proclamation that “enough is enough!” The right water must be credited to the right spring. These are some of the many factors that prompted Elder Abiodun to produce this work that unquestionably has universal currency and global implications. He has done so through this book that has triggered the gathering of today. Elder Abiodun is not given to verbosity. This time around, though, necessity has compelled him to speak out, and he has done so with passion and unharnessed intensity. And there you have it!

Kathy Curnow
Cleveland State University


Rowland Abiodun’s Yorùbá Art and Language contains many extremely valuable features, wrapped around a question he raises in its introduction: can foreign scholars ever truly understand a work the way its Yorùbá makers and users do? Language mastery certainly provides the native speaker with access to inestimable insights regarding not only the general worldview but specifics of philosophy, history keeping, and subtleties of knowledge transmission. However, in the attempt to read an artwork and unpack its meaning, cultural insiders also face obstacles as well as advantages, particularly when pieces date from the more distant past. The import of Abiodun’s major contributions regarding Yorùbá art’s history and the validity of his contentions are considered here in light of the varied contributions both foreign and Yorùbá art historians bring to Yorùbá scholarship, in the recognition that working with art of bygone centuries makes all scholars outsiders to a degree.

A kì í gbójú-u fífò lé adìẹ àgàgà; à kì í gbójú-u yíyan lé alágẹmọ. One should not expect the flightless chicken to soar; one should not expect the chameleon to stride.

Can outsiders ever truly understand a work of art the way its makers and users do? In the introduction to his book Yorùbá Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, Rowland Abiodun concludes that only those with a mastery of the Yorùbá language and deep cultural familiarity can interpret Yorùbá artworks effectively. His argument produces numerous salient observations and the viewing framework he creates provides an exceedingly valuable set of lenses for interpreting Yorùbá sculpture. However, the question posed above remains intriguing and is more complex than it appears. Even when an artist and his patron live in the same community at the same time, their interpretations of a commissioned work may not be identical, so when one moves out to the analyses of art historians, Yorùbá or not, one cannot necessarily assume a third party will understand the work just as its maker and user did. Additional corollaries to the question exist as well. What are the parameters of outsider status? Do they constitute a spectrum? Do insider advantages always trump outsiders’ perceptions? These issues become even more pertinent as the distance from our own era increases. While the question of outsider/insider status does not constitute the thrust of Abiodun’s book, it is a major aspect of his introduction, and thus worth considering.1

While this paper considers the unique multiple contributions of Abiodun’s book, it also argues that careful considerations of objects and context can be made by outsiders, while insiders, like all researchers, can choose to ignore elements that conflict with their own preconceptions, develop greater interest in one topic than another, generalize their known experience to the whole of Yorubaland or apply it half a millennium into the past. While these perspectives differ, one does not automatically eclipse the other.

Western Yoruba Scholars: Capable or Mired in Past Thinking?

Abiodun has been generous in his dialogues with many non-Yorùbá scholars, providing insights and suggestions through conversations about art and culture. He has also taught many students, American as well as Yorùbá, opening their eyes to new aspects of African art history. His collaborative relationships with Henry Drewal and John Pemberton, both non-Nigerian Yorùbá specialists are clearly mutually valued, and his book includes many positive citations of research by scholars who have adopted African frameworks of thought, such as a consideration of shared human and spiritual agency in art’s creation.2 His awareness that an African-oriented approach is not universal among Western discussions of African art led him to state: “I believe that negotiating artistic meaning and aesthetic concepts between two linguistically different cultures cannot be done only from an outsider’s language and point of view.”3

Abiodun’s evaluation of non-Yorùbá art historians splits the latter into two camps with an implied third. He notes some Western art historians refer to African art as “primitive,” “rarely venture outside of dominant Western paradigms, even when they analyze works from non-Western cultures” and judge Yorùbá sculpture by Western aesthetic standards.4 Fifty years ago this was true, but the scholarly world has changed considerably. Who are the scholars Abiodun refers to in these remarks? They seem to consist of: 1) non-Africanists, such as authors of “world art” textbooks who devote a sole chapter to all of African art, 2) Africanists who worked primarily from the 1950s to the early 1970s, when fieldwork was still minimal and anthropological methodology dominated, and—excluded from the misdeeds of the first and second groups, 3) Western Africanist art historians who bring contextual (and occasionally linguistic) abilities to their research. Abiodun does not discuss this third group at length, despite his own work with some of its members and their proliferation in recent decades.

In fact, Africanist art historians have long blasted the “primitive” moniker5 Abiodun rightly deplores and have also distanced themselves from past formalist-only approaches to African art.6 In accord with Abiodun’s convictions, the late Roy Sieber, who produced more Africanist art historians than any other professor,7 placed “primitive” on a classroom list of forbidden terms from at least the 1970s. As early as 1969, he critiqued anthropological scrutiny of objects in favor of multidisciplinary approaches to African art, stressing the importance of oral traditions and awareness of historical interaction and change. Sieber urged the consideration of works within a complex matrix of thought, underlining the acute importance of cultural relativism in African art studies–that is, discussion of art in terms of its makers’ viewpoints.8 Abiodun and Sieber would have agreed to the necessity of avoiding methodologies that place a low value on oral history and literature, as well as ontology. Those kinds of approaches should indeed be relics of the past.9


Yorùbá historians of art have grown in number significantly over the past few decades. They include Abiodun himself, as well as Babatunde Lawal, dele jegede, the late Cornelius Adepegba, Moyo Okediji, Joseph Adande, Stephen Folaranmi, Bolaji Campbell, Yomi Ola, Pat Oyelola, Ola Oloidi, Kunle Filani, Daniel Olaniyan Babalola, Peju Layiwola (Yorùbá and Ẹdo), Aderonke Adesanya, Wahab Ademola Azeez, Babasehinde Ademuleya, P. S. O. Aremu, ‘deyemi Akande, and others. While being a native Yorùbá speaker does not intrinsically make one a better art historian, it is clearly an excellent tool for the researcher’s chest. However, not every Yorùbá speaker necessarily has equivalent exposure to and knowledge of some of the key resources for the deep understanding of objects. In-depth knowledge of Ifá divination verses, which reference many of the concepts necessary to perceptive interpretation of Yorùbá art, is not part of all Yorùbá scholars’ experience, nor are all native speakers familiar with other forms of oral literature relating to masquerade societies, ὸrìṣà worship, or hunters’ songs. Even if they have had exposure to these sources, not every speaker is intrinsically capable of extracting philosophical meaning from them. Many Yorùbá no longer reach adulthood having developed a familiarity with concepts that were more universal in the past, since lifestyle changes have accelerated in the last fifty years. What was once general cultural knowledge has often been supplanted, whether by Pentecostal treatises, textbooks on petroleum engineering, or code programming manuals. In 2002, an informal survey I conducted in Lagos with twenty Yorùbá males under the age of thirty revealed none who could name the ὸrìṣà of smallpox, none who knew of any masquerades other than egúngún, and none who had personally visited a diviner. None were headed to an academic career in art history, either, but the results suggested to me that once-common cultural knowledge is no longer automatically embedded, though it could clearly be learned.

Being Yorùbá certainly facilitates Yorùbá research. Language, ingrained sensitivity to required courtesies, contacts, and the possibility of long personal or family involvement with objects, religion, and performance are expeditious, and ease the establishment of new interpersonal relationships with culture brokers and investigative procedures. Might there be unique hindrances as well? For researchers, age, gender, “nationality” (whether foreign, or non-Yorùbá Nigerian, or Ìgbómìnà when conducting interviews in rural Ìlàjẹland), and personality all matter. Being an insider may or may not facilitate interaction. If you are an insider’s insider, a researcher working in your own home town, your entire family history colors your relationships with those you interview, as does your personal past. If you are Yorùbá, but work in a Yorùbá region other than your own, your status as stranger may raise suspicions of intent that must be–or may never be–allayed. Additionally, if your focus is on art of the distant past, might deep and broad cultural knowledge of the present create preconceptions that are difficult to shake off?

The foreign researcher faces a different set of issues. As Abiodun noted, friendship with cultural masters can be cultivated by Yorùbá and non- Yorùbá scholars alike10; it is the motivation of intellectual curiosity and one’s value for linguistic and historical insights that are imperative. Sometimes even the friendless stage of initial research, as well as initial ignorance, can work to a foreigner’s advantage in that they allow unrestricted pursuits. Some outsiders research over a sustained and lengthy period, developing deep relationships that develop into their absorption by extended foster families. This Yorùbá “adoption” certainly broadens their cultural understanding and can ease their research progress, but it has its own risks. One can all too easily inherit the enmities and alliances of family affiliates or face kindly-meant restrictions due to developed concerns about the researcher’s perceived vulnerability to supernatural or physical forces.

One of the greatest values outsiders can provide is a difference in perspective. Art historian Henry J. Drewal, for example, is fluent in Yorùbá. He conducted research in Yorùbáland over a period of many decades and covered a broader geographic territory than many Yorùbá art historians. His close collaborative relationships with Yorùbá scholars (including Abiodun), as well as with diviners, priests, Ògbóni Society members, and masquerade society officials certainly inform his thoughtful thoughtful work. Yet his foreign birth and education necessarily have generated some questions that differ from those of his Yorùbá colleagues, such as his interest in Yorùbá cosmetic tattooing, pursuit of diaspora visual connections in ὸrìṣà worship in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, and Mami Wata worship among the Yoruba.11 Art historian Robert Farris Thompson, who has some facility with Yorùbá, conducted aesthetics-related interviews with Yorùbá artists and key patrons over an extended period of years. His results isolated a series of aesthetic criteria held by informed local viewers whose judgment did not always accord with that previously published by acknowledged Western specialists.12 Thompson additionally explored cross-cultural African aesthetics by eliciting critiques from members of one ethnic group of the art and performance of another, a fascinating and underrated effort13 that has not yet spawned additional Yorùbá scholarly investigations. These foreigners’ research priorities have taken different directions and the field is richer for these multiple interests.

Sometimes insiders and outsiders alike may value a foreigner’s research, even when it emerges from someone without deep roots, linguistic capability, or cultural familiarity. American photography professor Stephen Sprague, who, as far as I know, had minimal to no fluency in Yorùbá, stayed in Nigeria for a single summer. He became fascinated with how contemporary Yorùbá photo poses encoded cultural self-presentation, and his resultant article continues to resonate with Yorùbá and other Africanist scholars almost four decades later, 14 a testament to his fresh observations. Sprague’s discoveries inaugurated new lines of enquiry for Yorùbá researchers who developed his thoughts with their additional insights, demonstrating that observations by outsiders can trigger innovative thoughts or theories by insiders. Whether they are considered valid, as in Sprague’s case, or initially result in horrified reactions and counter-arguments, they can serve as catalysts.

New Contributions, New Terminology, Ifẹ Applications

Certainly Abiodun is a highly-informed insider, and in Yorùbá Language and Art he takes object types well-established in the extensive literature about Yorùbá art, and spotlights critical aspects that had remained in the shadows. His chapter on orí inú (inner head) and its personal shrine, consisting of the ìbọrí within a leather ilé-orí container, was far from the first,15 but it includes and illuminates a salient fact previously absent. In a clear manifestation of the intimate relationship between Yorùbá art and language, the ìbọrí’s dedication incorporates sand. Before these granules became part of the shrine, they were spread out and inscribed with the line configuration that, in Ifá divination, marks a specific odù: the divination verse that references Orí (head) as an ὸrìṣà.16 It is the action of making these marks that is critical, as the marks themselves dissipate in the shrine’s construction, even as they empower it. Observations like this are revelatory and reinforce the power of invocatory words in Yorùbá creativity and practice. Abiodun’s discussions of shrine sculpture, equestrian figures, àkó effigies, and other topics in his book are equally rich.

His publication’s overarching contribution, however, may be the invention of three terms that are truly illuminating categorizations. They grow from deep linguistic and cultural reflection and have the ability to change the perspectives of those who employ them. All three terms are variations of the term àṣà, which might dryly be parsed as culture/tradition/custom, but which Abiodun embodies with additional concepts: creativity, style, innovation hand-in-hand with the established. The three terms are èpè-graphic àṣà, àṣe-graphic àṣà, and àkó-graphic àṣà, which he notes can overlap, and with their invention Abiodun has created a new lens for Yorùbá art history that has implications for future scholarship in other parts of the continent with analogous or other kinds of categories.

While his terminology can be applied to traditional17 Yorùbá art of any era, it is particularly helpful when applied to the more distant past, such as those terracottas and bronzes from 11th-15th century Ile-Ifẹ or to the early ivories and terracottas from Ọẁ ọ. While archaeology provides some valuable clues regarding these objects,18 it remains spotty in both areas. Until that situation shifts, many of our best insights emerge from internal evidence (the objects themselves) and oral literature. Abiodun uses both to make art speak.

Èpè-graphic àṣà refer to curse-inflicting, punitive imagery, and Abiodun notes it is uncompromising in its literalness: generic physiognomy vanishes, as does all idealism. The identifiable targets include criminals, the diseased (not believed to be random victims), and those who are sacrificed for the greater good.19 This category is particularly useful in understanding those historical works which appear to break standard African art “rules” such as ephebism, as in this Ifẹ bronze (Fig. 1) that coexisted with many idealized human depictions.

 Fig. 1. This bronze mace head exemplifies an èpè-graphic àṣà, and shows two gagged, unidealized sacrificial victims. Drawing of an 11th-15th century Ifẹ work in the collection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
Fig. 1. This bronze mace head exemplifies an èpè-graphic àṣà, and shows two gagged, unidealized sacrificial victims. Drawing of an 11th-15th century Ifẹ work in the collection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

Ákó-graphic àṣà constitute idealistic representations of the deceased that laud their appearance and capabilities. This is, as Abiodun notes, the visual counterpart to an individual’s oríkì, a paean to dignity, self-restraint, and serenity. 20He attributes the bulk of the Ifẹ bronze heads and figures to this category, as well as the large cast Tada seated figure. This figure, which was still in use in a Nupe riverine village earlier in the 20th century, often is glossed over as simply an Ifẹ work found outside Ifẹ territory.21 However, even introductory- level students have speculated about its oddities within the Ifẹ corpus:

Fig. 2. At right, the forearms of the late 14th-century Tada copper figure have been digitally reconstructed, their position heightening its resemblance to the carved diviner shown at left in a detail from a 20th-century agere-Ifá. Right, created by Paul Chapin, Amherst College, Amherst, MA after piece 79.R.18 in the collection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. Left, MA 1999.17 The Barry D. Maurer (Class of 1959) Collection of African Art purchased with money from the Amherst College Discretionary Fund and funds from H. Axel Schupf (Class of 1957). Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA. Photo by Stephen Peteorsky. Images and comparison courtesy Rowland Abiodun.
Fig. 2. At right, the forearms of the late 14th-century Tada copper figure have been digitally reconstructed, their position heightening its resemblance to the carved diviner shown at left in a detail from a 20th-century agere-Ifá. Right, created by Paul Chapin, Amherst College, Amherst, MA after piece 79.R.18 in the collection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. Left, MA 1999.17 The Barry D. Maurer (Class of 1959) Collection of African Art purchased with money from the Amherst College Discretionary Fund and funds from H. Axel Schupf (Class of 1957). Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA. Photo by Stephen Peteorsky. Images and comparison courtesy Rowland Abiodun.

why are its head-to-body proportions natural, why is its pose more active than most contemporaneous works, and why is its dress (which Abiodun considersto be shorts, but might well represent a wrapper tucked through the legs and in at the waist) decidedly informal? Abiodun uses his ákó-graphic àṣà perspective to consider the figure, concluding it might well depict an Ifá priest in the act of divination (Fig. 2),22 an intriguing proposition. Àṣe-graphic àṣà seem to comprise the largest category of older Yorùbá art. Abiodun sees them as catalysts that recognize metaphysical rather than mimetic traits, with triggering capabilities for an individual’s àṣe, the animating force that makes things happen. As such, artists prioritize those parts of the body most associated with àṣe, employing disproportion that recognizes them as vital loci: oversized head, torso, hands, and feet. In works from Ifẹ, the aggrandizement of certain aspects of these features can clearly be seen in the two standing bronze male figures, the linked male/female bronze pair, the diminutive bronze representing a female figure wrapped around a pot

Fig. 3. This terracotta head of a crowned hippopotamus, 11th-15th century CE, was one of several animal pot lids found at an excavation at the Lafogido site in Ifẹ. Drawing of an 11th-15th century CE Ifẹ work in the collection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
Fig. 3. This terracotta head of a crowned hippopotamus, 11th-15th century CE, was one of several animal pot lids found at an excavation at the Lafogido site in Ifẹ. Drawing of an 11th-15th century CE Ifẹ work in the collection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

Like the àkó-graphic àṣà, these also visualize oríkì, but to different ends. While àkógraphic àṣà memorialize the deceased, àṣe-graphic àṣà are visual invocations that empower the living. When dealing with the past, we are all outsiders tiptoeing on potential quicksand. While oral literature and cultural knowledge are indispensable for interpretation of sites like Ifẹ and their objects (and it is to be hoped that Abiodun will look even more closely at the arts of historical Ifẹ, Ọwọ, and Ijẹbu in future), we must remain aware that backwards projections, even when they seem logical, remain hypotheses. Our oral histories and literature are not time-stamped, and many finds are accidental, having lost their communicative contexts. Before we assume our present knowledge is applicable, we should remind ourselves that human beings and their cultures inevitably change over time. At Ifẹ, the most obvious change regarding artworks is visual: style, which has abandoned the greater naturalism of the past for the more relative naturalism of the 20th century. We know from oral history of other cultural changes, such as female rulers. Although they have not been part of recent record, oral history has kept their memory alive. If we were solely to rely on living memory, both the actual appearance and context of Ifẹ art would be inconceivable. While Abiodun’s deep linguistic and cultural knowledge facilitate his art historical interpretations of works centuries old, these abilities cannot guarantee complete accuracy. Indeed, Ifẹ is an example of how present knowledge can impinge on the past. If in living memory àkó figures have never represented royals in Abiodun’s hometown of Ọwọ, must we assume that this could never have happened six hundred years ago at Ifẹ? Counter to Abiodun’s assertions, 24 similar figures (bearing the same name) that represent both the Ọba and his mother (Fig. 4) do make funerary appearances in the cognate culture of the Benin Kingdom to Ifẹ’s east. Likewise, Abiodun’s claim that, since representing the Ọọni would have been unthinkable as recently as the 19th century, Ifẹ bronzes could not have depicted the monarch, rests on an assumption that may or may not be valid. The former value of bronze, the siting of certain objects within former palace grounds at Ifẹ, and details of Ifẹ costume compared to early royal dress representations at Benin provide counter-evidence that some Ifẹ works, though certainly not all, may indeed represent both royal men and women. But is this really a problem? I believe it is instead an exhilarating, valuable aspect of scholarship. All of us who deal with older art are attempting the impossible: complete reconstruction of the Ifẹ contextual matrix in the 11th-15th centuries. That does not make attempts to place objects on an intellectual witness stand foolhardy, it just forces us to consider evidence of various kinds, thrash out our contentions in stimulating interchange, and discover what new archaeological finds might upend everything considered so far.

Fig. 4. While ákó figures are not known to have represented monarchs at Ọwọ, they do so at Benin for the Ọba (left), his mother the Iyọba (right), and certain high chiefs. Left, Ọba Ovaranmwẹn’s ákó in a 1914 photo by W. B. Rumann; right, Iyọba Erediauwa’s ákó in a 1998 photo by Kathy Curnow.
Fig. 4. While ákó figures are not known to have represented monarchs at Ọwọ, they do so at Benin for the Ọba (left), his mother the Iyọba (right), and certain high chiefs. Left, Ọba Ovaranmwẹn’s ákó in a 1914 photo by W. B. Rumann; right, Iyọba Erediauwa’s ákó in a 1998 photo by Kathy Curnow.


Ultimately, the principal value of Abiodun’s important book is his confirmation that Yorùbá art and language do not merely intersect. Many other Yorùbá and Yorùbáist art historians have quoted illustrative odὺ Ifá, oríkì, or other aspects of oral literature in their discussion of objects in enriching ways. Rather, what Abiodun demonstrates is that art and language walk such closely parallel paths that they reinforce one another like a doubled underscore. Each has an invocative goal that is less concerned with observation or reflection of nature than it is with action. Perhaps we scholars should view our own words as action-invokers. As both insider and outsider scholarship further considers art as a verb, and as collaboration, cordial argumentation, and varied perspectives increase, every tread will make the paths of art and language deeper and closer. These routes lead to fuller knowledge of Yorùbá art, and every step–by lightweight and heavyweight alike–establish them more firmly. If the chicken cannot fly, it still provides tasty nourishment; the chameleon’s lack of speed does not prevent its amazing transformative abilities, and outsiders’ interpretations need not be negligible if they value oral literature and histories, develop fresh questions, and remain in conversation with their Yorùbá colleagues to the benefit of the field.

Works cited

Abiodun, Rowland. “Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics: The Concept of Ase.” African Arts 27.3 (1994): 68–78.
Abiodun, Rowland. Yorùbá Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Adeeko, Adeleke. “From Orality to Visuality: Panegyric and Photography in Contemporary Lagos, Nigeria.” Critical Inquiry 38.2 (2012): 330–361.
Blier, Suzanne Preston. “Art in Ancient Ife, Birthplace of the Yoruba.” African Arts 45.4 (2012): 70–85.
Blier, Suzanne Preston. Art and risk in ancient Yoruba: Ife history, power and identity, c. 1300. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Drewal, Henry J. “Art or accident: Yoruba body artists and their deity Ogun.” In Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, ed. Sandra T. Barnes, pp. 235-260. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Drewal, Henry J. “Beauty and being: aesthetics and ontology in Yoruba body art.” In Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, ed. Arnold Rubin, pp. 83-96. Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History, 1988.
Drewal, Henry J. “Mami Wata Shrines: Exotica and the Construction of Self.” In African material culture, ed. Mary Jo Arnoldi, Christraud M. Geary, and Kris L. Hardin, pp. 308-333. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.
Drewal, Henry J. and John Mason. Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yorùbá Universe. Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998.
Drewal, Margaret Thompson. “Projections from the Top in Yoruba Art.” African Arts 11.1 (1977): 43–49; 91–92.
Eyo, Ekpo. “Igbo ‘Laja, Owo.” West African Journal of Archaeology No. 6 (1976): 37–58.
Fagg, William. “The African Artist.” In Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art, ed. Daniel Biebuyck, pp. 42–57.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969. Fagg, William. Nigerian Images. London: Lund Humphries, 1963. Fatunsin, Antonia. “Recent Excavations at Owo.” Nigerian Heritage no. 1 (1992): 94–107.
Fraser, Douglas. “The fishlegged figure in Benin and Yoruba art.” In African Art and Leadership, ed. Douglas Fraser, pp. 261–294. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.
Gerbrands, Adrian A. “Review Primitive Art, Douglas Fraser.” American Anthropologist 65.5 (1963), 1184. Jones, Julie, Kate Ezra, Heidi King and Nina Capistrano. “Primitive Art.” Recent Acquisitions (Metropolitan Museum of Art) No. 1987/1988 (1987- 1988): 78–81.
Larsen, Lynne Ellsworth. CAA Reviews, June 9, 2016. http://www.caareviews. org/reviews/2703#.WsIqWIjwa70 Accessed June 14, 2017.
Lawal, Babatunde. “Àwòrán: Representing the Self and Its Metaphysical Other in Yoruba Art.” The Art Bulletin 83.3 (2001): 498–526.
Lawal, Babatunde. “Ori: The Significance of the Head in Yoruba Sculpture.” Journal of Anthropological Research 41.1 (1985): 91–103.
Lawal, Babatunde. “Orilonse: the hermeneutics of the head and hairstyles among the Yoruba.” In Hair in African art and culture, ed. Roy Sieber, pp. 92–109. New York: Museum for African Art; Munich: Prestel, 2000.
Sieber, Roy and Arnold Rubin, “On the Study of African Sculpture.” Art Journal 29.1 (1969): 24–31. Sprague, Stephen F. “Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba See Themselves.” African Arts 12.1 (1978): 52–59; 107.
Thompson, Robert Farris. “An Aesthetic of the Cool.” African Arts 7.1 (1973): 40–43; 64–67; 89–91.
Thompson, Robert Farris. “Esthetics in traditional Africa.” Art News 66.9 (1968): 44–45; 63–66.
Thompson, Robert Farris. African Art in Motion. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974.
Thompson, Black Gods and Kings. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1976.
Thompson, Robert Farris. “Yoruba Art Criticism.” In The Traditional Artist in African Societies, ed. Warren D’Azevedo, pp. 19–61. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973.
Willatt, Anna. “#girlbossesofgreatbritain–the one with the bootstrapping designer.” House of Coco blog, May 23, 2016.
https://www.houseofcoco.net girlbossesofgreatbritain-the-one-with-the-bootstrapping-designer/ Accessed February 23, 2017.
Willett, Frank with Barbara Blackmun. The Art of Ife: A Descriptive Catalogue and Database (CD-ROM). Glasgow: Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, 2004.


1 While some reviewers correctly noted that Abiodun points out a number of Africanist scholars whose work counters a wholly Western approach, others have also considered though not explored Abiodun’s observations in his introduction. Lynne Ellsworth Larsen’s positive review of the book, for example, states: “… I am wary of the implication that only those fluent in a particular language can offer insights into the art of a particular culture” (CAA Reviews, June 9, 2016)
2 Rowland Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 16.
3 Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art (2014), 16.
4 Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art (2014),1; 8–9.
5 “Primitive” was once rife in exhibition and book titles. Some museum departments bore it, such as the Art Institute of Chicago (at least as late as 1968), and terminology shifts were gradual. Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art absorbed the earlier Museum of Primitive Art in 1974, opening its collection in 1982 as the “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” wing, the museum’s publications continued to use the label “primitive” well into the late 1980s (Julie Jones, Kate Ezra, Heidi King and Nina Capistrano. “Primitive Art,” Recent Acquisitions [Metropolitan Museum of Art] No. 1987/1988 [1987-1988]: 78–81). Numerous auction houses, dealers, and collectors still cling to the term, in contrast to scholars.
6 Abiodun accurately notes that the Modernists’ adoption of African forms without consideration of their content perpetuated a formalist approach to African sculpture (“Understanding Yorùbá Art and Aesthetics: The Concept of Ase,” African Arts 27.3 [1994]: 69). While this approach persists among some dealers and collectors, it dominates few Africanist scholar’s work today. Stylistic analysis in concert with context can be useful, revealing temporal and geographic spheres of interchange, as ère ìbejì surveys have demonstrated.
7 In the interest of transparency, the author was one of Sieber’s students at Indiana University. At this same university, the author’s year-long study of Yorùbá and lack of tonal mastery generated mirth among her teacher and his friends whenever, for example she attempted to pronounce the Yorùbá word for “farm”. Due to her own linguistic incompetence, the author hereby apologizes for any orthographic inconsistencies, as well as any misuse of diacriticals or their absence in proper names.
8 Roy Sieber and Arnold Rubin, “On the Study of African Sculpture,” Art Journal 29.1 (1969): 24–31. This essay, reworked from their 1968 Tishman catalogue, was the first by Africanists in a professional art history periodical, reaching a large audience in the broader discipline.
9 They were common in earlier decades of the discipline. The late Douglas Fraser, for example, attributed the origin of a Yorùbá and Ẹdo motif to the ancient Middle East, without thorough consideration of its contextual meaning (“The fish-legged figure in Benin and Yoruba art,” in African Art and Leadership, ed. Douglas Fraser, pp. 261–294 [Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972]). Fraser’s diffusionism did not go unchallenged, however, even at the time. Dutch anthropologist Adrian Gerbrands skewered what he termed Fraser’s “matters of faith” in terms of unproven historical relationships based on imagery alone, noting “the farther away [from the present] the more exciting, as the author puts it” (“Review Primitive Art, Douglas Fraser,” American Anthropologist 65.5 [1963], 1184).
10 Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language (2014), 7, passim.
11 Henry J. Drewal’s explorations of Yorùbá tattooing can be found in “Beauty and being: aesthetics and ontology in Yoruba body art” in Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, ed. Arnold Rubin, pp. 83-96 (Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History, 1988) and “Art or accident: Yoruba body artists and their deity Ogun” in Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, ed. Sandra T. Barnes, pp. 235-260 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). His work on diaspora connections culminated in his exhibition catalogue with John Mason, Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yorùbá Universe (Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998), and the Yoruba facet of his Mami Wata publications is a particular focus of “Mami Wata Shrines: Exotica and the Construction of Self” in African material culture, ed. Mary Jo Arnoldi, Christraud M. Geary, and Kris L. Hardin, pp. 308-333 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996).
12 Robert Farris Thompson’s most comprehensive aesthetics study is found in “Yoruba Art Criticism” in The Traditional Artist in African Societies, ed. Warren D’Azevedo, pp. 19–61 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973), but he reexamined aesthetics more broadly in both “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” African Arts 7.1 (1973): 40–43; 64–67; 89–91 and “Esthetics in traditional Africa,” Art News 66.9 (1968): 44–45; 63–66. Thompson’s observed criteria of straightness and symmetry, which he elsewhere called gigun (Black Gods and Kings [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976], 3/2), countered William Fagg’s earlier interest in the artist Fagg called the “Master of Uneven Eyes” (“The African Artist,” in Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art, ed. Daniel Biebuyck, pp. 42–57 [Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1969], 50). The crookedness of that artist’s carved eyes, which Fagg found compelling, would have disqualified him as a fully competent artist in the Yorùbá aesthetic framework Thompson described.
13 Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974).
14 References to Stephen F. Sprague’s article (“Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba See Themselves,” African Arts 12.1 [1978]: 52–59; 107) have been made by Abiodun himself (Yorùbá Art and Language [2014], 183, 197, 200–202), as well as by Babatunde Lawal (“Àwòrán: Representing the Self and Its Metaphysical Other in Yorùbá Art,” The Art Bulletin 83.3 [2001]: 498–526) and humanities scholar Adeleke Adeeko (“From Orality to Visuality: Panegyric and Photography in Contemporary Lagos, Nigeria,” Critical Inquiry 38.2 [2012]: 330–361), as well as other researchers. In addition, the article’s reach transcends academia; London-based Yorùbá designer Elizabeth-Yemi Akingbade of Yemzi cites it as inspiration for her recent fashion collection (Anna Willatt, “House of Coco” blog, May 23, 2016). One could argue that Sprague’s access to Yorùbáist art historian Marilyn Houlberg provided a cultural knowledge shortcut, but his own training and familiarity with studio portraits prompted his inquiries.
15 Other authors who have commented on the topic of ìbọrí at length include Robert Farris Thompson (Black Gods and Kings [1976]), Margaret Thompson Drewal (“Projections from the Top in Yoruba Art,” African Arts 11.1 [1977]: 43–49; 91–92), and Babatunde Lawal (“Ori: The Significance of the Head in Yoruba Sculpture,” Journal of Anthropological Research 41.1 [1985]: 91–103 and “Orilonse: the hermeneutics of the head and hairstyles among the Yoruba” in Hair in African art and culture, ed. Roy Sieber, pp. 92–109 [New York: Museum for African Art; Munich: Prestel, 2000], as well as “Àwòrán: Representing the Self and Its Metaphysical Other in Yoruba Art,” The Art Bulletin 83.3 [2001]: 498–526). Abiodun’s observations added a new level to this previous scholarship.
16 Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language (2014), 33–34.
17 Academics have attacked the terms “traditional” and “contemporary,” since artworks described with these words can be contemporaneous, and the two divisions do not constitute closed circles in opposition. However, no concise descriptors have yet replaced them, so I use them with those caveats.
18 The most comprehensive Ifẹ site listings and images can be found in Frank Willett with Barbara Blackmun, The Art of Ife: A Descriptive Catalogue and Database [CD-ROM] (Glasgow: Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, 2004). Only Blackmun’s contribution, however, includes interpretation of the finds. Ọwọ archaeological work was conducted by Ekpo Eyo (“Igbo ‘Laja, Owo,” West African Journal of Archaeology No. 6 [1976]: 37–58) and Antonia Fatunsin (“Recent Excavations at Owo,” Nigerian Heritage no. 1 [1992]: 94– 107). Exciting work on Ifẹ glass by archaeologists and scientists such as Akin Ogundiran Lasisi Olanrewaju, Tunde Babalola, Akin Ige, and others expands our knowledge of the past, but does not rely on oral tradition.
19 Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language (2014), 241–43.
20 Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language (2014): 226–235.
21 Fagg speculated the figure originally sat on an actual quartz throne (Nigerian Images [London: Lund Humphries, 1963], 16), and Suzanne Blier suggested its missing forearms might have been posed in the Ògbóni members’ hand-enclosing-thumb gesture (“Art in Ancient Ife, Birthplace of the Yoruba,” African Arts 45.4 [2012]: 73 and Art and risk in ancient Yoruba: Ife history, power and identity, c. 1300 [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015], Plate 4; 53).
22 Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language (2014): 229–234.
23 Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language (2014): 336–340.
24 Abiodun, Yorùbá Art and Language (2014): 184-85; 210; 226 for àkó and monarchs generally, and 107–9; 216–220; 226; 236–37 for Ifẹ bronzes.

Rowland Abiodun
Amherst College

I was deeply touched and honored by the roundtable organized at the 2016 African Studies Association Conference to focus on my book, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art (2014). I want to thank Professor Funṣọ Afọlayan for contacting and bringing together a formidable group of scholars of Yorùbá art and culture to that end.

I was gratified that, by and large, all the panelists endorsed my premise on the fundamental importance of language in Yorùbá art studies. The first paper by Moyọ Okediji was a pleasant surprise. Even though this possibility has always existed, as I had taught a course in Yorùbá art entirely in Yorùbá language at the University of Ifẹ ̀ (renamed Ọbáfẹḿ i Awólọẃ ọ ̀ University) in the 1980s1, no one was expecting that his entire contribution to the roundtable discussion would be presented in Yorùbá language. Why not? I realized. The language is as fully developed as any other language in the world and it can, and should be spoken as well as written — especially when we discuss Yorùbá art. For the benefit of those not literate in Yorùbá language, Michael Afọlayan gave an elegant translation of Okediji’s paper in English. The excellent contents and presentation by Okediji touched on issues that lay at the heart of my book, namely its methodology and its insistence on the need for a Yorùbá voice to be heard literally and metaphorically in art historical discourse.

I will devote more space to Kathy Curnow’s paper because of its deeply problematic nature which raises fundamental questions and debates about the present and future of our field. Curnow, writes that “He [Abiodun] notes some Western art historians refer to African art as ‘primitive’, ‘rarely venture outside of Western paradigms, even when they analyze works from non-Western cultures’ and judge Yoruba sculpture by Western standards. Fifty years ago this was true, but the scholarly world has changed considerably.” (Italics mine).

Let me re-state my argument from my book, Yoruba Art and Language:

It is useful to give very brief but necessary background information about African art studies (with which many but not all of my readers may be familiar) to understand their link to the methodological problems still facing the discipline today. To support this move, I offer the following Yorùbá oẁ e, generally translated as a proverb. “Wọń ni,́ Amuń kuń , ẹrù ẹ́ wọọ́ . Ó ni,́ ‘Is̀ àlẹ̀ ló ti wọ́ wa.́” (“People said, Cripple, your load is crooked. He responded that, the crookedness was from the ground up.”) (In considering a problem, one must look at the root causes, not only its manifestations.) Most art scholars will acknowledge that because of the aesthetic, cultural, historical, and political predispositions built into the development of art history, the discipline itself has resisted non-Western approaches to the study of African art. (pp. 8-9).

It is laudable as Curnow reports, that “African art historians have long blasted the ‘primitive’ moniker and also distanced themselves from past formalistic- only approaches”. This step, though important, is not enough reason to exclude the study of terms like “primitive art”, “ethnographica curiosa” and many more when we critically examine the history and narrative of methodological problems in African art studies. In other words, we are not yet totally out of the woods methodologically, and the field is still evolving.

If indeed, “the scholarly world has changed considerably” as Curnow claims, where is the evidence for African-derived paradigms in the study of African art? As I stated on page 11 of my book, “Clearly, any decision to ignore Africa’s unique perspectives and languages on art and creativity as a whole would only hasten the loss of her well-deserved place in the international art scene.”

Roy Sieber, a pioneer and leader in the field of African art studies in the United States who also happened to be Curnow’s professor, rightly observed that:
Art is a cultural manifestation finally to be understood (as distinguished from “appreciated”) only in the light of its cultural origins. . . . Admiration in isolation easily leads to misunderstanding, and African art, its functions vaguely apprehended, has fallen prey to the taste of the twentieth century.2

Beyond that, he pointed out:
Like most art in the history of the world, African art is deeply involved in the sensible and spiritual goals of human beings. Instancing and symbolizing security, it lies at the center of a hard core of beliefs.”3

This insightful comment by Sieber challenges all Africanist scholars (including Africans born and raised in Africa) to begin to take seriously the issue of understanding as distinct from merely appreciating African art and indeed Yorùbá art, the focus of my book. Sieber was calling for the same measure of intellectual rigor and professional thoroughness often demanded in Western art history to be applied to the study of African art. He did not warn against the acquisition of relevant African languages to achieve this goal. Rather, he warned against “admiration in isolation” and falling “prey to the taste of the twentieth century”. I argue that it is impossible to understand African art in the light of “its cultural origins” without a command of the relevant African language.

It is taken for granted that the most respected and finest scholars of Western art history are fluent or nearly fluent in the reading, writing and speaking of the languages of the people whose art they study. Even scholars, whose mother-tongue is, for example, English or another European language, are not exempted from this demand for their research to be credible. It would therefore be a mistake – a misrepresentation – to suggest that I am arguing that you have to be Yorùbá by birth to understand Yorùbá art. That would be as absurd as saying that you have to have been born in Italy to understand Michelangelo. I argue that it is fundamentally important for a scholar of African art – whether they are born in Ile-́ Ifẹ̀ or Los Angeles – to learn the relevant African language and immerse themselves in it.

As professionals in the study of African art, why should the bar be lower? Our goal should not be only to “appreciate” African art but also to “understand” it. We would like to know how scholars of Chinese, Indian, or even Western art history who learn the languages of the cultures they study would respond to Curnow’s statement that “working with the art of bygone centuries makes all scholars outsiders.” (Italics mine).

Curnow has set up a dichotomy that I find deeply problematic even though it is obvious that this is what she would wish for the field of African art studies. Besides, it is faulty logic. I do not believe and have never said that some scholars are irreparably locked out of African art studies and others are not. What I am calling for is a remedy for what is lost when scholars do not make enough effort to study African art from an African perspective. I maintain that there is a drastic difference in the possibilities of understanding between scholars who have invested time, energy, and resources to learn and have a command of the languages and deep knowledge of the cultures they study and those who do not.

It is helpful to find out what Yoruba thought has to offer regarding the study of its art. Take for example, ìwà (the Yorùbá term for the essential nature of a thing, object or person).4 Not to understand or to undervalue this important prerequisite for eẉ à (the full and proper appreciation of a person or thing in itself) and to favor instead external criteria or explanations will not only further remove us from the Yorùbá aesthetic universe but also rob us of the full appreciation and understanding of Yorùbá art.

Fortunately, scholars of Yorùbá ancestral thought and literatures, with their wealth of oral data, can be of immense help to Yorùbá art historians whose studies need to be less speculative and more oriented toward Yorùbá thought.

Related to iẁ à is another important aesthetic concept called ojú-inú (literally translated as “inner eye”). Ojú-inú refers to insight, a special kind of understanding of a person, thing, or situation. It underscores the intended message in the Yorùbá saying, Imú ni àlejò fi í ríran, “The stranger (‘one with untrained eyes’) usually sees only through the nose.” “Without ojú-inu,́ one with untrained eyes, like a child in ignorance, may call a medicinal plant an edible vegetable,” oṃ oḍ é ò moògùn ó ń pè é ní èf̣ ó.̣

To be clear, ojú-inú is the intellect with which one perceives the individualized form, color, substance, outline, rhythm, and harmony of the subject. Such perception can be acquired through indigenous and culturally-situated sources such as chants, songs, and oríkì (citation and attributive poetry that may praise or be critical of its subject), by reference to Ifá and other divination literature (the intellectual powerhouse of the Yorùbá people), and, of course, extant examples of works of art. This sensibility is extremely important if the artists as well as the critic are to capture accurately the essential identity, character and function of their subject.

Curnow agrees that “Language mastery certainly provides the native speaker with access to inestimable insights regarding not only general worldview, but specifics of philosophy, history keeping and subtleties of knowledge transmission.” (Italics mine). But then she adds that, however, in the attempt to read an artwork and unpack its meaning, cultural insiders also face obstacles as well as advantages. Problems can magnify when the works date from the more distant past. The import of Abiodun’s major contributions regarding Yoruba’s art history and the validity of his contentions are considered in light of the varied contributions both foreign and Yoruba art historians bring to Yoruba scholarship, in the recognition that working with art of bygone centuries makes all scholars outsiders. (Italics mine).

Further on, Curnow asks pointedly, “Do insider advantages always trump outsiders’ perceptions?” By asking this question, it appears that she was setting the stage to express her reservations or perhaps, even signal the withdrawal of her endorsement for “language mastery” which she gave earlier. So, it does not come as a surprise when she plays down or blunts the impact of my contribution when she writes that, “Abiodun’s deep linguistic and cultural knowledge facilitate his art historical interpretations of Ife works, yet these abilities cannot guarantee accuracy… Likewise Abiodun’s claim that, since representing the Ọọǹ i would have been unthinkable as recently as the 19th century, it is arguable that Ifẹ̀ bronzes could not have depicted the monarch.” (Italics mine). In pushing the argument about whether or not Ifẹ̀ bronzes could have depicted the monarch, it is telling that Curnow omitted how and why I came to my conclusion on the ancient works of Ifẹ̀

Figure 1: Mask called “Ọbalùfọ̀n,” Ife, Nigeria; Fourteenth-fifteenth century C. E. Copper. Height: 13ins (33 cm). Reproduced by permission of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, 38.1.2 and courtesy of the Museum for African Art, New York, USA

It was not easy, as I stated on page 212 of my book:
For most Western-trained art scholars – even for me, Yorùbá-born and native-speaking – it has, no doubt, been extremely tempting to link Ifẹ̀ naturalism with Ifẹ̀ kings and rulers. Not only is such a hypothesis quite appealing to Yoruba indigenes but also to the researcher who is more inclined to rank Ifẹ̀ naturalism as a superior style (or àṣà) fit only for Yorùbá kings. It is not always easy to see that these suppositions belong solidly with the same Frobenius argument that Greco-Roman classical traditions in Western art represent a more “advanced” civilization – a proposition that continues to inform the theses of virtually all Western-educated scholars on the origins of Ifẹ̀ naturalism. Mesmerized by the pronouncements of the most prominent art scholars in the field, researchers have been most reluctant to explore afresh what Ifẹ̀ naturalism could mean to the society that is responsible for the magnificent works from ancient Ile-́ Ifẹ.̀

Scholars of African art are still tempted to rely on Western notions of “naturalism” to solve what has been, and still is perceived by many as an anomaly in the history of African art. Thus, calling just about every Ifẹ̀ head “classical” or labeling them “kings or queens and removing them from the category of “primitive art” may seem harmless, perhaps even flattering. This has made it extremely difficult to pursue the search for the real meaning( s) of Ifẹ̀ naturalism. Many scholars, though well-meaning, have never bothered to ask the hard questions about Ifẹ̀ art.

Now, let us return to Curnow’s assertion that “working with art of bygone centuries makes all scholars outsiders.” So she is saying that in these cases, the knowledge obtained from indigenous language and culture cannot be of any use. The implication is that Leo Frobenius’ 1913 conclusions on the ancient art from Ile-́ Ifẹ,̀ for example, must have the same validity as mine. I will not dispute the fact that Frobenius was an imaginative scholar, but he was certainly far from being knowledgeable in the culture and language of Yorùbá people. Thus, he was not qualified to speak for the Yorùbá people and their art in his book which he, ironically, titled “Voice of Africa.” Frobenius in his own words writes of the art of ancient Ifẹ:̀

Here were the remains of a very ancient and fine type of art . . . these meager relics were eloquent of symmetry, vitality, a delicacy of form directly reminiscent of ancient Greece and proof that, once upon a time, a race far superior to the negro has been settled here.5

In her efforts to help scholars like Frobenius gain credibility without the acquisition of the relevant language skills and cultural knowledge of the people whose art they study, Curnow presents a dichotomy that would make it possible for all scholars to be equals. Yet, this strategy does not appear to resolve the problem as she would have wished. In the following praise for the work of Abiodun who according to her categorization is an “insider”, we see how she struggles with this dilemma:

“His [Abiodun’s] overarching contribution, however, may be the invention of three terms that are truly illuminating categorizations. They grow from deep linguistic and cultural reflection, and have the ability to change the perspectives of those who employ them. … While his terminology can be applied to traditional Yoruba art of any era, it is particularly helpful when applied to the more distant past, such as those terra cottas and bronzes from 11th – 15th century Ile-Ife or early ivories or terra cottas from Owo.”

My work is on-going and I’ll be the first to admit that it can be improved through constructive criticisms from colleagues in and outside our field. It is in this spirit that I heartily welcome Curnow’s question as to why, for example, the Seated Tada figure’s dress “(which Abiodun considers to be shorts, but might well be a wrapper tucked through the legs and in at the waist) decidedly informal?” My decision to call what the Seated Tada figure is wearing is based on visually compelling evidence from several sources – all of which I have carefully documented in my book. I will re-state them.

Figure 2: Panoramic view of bottom section of ìrókẹ,́ Ifá divination tapper, Ọwọ, Nigeria. Fifteenth – sixteenth century C.E. Ivory, Height: 44.5 cm. Reproduced by permission of Rolf Miehler.
Figures 3a and 3b: Osùn babaláwo, (Ifá priest’s staff of àṣẹ) juxtaposed with close-up of similar staff on ìrókẹ́ babaláwo in ivory. The iron Osùn is 39 ¾ inches in height and dates to mid-20th century, reproduced by permission of Drs. John and Nicole Dintenfass and courtesy of the Museum for African Art, New York, USA; the ìrókẹ́ babaláwo (Ifá divination tapper in ivory, Ọwọ, Nigeria, dates to 15th/16th century and measures 44.5 cm, reproduced by permission of and courtesy of Rolf Miehler, Germany.
Figure 4a and 4b: Close-up views of Tada Seated Figure’s short pants; and similar pants worn by an Ifa priest on divination tapper in ivory, reproduced by permission and courtesy of Rolf Miehler, Germany.
Figure 4a and 4b: Close-up views of Tada Seated Figure’s short pants; and similar pants worn by an Ifa priest on divination tapper in ivory, reproduced by permission and courtesy of Rolf Miehler, Germany.

The first example comes from a 16th century (ir̀ ókẹ)́ Ifá divination tapper in ivory (figure 110) in my book.

A panoramic view of the bottom section of an ivory i r̀ ókẹ́ from Ọẁ ọ,̀ dated sixteenth century … lends support to the notion that this simple but sophisticated dress code for celebrated If priests must be a few hundred years old. ..The figure in the center is identifiably a leading Ifá priest, based on the scepter osuǹ babalaẃ o … that he holds in his left hand and the àdo ́ (a medicinal gourd) on the right. Osuǹ babalaẃ o (also known as ọp̀ a ́ ọr̀ ẹr̀ ẹ/̀ ọp̀ á oṣ̀ ooro)̀ is a scepter or staff usually surmounted by a bird motif called Ẹyẹkaǹ or ẹyẹ oko (the lone and wild hermaphroditic bird) but which was later renamed Ẹyẹ’lé (the pigeon or the domesticated bird) when it was able to reproduce and became two. Thus, Ẹyẹkaǹ became the symbol of the Ifá priest’s àṣẹ to heal, and confer blessings of ire owó (riches), ire ọmọ (children, and ire ài ̀ku ́ pari ́ iẁ a ̀ (longevity) on his clients … … Of immediate interest to us in this scene, however, is the pair of short pants worn by the babalaẃ o – its construction, design, and similarity to the short pants worn by the seated bronze figure from Tada. Though gathered at the waist to create a certain billowing effect, these short pants are quite close in design to the pair worn by the Tada seated figure. Both pairs of short pants are not long enough to reach the knees and have bands at the waist and, are at the bottom of each pant leg.

The zig-zag designs on the fabric of the short pants on the standing figure in ivory appear to be embroidered or at least raised. The diamond designs on the Tada figure are related aesthetically to the zigzag designs on the ir̀ ókẹ ́ because both are variations of the same basic design. Though in different media, copper and ivory, – these designs show a preference for an embroidered or slightly raised fabric. Equally noteworthy is that in both media, the torsos of the figures are bare-chested which coincides with the images of Ifá priests in Chapter 4, Figure 59, and chapter 5, Figures 74 and 75 of my book. In all, there is convincing evidence that the Seated Figure from Tada is a distinguished Yorùbá diviner in Nupe country.( See pages 234, 235 of my book).

The Seated Figure from Tada is decidedly professional in pose and dress of his time. More importantly, this exercise demonstrates convincingly how a good knowledge of the language and culture can yield a meaningful interpretation when “working with the art of bygone centuries”. Curnow also raises another important question,

“If ako figures have never represented royals in Abiodun’s hometown of Owo in living memory, must we assume that this could never have happened six hundred years ago in Ife? Counter to Abiodun’s assertions, similar figures (with the same name) that represent both the Oba and his mother … do make funerary appearances in the cognate culture of the Benin Kingdom.”
A quick and easy answer if I had not done any intensive research on the subject of àkó in Ọ̀wọ̀ would be yes for the same reasons that Curnow has already given. But my answer is no and I will re-state my argument as succinctly as possible.

In Yoruba culture, there is a fairly wide range of preexisting as̀ ạ ̀ (style, tradition, custom – all of which are, by definition, always time framed) from which the artist may choose. If the carving was for an àkó second-burial effigy in Òẉ ò,̣ the artist worked in total seclusion for several months or more, and conformed to an àkó-graphic as̀ ạ ̀ (an artistic style, tradition, custom which preceded photography probably by more than 500 years).
This effigy aims for a high degree of resemblance to the deceased. During the outing or public presentation of the àkó effigy, what the audience experienced was an exceptionally well-executed sculpture which most people

Figure 5a: Àkó figure of Ameri ̀ Ọlaṣ́ ubúde, (mother of Ọlat́ ẹŕ ù Ọlaǵ beg̀ i ́ II, Ọlọẃ ọ̀ of Ọẁ ọ)̀ . Artist: Og̀ uń lẹý ẹ Ọlọǵ ań . Photo by William B. Fagg, 1959; Object number PSC1986. 3. 779. Image number: PCB 4823. Courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA


Figure 5b: Close-up view of the Àkó figure for Amerì Ọláṣubúde (mother of Ọlátẹ́rù Ọlágbègí II, Ọlọ́wọ̀ of Ọ̀wọ̀). Artist: Ògúnlẹ́yẹ Ọlọ́gán, Photo by William B. Fagg, 1959. Object number: PSC 1986. 3. 1774. Image number: PCB 4818. Courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

believed was not made only by human hands. The artist, the audience thought, must have been assisted by some otherworldly beings or or̀ iṣ̀ a.̀
Yet, there continues to be much confusion about àkó in Ọẁ ọ̀ and Benin6 on the role of àkó effigies in Ọẁ ọ,̀ Frank Willett has used R. E. Bradbury’s conclusion on the role of “similar” effigies also called àkó in Benin. For them, the effigy is to “symbolize the continuing nature of the chiefly office despite the death of the temporary holder.”7 Assuming that this idea is true of Benin àko,́ Willett did not offer us sufficient reasons for thinking that the same must be true of Ọẁ ọ ̀ àko,́ either in the past or present, apart from the fact that both effigies are known by the same name. Furthermore, Willett’s unifunctional assumptions in his àkó study must have prevented him from recognizing other possibilities. In any case, the Benin àkó effigy from which Willett suggests the Ọẁ ọ ̀ form must have been derived is “a figure of red cloth sewn over a piece of wood for a nose and clothed in chiefly beads.”8 (Italics mine). The least we can do to counter this hypothesis is to visually recognize the clear difference between Benin and Ọẁ ọ̀ àkó effigies.

Most importantly, àkó in Ọẁ ọ̀ is known and fully identified in Ọẁ ọń riń Méji ̀ in Ifá orature as “Àko,́ Alaẃ or̀ oǹ p̀ ap̀ a,̀ Ẹkuń ọmọ ni ́i ́ sun”9 (Àko,́ the Restless, Who mourned his lack of children). A focused and intensive study on the meaning and function of àkó in Benin similar to the one I have done on àkó in Owo is long overdue. Until this has been done, any pronouncement on the relationship between the àkó in Ọẁ ọ̀ and Benin should be regarded as purely speculative. A more detailed account of Ọẁ ọ̀ àkó is contained in my work, “A Reconsideration of the Function of Àko,́ Second Burial Effigy in Ọẁ ọ”̀ , AFRICA 46, (1) 1976: 4-20, and Chapter 6 of my 2014 book. I also have a chapter, “Ọẁ ọ̀ et le Mythe de la Benin-isation,” in Arts du Nigeria, edited by Jean-Hubert Martin, Etienne Feá u and Héleǹ e Joubert, 1997:55-58: Paris: Le Museé : Reunion des museé s nationaux, that addresses more broadly the Ọẁ ọ-̀ Benin relationship.

On the subject of Orí, Curnow states that my chapter on Ori-́ inú was “far from the first”.10 This assertion is incorrect.

Figure 6a: Ìbọrí, representing Orí-inú (center) is displayed between the top and the base of the Ilé-Orí (‘house’ of Orí-inú). Hide, cloth, and cowrie shells. Height: 10 cm. Courtesies of Professor and Mrs Wande Abimbola (for the Ìbọrí); and Professor and Mrs Richard Taylor (for the Ile-Ori). Photo: R. Abiodun, 1986.
Figure 6b: Terracotta head from Ìta Yemòó, Ifẹ̀. Height: 7 5/8ins; Escav. No I. Y. 30/3. Courtesy of Frank Willett; Reproduced by permission of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. This is an example of Orí-òde the outer, easily recognizable, ‘naturalistic’ head

In fact, my first publication on the subject of Ori ́ and its interpretation dates to 1975, in my chapter on “Ifá Art Objects: An Interpretation Based on Oral Traditions” published in Yoruba Oral Traditions edited by Wande Abimbola, 1975, pages 421-469, and so predated her claim that the first one was published in 1976. This was followed by my “Ori ́ Divinity: Its Worship, Symbolism and Artistic Manifestation” published in the Proceedings of the World Conference of Or̀ iṣ̀ à Tradition, Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ifẹ, Ile-Ife, 1981: pages 484-515. And in 1987, I published “Verbal and Visual Metaphors: Mythical Allusions in Yoruba Ritualistic Art of Ori ́” in Word and Image, 1987, 3, 3: 252-270. What now constitutes chapter 1 on Ori ́́ in my 2014 book has been drawn from all of the above works and more recent research on the subject of Ori.́ My original contribution to the scholarly debate on Ori ́́ is the discovery of a clear graphic distinction between Orí-inú (also called ‘Àkàtà-gbiri-gbìrì-gbiri’ and ‘Kótópó-kelebe’), the inner spiritual head, determiner of one’s lot, and Orí-òde (the outer ‘naturalistic, recognizable physical head) – a distinction which dates back to the 12th – 15th century as is evident from the terracotta head and ritual pot excavated from Ifẹ.̀ (See chapters 1 and 2 of my book).

Even though Curnow acknowledges my Yoruba-derived paradigms of ‘àko-́ graphic àsạ ’̀ , ‘as̀ ẹ -̣ graphic àsạ ’̀ , and ‘ep̀ e-̀ graphic àsạ ’̀ as “truly illuminating”, she omitted the other equally important indigenous Yorùbá artistic and aesthetic terms and paradigms such as ‘oju-́ inu’́ ,‘oju-́ oṇ a’̀ , ‘iluti’, ‘im̀ oj̣ u-́ moṛ a’, ‘ti ́tọ́ ’ ‘i ̀farabalẹ̀’ (six in all). I was the first scholar to introduce them into Yorùbá artistic discourse11.

Also left out of Curnow’s paper is my important contribution to a previously hitherto less researched aspect of Yorùbá art – àṣẹ,- a subject which now constitutes Chapter 2 titled “Àṣẹ: The Empowered Word Must Come to Pass” in my book.

Figure 7: Gagged head. Ọ̀sángangan Ọbámákin, Ifẹ̀. Twelfth – fifteenth century c. e. Terracotta; Height: 5 1/4ins (13.5 cm). Reproduced by permission of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, 49.1.20; and courtesy of the Museum for African Arts, New York, USA
Figure 7: Gagged head. Ọ̀sángangan Ọbámákin, Ifẹ̀. Twelfth – fifteenth century c. e. Terracotta; Height: 5 1/4ins (13.5 cm). Reproduced by permission of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, 49.1.20; and courtesy of the Museum for African Arts, New York, USATo understand how as̀ ẹ ̣ works, we need to be familiar with the terms, jé ̣ (to answer), sẹ ̣ (to come to pass), and pe ̀ (to summon) – all of whose meanings illuminate the effectuation of power in as̀ ẹ ̣ and ep̀ e ̀ (when as̀ ẹ ̣ is used to curse or harm). Consider the following Ifá divination verse: Oò ̀jó ̣ ti ́ a b’Ep̀ e ̀

La pa’̀ sẹ ̣ Oò ̀jó ̣ ti ́ a b’Óhuǹ La pe ̀’pe ̀ Wó ̣n pa’̀ sẹ ̣ Wọ́n pe ̀’pe ̀ Ohuǹ ló wá kù The day Ep̀ e ̀ (Curse) was birthed Was the day Àṣẹ (Life-force) came into existence. Likewise, Ohuǹ (Speech) was born on the same day Ep̀ e ̀ (Curse) was invoked. Àṣẹ (Life-force) was asserted, Ep̀ e ̀ (Curse) was summoned, But they both still need Ohuǹ (Speech) to activate them.12

Without Ohuǹ (“speech,” “voice,” or “the performed word”), neither Èpe ̀ (the malevolent component of life force), nor As̀ ẹ̣ , the largely beneficent component of life force – two sides of the same coin – can fulfill their mission. Thus, the main reason for gagging criminals before their execution, which is a theme in ancient Ifẹ̀ art, most probably was to prevent them from inflicting ep̀ e ̀ on their executioners.

But who or what is “Ohuǹ ”? “Ohuǹ ” belongs to Ifa,́ Ẹ̀ la,̀ or Ọ̀ruń mi ̀là (often used interchangeably). Babalaẃ o (Ifá priests) assert that Ọ̀ruń mi ̀là is the only or̀ is̀ ạ ̀ that speaks and, therefore, the recognized “spokes-deity” for them.13 Ọ̀ruń mi ̀la,̀ the Yorùbá believe, is the only witness at creation; thus, he knows the original essence and name of every creature on earth including those of the or̀ is̀ ạ .̀ And, because of Ọ̀ruń mi ̀la’̀ s encyclopedic and authoritative knowledge, Ifa ́ (the divination system associated with Ọ̀ruń mi ̀la)̀ has become indispensable to the activation of as̀ ẹ ̣ and ep̀ e.̀ Both as̀ ẹ ̣ and ep̀ e ̀ operate by identifying the targeted subject by their original or primordial name(s) and calling (pe ̀) them. Thus, a targeted subject must answer or respond (jẹ́ or dáhuǹ ) that is, obey the caller. Àsẹ ̣ and Èpe ̀ can be likened to “potent and effective traditional medicinal preparations which respond like the ignited fire” which is commonly known as a-je-́ ̣ bi-́ ina.́ 14

‘Jé ̣’ and ‘dáhuǹ ’ have important aesthetic implications in Yorùbá art, especially under the aesthetic canon of i ̀luti.́ 15 I ̀luti,́ literally “good hearing” determines whether or not a work of art “is alive” and “responds” that is, jẹ́ or dáhuǹ . In a nutshell, i ̀luti ́ is a foremost criterion in determining if a work of art fulfills its artistic intention promptly and with precision. Black churches in the United States still say, “God is able!”16 This i ̀luti-́ like phenomenon is still very much alive in what has been generally labeled a “call and response” mode of worship. In West Africa, the Yorùbá look for an or̀ is̀ ạ ̀ with i ̀luti ́ to worship, as evident in the saying “Eḅ oṛ a to ́ luti ́ la ̀ n ́ bo”̣ , “We worship and celebrate only deities who can respond when called upon.”17 Similarly, in judging art, i ̀luti ́ plays an important role. It aids a critic in determining whether or not the work in question is “alive,” “responding,” and “efficacious,” that is jé ̣ or dáhùn. In essence, therefore, i ̀luti focuses on the fulfillment of artistic intention, as well as precision in the artistic process.18

For a work of art to have “the power to respond,” the artist must have insight into his or her subject. Artists must possess the “inner eye” (oju-́ inu)́ by which they can discern the “essential nature” (iẁ a)̀ and use the citation poetry (oríkì) of their artistic subject.19 With oju-́ inu,́ an artist may identify and employ the right forms, colors, designs, and combination of motifs for, say, a Sạ̀ ngó sculpture, Oḅ at̀ álá altar, or Oḅ aluẃ ayé shrine as captured by Phyllis Galembo. or the costume for an ancestral masquerade, so as to imbue it with its proper identity and the aṣ̀ ẹ of the specific or̀ ìsạ̀ . Without aṣ̀ ẹ, many an attractive work of art would fail to make an appreciable religio-aesthetic impact on their audience.

The warm reception and approval given a work of art by the community is considered quite important. For example, it is common knowledge that following an unenthusiastic reception of their work, amateurs and untalented carvers have quietly withdrawn to their farms or returned to petty trading, never to carve again. Though members of the audience are not always willing to discuss their reaction openly, a perceptive researcher can usually sense

Figure 8: Priestess Ọmọ́lájayé Oloroke at her Ọbalúwayé shrine, Ilé-Ifẹ̀. 1994. Photo by Phyllis Galembo, reproduced by permission of Phyllis Galembo.the spontaneous acceptance or rejection of works at festivals and other public events. Yorùbá tradition enjoins obedience to established procedures and rules so that efficacy might result.

Wúrúkú l’à í-yínrìnká, Gbòọ̀ ṛ ò-̣ gboọ ṛ o ̣ l’àá dob̀ ̣ ále ̀ ̣ Bí ènìà kò bá sẹ é gég̣ é ̣ bí a ti í sẹ é Kì í-rí gég̣ é ̣ bí ó ti í rí.20 Kneeling-and-rolling-from-side-to-side is the woman’s way of paying royal homage.21

Prostrating-face-down is the man’s way of greeting his superior. If one fails to do it the customary way, It will not turn out as well as it always has. (My translation)

Of immediate relevance to the understanding of i ̀luti,́ which can also be broadly described as a “call-response” phenomenon, is that the Yorùbá believe in the existence and intrinsic potency of primordial names of all individual living and nonliving things – a phenomenon tied to the concept of as̀ ẹ ,̣ which has already been discussed. Consequently, the concept and possession of etí, “ears” or “good hearing” in both its physical and metaphorical sense, are essential for efficient functioning and communication in art and life.
Etí kò sí lórí Orí dì àpólà igi.22 With the ears missing, The head is no more than a dumb piece of wood.

This is a critical comment whose implications for Yorùbá art go beyond the physical representation of the ears. Indeed, the artist, critic, and audience all have need of i ̀luti ́ to be able to understand, and enjoy the art object.23

Curnow neither mentioned nor discussed my original contribution to Yorùbá art history through my introduction and in-depth studies of the indigenous Yorùba ́ aesthetic concept of Oju-́ inu ́ and Ìmoj̣ ú-moṛ a. These concepts challenge the popular but erroneous notion that ancestral or precolonial Yorùbá art were ever static, unchanging, and repetitive. What makes these concepts even more important to art historians is that they embody germs of change, initiative, and creativity that give dynamism to Yorùbá art. Oju-́ inú and Ìmoj̣ ú-moṛ a (imagination and ability to respond to change) are not only crucial factors in the adoption of new as̀ ạ ,̀ techniques, and materials – in spite of the seemingly unchanging traditions of Yorùbá art – but also a means whereby the culture has managed to survive in the new environments and under the difficult conditions and enslavement in the New World. The inventiveness of the Yorùbá in the diaspora and their effective use of substitutes in art and religion most probably derive their inspiration and sanction from oẁ e or sayings such as the following:

Bí a ò bá rí àdàn24 A à fi òòbè sẹ ḅ o.̣ In the absence of the big fruit bat traditionally approved for sacrifice, Another kind of bat, òòbè25 [house-bat which is smaller in size and lives under the eaves], may be used.

Even though quite supportive of creativity, innovation, and change, the Yorùbá caution through oju-inu and ìmojú-mora on the nature, reasonableness, and limit of these qualities. For example, the following proverb would be apt when judging a sculpted figure.

Kì í sẹ pé etí kì í gùn, Kì i ́ sẹ pé etí kì í fè,̣ Sụ̀ gbóṇ èyí tó bá sẹ̀ èsị̀ ré koj̣ á ori,́ Ó ti di ti ehoro.26 It is not that ears cannot be long. It is not that the ears cannot be wide. But when ears perchance shoot past the head, Then they belong to the rabbit. (My translation)

And yet, in the same sculpture, the Yorùbá may not only permit but accept as beautiful a wider range of modes of artistic presentation, as is evident in this saying:

Bí a sạ́ kéḳ é ̣ Aájò eẉ à là ń sẹ . Bì a b’ àbàjà, Aájò eẉ à la ńsẹ . Bí a sì fèṛ èḳ é ̣ sílè ̣ l›óḅ òṛ ó ̣ Aájò eẉ à náà la ńse.27 If we have the kéḳ é28facial mark, It is for the sake of eẉ a.̀ If we carry the àbàjà29 mark, It is for beauty. And if we leave the face unmarked, It is also for the sake of eẉ a.̀ (My translation).

Ẹwà here (as fully discussed in my book) is more than “beauty” in the Western definition and concept of that term. Ẹwà is the expression and appreciation of ìwà (the essential nature of a person or thing), as implied in the Yorùbá aphorism, “Iẁ à l’ẹwa.̀” Furthermore, making marks on the face is better understood within the context of “àṣà” (style, custom, tradition, a form

Figure 9: Head, Ọbalárá’s land, Ifẹ̀. Twelfth – fifteenth century c. e., Terracotta; Height: 6 1/8ins (15.5 cm). Reproduced by permission of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, 1999, 2.5; and courtesy of the Museum for African Art, New York, USAof individuality which is always time framed).

Most importantly, the information conveyed in the Yorùbá saying above must be relevant to how we view and interpret the presence or the lack of facial markings in many Ifẹ̀ heads. The following verse from Ifá hints at the kind of oju-́ inú required to understand and appreciate the creative genius of Ọ̀bat̀ ála/́ Or̀ iṣ̀ aǹ ́la,́ the Creator divinity and the first sculptor and patron of all Yorùbá artists: Òri ̀sạ ̀ńlá d’áró mẹ́ ta Ó dá kan ní dúdú Ó dá kan ní pupa Ó dá kan ní funfun Dúdú ni o re ̣ mí O ò gboḍ ọ̀ re ̣ mí ní pupa Dúdú ni o re ̣ mí O ò gboḍ ọ̀ re ̣ mí ní funfun Ìwà mi ni o kọ́ tètè re ̣ Ní kùtùkùtù Oḅ ari ̀sạ ̀ Or̀ is̀ ạ ǹ ́lá prepared three dyes He made one black30 He made one red31 He made one white32 Make me black Do not make me red Make me black Do not make me white Dye me with my iẁ à first At the dawn of creation33 Or̀ iṣ̀ aǹ ́lá is the master of oju-́ inú (inner eye), for which reason he has the orí ki,̀ “Agbó kùnkùn-ṣọna”̀ , the òri ̀ṣà who creates in total seclusion which may not be within easy reach of a “stranger” who sees only through “the nose”. During the colonial era in many parts of Nigeria, speaking in vernacular (local language) in high schools including mine was punishable by up to 12 strokes of the cane. The British colonizer did not need to be physically present for the legacy to continue. What a price to pay for “education”! Speaking, writing and thinking in English, French or Latin (which is no longer spoken but enshrined in the Classics departments of many academic institutions of former colonies) — was actively promoted.

Today researching and theorizing African art in a colonial language and thought is the norm. The result has been a systematic undermining of an irreplaceable voice and the unique contribution of the makers and users of African art. Indeed, many scholars of Yorùbá birth are today even ashamed of being caught speaking their mother tongue, for fear of being called “illiterate”, “uncivilized”, “primitive”, and not “forward-looking”. Other psychological repercussions of this state of affairs include hating one’s language and cultural heritage. We should not be surprised, therefore, when Curnow reports that, “In 2002, an informal survey I [Curnow] conducted in Lagos, with twenty Yorùbá males under the age of thirty revealed none who could name the òri ̀ṣà of smallpox, none who knew of any masquerades other than egúngún, and none who had visited a diviner.” This survey is not only unscientific, but it also demonstrates conclusively that the colonization process has been successful in such a large and diverse urban area. Curnow would term those “twenty Yoruba males” “outsiders” to their own culture. That said, I am inclined to believe that a similar survey conducted in the core of other Yorùba ́ towns like I ̀bàdaǹ , Ọẁ ọ,̀ or Ọỳ ọ ́ might have yielded different results. Clearly, every language is a carrier and repository of a people’s philosophy, history, psychology, religion, politics, and art. Hence, I have not only privileged but also called the Ifá literary corpus “the intellectual power house” of the Yorùbá people. Too many scholars are still not inclined to spend sufficient time studying and engaging the Yorùbá language to deepen their understanding of Yorùbá art. If and when they do, they dread the moment they are confronted with the problems of cross-cultural translation and its attendant challenges. The result is that we may never have the benefit of the deep reservoir of knowledge embedded in Ifá verses, or ori ́ki ̀ which comprises the verbal, visual and performative modes in Yorùbá thought. So, the vexing question in African humanistic studies in general is: how much weight (if any) should scholars give to African languages in research on Africa? No doubt, most scholars find it more convenient to abandon the study and inclusion of indigenous African languages in African art historical studies but adopt instead any of the European languages mainly because it is considered ‘modern’, ‘global’ and more accessible. As I have argued in my book, the concept of Orí ki ̀ — and not just Oẁ e, generally translated as “proverbs”—can immeasurably deepen our understanding Yorùbá Art. The following verse summarizes the centrality of Oríki ̀ in Yorùbá art studies: Àńki ̀ í Àńsà á Ó ní òun ò meṇ i tókú O ńgbó ̣ “ikú mé ṛ ù Ò p̣ àgá Abisutabíòdòdó Alábàoḳ à Arokofẹ́ yej̣ e”̣ O ní “Àgbè ̣ lókú ni tàbí òṇ á jà?” We recite someone’s ori ́ki ̀ We intone his attributes But an ignorant person says he does not know who has died. He hears “Death has taken a renowned man, A titled man, Whose-yams-spread-like-petals Who-possesses-a-barn-of-corn Whose-fields-are-a-bounty-for-birds,” The [ignorant] person still asks, “Is the dead man a farmer or a trader?”34 The fact that an art scholar has not been trained to recognize the place of ori ́ki ̀ in the retrieval of artists’ names and their histories should not lead us to conclude that Yorùbá artists are anonymous. Note how, in the book, I have used ori ́ki ̀ to open up new areas of investigation for the renowned Yorùbá sculptor, Ọlọẃ ẹ̀ of Is̀ ẹ̀ in chapter 9 of my book. It is disconcerting that arguing for the fundamental role of languages for the study of African art still encounters opposition from the academic community — when it is already taken for granted in the study of the arts from other parts of the world. Could it be that colonialism has taken such deep roots in the study of colonized peoples that it is no longer possible for scholars to be freed from its control in their research and theorization of African studies? Let me invoke an incantation that could make it easier to ward off the malevolent spells such as the one that would prevent us from seeing with the “oju-́ inu”́ – the indispensable sense that we cannot possess without fluency in Yorùbá language. Èdi ̀ ò ní di ̀ wa o. Àṣẹ. Èdi ̀ ki ̀ í mú aláṣọ kan Èdi ̀ ò ní mú wa o. Àṣẹ. May the powerful malevolent spell, Edi ̀,̀ never bind us. Aṣ̀ ẹ.

Èdi,̀ however powerful, never succeeds in causing one to remove the only clothes he/she is wearing (in the harmattan season). May E ̀di never succeed in possessing our mind. Àṣẹ.

Figure 10: Agere-Ifá with figures. Artist: Ọlọ́wẹ̀ of Ìsẹ̀. Early Twentieth century; Wood, pigment; Dimensions: 54.5 x 35.8 x 26.0 cm. Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection. Reproduced by permission of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA

The only clothes Africa has left is its language and all the neo-colonial forces are poised to remove it in order to assume total control of Africa’s culture, art and thought system. (It is pertinent to state that in Yorùbá culture, literal nakedness in this circumstance is regarded as a sign of mental derangement). Yet, no great civilization in the world has ever, voluntarily, given up its language for anything, no matter how precious, in order to become an “outsider” to its own culture.35 In Ile-́ Ifẹ,̀ an equally relevant prayer is said (in Ifẹ̀ dialect) during the Ọlọ́jọ́ festival:
Orí ló ń dá eṇ i. Èsí oǹdayé Òrìsạ̀ ló ń pa’ni í dà Óṇ oṇ pa òrìsạ̀ á dà Òrìsạ̀ loọ́ ̣ pa ní í dà bí ísụ oṇ sun. Ayé má pa tèmi dà Kí orí mi má sẹ orí hèḥ è ̣ Kí o má gbà’bòḍ è36 Orí is the creator of being Before the world began It is the Òrìsạ̀ (Supreme Being) who can change being. No one changes Òrìsạ̀ . It is Òrìsạ̀ who changes one, like a yam being roasted. Ayé (powerful worldly forces) please do not interfere with my destiny. My Orí let me not become a laughing stock, Do not allow evil-doers to spoil my lot.


Abimbola, Wande. 1968. Ijinle Ohun Enu Ifa – Apa Kinni. Glasgow: Collins.
Abiodun, Rowland. 1975. “Ifa Art Objects: An Interpretation Based on Oral
Traditions.” In Yoruba Oral Traditions, Ed. by Wande Abimbola: pp. 421-
468. Ife: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of
—————-. 1976. “A Reconsideration of the Function of Ako, Second
Burial Effigy in Owo.” AFRICA, Journal of International African Institute
46, 1: 4-20
—————-. 1981. “Ori Divinity: Its Worship, Symbolism and Artistic Manifestation.”
In Proceedings of the World Conference on Orisa Tradition, pp.
484-515, Ife: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University
of Ife, Ile-Ife.
—————- .1983. “Identity and the Artistic Process in Yoruba Aesthetic
Concept of Iwa,” Journal of Cultures and Ideas, 1, 1:13-30
—————-. 1984. “Der Begriff Des Iwa in der Yoruba Aesthetik.” Tendenzen
146: 63-68
—————. 1987. “Visual and Verbal Metaphors: Mythical Allusions in
Yoruba Ritualistic Art of Ori.” Word and Image 3, No. 3: 252-270
36 This verse was recited by a client of Ifa at a short religious rite for the Ooni’s Ori
in Ile-Ife, December 12, 1976—————. 1990. “The Future of African of African Art Studies: An African
Perspective.” African Studies: The State of the Discipline. Washington,
DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
—————. 1995. “The Dichotomy of Theory and Practice: Blocker’s The
Aesthetics of Primitive Art.” Journal of Aesthetics Education, 29, No 3:
—————. 1997. “Owo et le Mythe de la Benin-isation.” In Arts du Nigeria,
edited by Jean-Hubert Martin, Etienne Feá u and Héleǹ e Joubert, pp. 55-
58: Paris: Le Museè : Reunion des museè s nationaux
Abraham, R. C. 1970. Dictionary of Modern Yorùba.́ London: University of
London Press.
Achebe, Chinua. 1962. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann
Crone, G. R. 1937. (ed.) The Voyages of Cadamosto and other Documents on
West Africa in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century. London: Haklyut
Frobenius, Leo. 1913 (Reprinted 1968). Voice of Africa. 2 vols. New York: Benjamin Bloom
Owomoyela, Oyekan. 2005. Yoruba Proverbs, Lincoln and London: University
of Nebraska Press
Sieber, Roy. 1971. “The Aesthetics of Traditional African Art.” In Art and Aesthetics
In Primitive Societies, edited by Carol Jopling. New York: Dutton.
Sobande, Adegboyega. 1967. “Awon Owe Ile Wa” Olokun 7: 25-35
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1972: “The Sign of the Divine King: Yoruba Bead
Embroidered Crown with Veil and Bird Decorations.” In African Art and
Leadership, (ed) Douglas Fraser and Herbert Cole, Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press.
Willett, Frank. 1966. “On the Funeral Effigies of Owo, Benin and the Interpretation
of Life-Size Bronze Heads from Ife, Nigeria.” Man JRAI, N.S.1:34-45.


1 This experience was most rewarding for me and the students. They were not only active critics of terms and ideas generated by scholars not literate in Yoruba language but also most insightful contributors to the discovery and formulation of new and more appropriate terms to characterize Yoruba art forms and analyze them, aided by their training in the department of African languages and literatures..
2 Roy Sieber, 1971: 127.
3 — 1971:128.
4 See Abiodun (1983,1984)
5 Frobenius, 1913: 88-89.
6 I have addressed this problem more broadly in Abiodun (1997).
7 Frank Willett, 1966:34
8 —-, 1966: 35; also Plate 42.
9 Wande Abimbola, 1968: 76
10 On the subject of “firsts”, I must correct another of Curnow’s claims. The chronological list of Yoruba art historians is in error. I became a member of the faculty in Art and Art History in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in 1970 when late Cornelius Adepegba was still an undergraduate at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
11 See Abiodnn 1983, 1984, 1990, and 2014.
12 Oḷabiyi Yai, Personal Communication, January 1994.
13 The Ifá literary corpus itself seems to be the source of this position. But more importantly, Ifá verses seem to be better preserved and therefore enjoyed greater use and circulation among Yorùbá diviners (including practitioners of Ẹ̀ẹ̀riǹ diń loǵ uń ‘Sixteen Cowries’ and Obi -̀ di ́dá Four-lobed kola nut). Be that as it may, all these systems speak, and are likely linked in ways that may not be clear to us.
14 This same term may also be rendered as “A-jẹ-́ bí-idán” (That-which-responds-likemagic), which conveys essentially the same meaning.
15 For a fuller discussion of i ̀luti,́ see Rowland Abioḍ ún, 1990: 78-79.
16 I am grateful to Professor Mei-Mei Sanford for calling my attention to this phenomenon in African American churches.
17 This statement is quite typical of Òrìsạ̀ devotees and celebrants at Oḍ uń -Er̀ e (Festival of Images) in Òṣogbo, Personal Communication, 1976.
18 Rowland Abioḍ un, 1976.
19 For a more detailed discussion, see Chapter 8 of my 2014 book.
20 Adegboyega Sọ bande, 1967: 25.
21 Significantly, the act of rolling from side to side on the ground recalls the manner in which Ori -́ Àkó ̣ kó ̣ (the first Ori ́ in the otherworld) paid homage to the Creator, was able to split obi-̀ àsẹ ,̣ the kola nut of as̀ ẹ ,̣ authority, and became the leader of all the òri ̀sạ ̀. (See Chapter 1of my 2014 book).
22 Adegboyega Soḅ ande, 1967: 29.
23 Rowland Abioḍ un, 2014: 272
24 Eidolon helvium.
25 Desmodus sp.
26 Adegboyega Sọ bande, 1967: 29
27 Adegboyega Sọ bande, 1967: 35.
28 Kẹ́ ké ̣ is a traditional facial mark among the Yorùbá. See Abraham, 1970, 300-01.
29 Àbàjà is another traditional facial mark among the Yorùbá. See Abraham, 1970, 300-01.
30 Mystery; unfathomable-ness; all colors
31 As̀ ẹ -̣ laden colors, especially red
32 Absence of color
33 Rowland Abiodun, R. 1990. “The Future of African Art Studies: An African Perspective”. In African Art Studies: The State of the Discipline. Symposium organized by the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: pages 67-68
34 Oyekan Owomoyela, Yoruba Proverbs, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2005:96
35 Okonkwo, the protagonist in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe says: “Does the white man understand our custom about land? How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” 1959:176.
36 This verse was recited by a client of Ifa at a short religious rite for the Ooni’s Ori in Ile-Ife, December 12, 1976

Conference Report by Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju
Compcros Comparative Cognitive Processes and Systems

Defining Experiences

A defining moment for me at the Toyin Falola@65 Conference titled “African Knowledges and Alternative Futures” that ran from the 29th to the 31st of January 2018 at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, was the declaration at a paper presentation session by a scholar from a Nigerian university that the culture of making promotion of Nigerian academics dependent on publication in journals outside Nigeria, particularly from the West, is ultimately counterproductive to the development of a robust academic culture in Nigeria. “Do US or British academics, for example, have to publish in Nigerian journals?” he asked.

This loaded question is at the heart of the challenges and paradoxes provoked by the conference.
Another definitive encounter for me was another presenter’s outlining of the concept of an African, as different from an Asian or a Western epistemology or way of arriving at relating to knowledge.

Yet another was Emmanuel Ofuasia’s explanation of what he describes as the Yoruba origin Ifa knowledge system’s anticipating of deconstructivist hermeneutics centuries before the development of this post-modern scholarly phenomenon in the West.
Complementing these occurrences is yet another represented by Dr. Joan Ugo Mbagwu expounding on indigenous methods of conflict resolution and countering terrorism in Africa.

I shall use these encounters as pivots in exploring the significance of the conference in the body of this essay.

Conference Poster

Conference Poster

Framing the entire universe of discourse I was exposed to at the conference, from scintillating books on display in different disciplines, to various formal and informal discussions to the festivities represented by pageantry, food and dance, was the symbolic contextualisation of the event by the symbolism of the conference poster, drawing on central evocators of the classical African achievement, in tandem with imagery suggesting the expansion of scholarship in Africa through the colonialists’ introduction of printed texts to the continent, juxtaposed with a colourful array of logos being the insignia of the various organisations who contributed to making the conference possible, the entire visual feast of the poster suggesting the character of this conference as a gathering of Africans and non-Africans, from Europe and the Americas, coming together to investigate Africa’s place in the global configuration of knowledge, of knowledge as abstract inspiration and its potential for practical application.

The conference poster projected Falola’s scholarly range and vocational flexibility in terms of symbols constituting a map of Africa in which was embedded a triumphant portrait of the scholar. The poster also evoked the institutional reach of his influence through a global listing of sponsors of the conference through their logos as well as stating the royal and academic figures and personages from the Oyo state government, the state of which Ibadan is the capital, who were to grace the conference, excluding the name of Rauf Aregbesola, governor of Osun State, who officiated at the opening ceremony on the 29th, perhaps because the poster went to press before his presence was confirmed.

At the top of this visual configuration was an image of a bird looking back over its elegantly displayed tail feathers. That is the Sankofa symbol of the Ghanaian origin Adinkra system of knowledge, in which philosophical ideas are expressed through visual symbols. The bird represents the need to critically examine the past in order to better appreciate the present and the future. It thereby dramatizes the exploration of the deposit of knowledge represented by classical African thought, in tandem with other bodies of knowledge, represented by Falola’s pluralistic epistemology.

The Sankofa symbol also evokes his vocation as an historian, a student of the past and its relationship to the present, particularly one who integrates the study of the historiography, conceptions of the nature of history and of how it may be studied, developed in classical African cultures, with historiographic thought from other cultures, such as that made available in the Western academy, from Herodotus to Carr and beyond, evoking foundational figures in Western historiography from ancient Greece to the twentieth century, from the Yoruba distinction between forms of knowledge represented by imo, knowledge and gbabo, hearsay, and therefore of the basis for ascribing factuality to historical accounts reflected in Yoruba conceptions of ìtàn, narrative, and the griotic traditions of Guinea mediated through the recitation of the griot Babu Conde presented by Camara Laye in Guardians of the Word, among other ideas and traditions from Africa and the world.

To the right of the Sankofa symbol was a representation of the majestic forms of the pyramids of Egypt, visualizing one of the greatest feats of imagination and engineering ever constructed, its mode of creation, at such a level of perfection and grandeur still a mystery.

To the left of the Sankofa bird was an abstract form that may evoke a camel, a primary means of transport in North Africa, thus suggesting the traffic of populations though which ideas, creativity and other possibilities move across Africa and between Africa and the world.

Shaping the bottom of the image was a portrait from Nigeria’s Ife, representing a sculptural form that is famous as one of humanity’s most powerful depictions of the human face, one of its most sublime evocations of idealized humanity.

Thus, the image at the centre of the conference poster dramatizes Toyin Falola’s mobility of subjects, of disciplines and of geography as he grapples with exploring and configuring Africa through his scholarship.

Conference Vision

The conference aspired to “critically interrogate the state of knowledge production in Africa, and to review the state of cumulative knowledge about Africa”.

Its ultimate goal was to contribute to building pluriversalist frameworks in the development of knowledge. Pluriversality is a term foregrounded by Toyin Falola in urging the creation of multiple centres of epistemic authority to replace the current dominance of Western thought as the one universal knowledge platform. In the process of achieving this goal, the conference also sought to better situate, in the world of scholarship, and in the larger field of experience as a whole, the work of Falola, an encyclopaedic scholar in the continuum between classical and contemporary African existence in its various expressions across the humanities and social sciences.

Falola’s scholarly oeuvre is long and deep, resonating with such African syntheses of encyclopaedic knowledge as the 256 odu ifa, an effort to account for all possibilities of existence, as one view understands them, projecting this aspiration through a multidisciplinary integration of knowledge correlating literature, mathematics, herbalogy, spirituality, philosophy sculpture and ancillary disciplines.

The conference resonated with this disciplinary breadth that shapes Falola’s oeuvre, a breadth that dramatizes an effort to engage with every area of knowledge in which the African experience may be explored.

African literature and African philosophy, for example, are well established disciplines. To what degree, however, do African ways of knowing shape the vision and curricula of African educational institutions? Is the current educational system not imported largely wholesale from Europe? To what degree do cognitive platforms created in the context of Africa’s distinctive cognitive history structure the epistemic strategies and metaphysical orientations of any discipline? Are these questions a form of counter-nativism, replicating Eurocentric thought with an equally short sighted Afrocentrism in a world where access to a plurality of cultural perspectives is readily available? Should the aspiration, therefore, not be for a pluriversality of perspectives not the uncritical privileging of any viewpoint, to adapt Falola’s ideas in his essay “Pluriversalism”?

Constructing Pluriversalism

Mosigbodi Bamidele Amuda is able to declare in “Inertia Citizens in Africa: Taking Lessons from Confucianism and Ifa”, her paper at the conference, that “Africa cannot continue to dwell in the grandiose delusion that all it needs to bring about development are ideas from within”, arguing that colonialism has opened up an unprecedented opportunity for global synthesis, harmonising the local and the distant to illuminate the immediate within the matrix of the cognitive and social convergences that define humanity. Thus Amuda invokes the Chinese philosophical school, Confucianism, in dialogue with Ifa, in exploring the responsibility of citizens, complementing leaders, for good government, a great challenge in a continent where the led are too often manipulated or bullied into propping up a corrupt elite.

Emmanuel Ofuasia’s philosophical interests range from the history and philosophy of physics to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger to conjunctions between the Yoruba origin Ifa system and process philosophy, in which the British/US philosopher A.N Whitehead is dominant. From within this disciplinary matrix, he addresses Ifa, as demonstrated by his paper at the conference on Ifa as a precursor of deconstructivist hermeneutics which has its origins in the writings of the French scholar, Jacques Derrida.

Oghenekevwe Jibromah ’s “Interpreting the Urhobo Indigenous Knowledge System in the light of Western Education” argues that the incorporation of such indigenous knowledge into the Western education dominant in Nigeria will enhance cultural continuity, transferring knowledge into the next generation.

These papers, among others, bring home for me the distance this movement has travelled from its earlier days in the assertion, within academic contexts, of the existence of African literature, African philosophy and pre-colonial African history and historiography, and the emphasis on local centered African art represented, among others by Nigeria’s Zaria Rebels, students at the University of Zaria who began the process in academic art schools of drawing from the local environment in creating art, an initiative that enabled the indigenisation of modern African art, some of its greatest work being a synthesis of classical and Western inspired art practices.

The Conference as Convergence of Complementary


The conference was a magnificent experience in which scholarship and royalty converged in a pageant that invoked the secular authorities into their midst, generating a confluence of scholars, secular politics and classical monarchy in a disciplined riot of colour and sound,a celebration situating the indefatigable labours of the scholar being celebrated within the nexus constituted by the totality of human experience.

The conference consisted in intense celebrations alongside a festival of knowledge represented by scholarly presentations and discussions in a range of disciplines by scholars from different parts of the world. Food was abundant. The sartorial splendour displayed unforgettable. The cultural effervescence magnificent. The festivities were both public and intimate, outdoor and indoor, intellectual and musical, embracing deeply felt speech and rich dancing, profoundly projecting Yoruba culture as well as being international in resonance.

The experience was wonderful, from the trip with some other participants from my Lagos base to the conference venue at the University of Ibadan, to energizing minds with various people who converged from Sweden to the US, from South Africa to Nigeria, to enable this encounter of persons and creative possibilities, to the welcoming reception in his hotel room by Toyin Falola on the day before the conference, to taking a night walk through the magnificent University of Ibadan campus, reflecting on its incidental evocation of the focus of this scholarly and cultural explosion to the movement between passionate scholarly presentations and the royal pageantry dramatized by the presence of the Alaafin of Oyo, to the cinematic delight represented by the film show that concluded the first day.

Royal Pageantry :The Arrival of the Alaafin of Oyo, His Royal
Majesty Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III

A climatic point of the festivities was the arrival of the Alaafin of Oyo, His Royal Majesty Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III, on the second day of the conference. It was an unforgettable demonstration of Yoruba verbal art, Yoruba music and the Yoruba mastery of dramatic interpersonal protocols, the sheer veneration of the monarchy even within the largely symbolic role of the traditional institution created by the post-classical Nigerian state mobilizing these Yoruba cultural forms to a high level.

The Alaafin’s movement from one place to another, his arrival at the conference venue and taking his seat, even his later rising to go to the rest room and return to the conference hall from the rest room were major events celebrated by the fantastic oriki chanter who accompanied him, oriki being a Yoruba verbal art crafted to galvanize the addressee’s sense of self, their awareness of their achievements and potential, dramatizing the creative continuity represented by the person’s family history, the convergence of the eternal essence of self and the terrestrial identity of the human being in the person’s passage through the world, those verbalizations saluting, to “ki”, the “ori”, the correlative aspects of human identity symbolised by the biological centrality of the head.

These hermeneutic possibilities were actualised through sonorous diction in the mellifluously stentorian voice of the Alaafin’s chanter, using a loudspeaker even at close range of the Alaafin as if to suggest a magnificence of person and of office that unmagnified speech is inadequate to project.

The rhythmic saluting of the oriki chanter was punctuated by the rhythm of the Alaafin’s horn blower, short blasts between chants that added another level of power to the running celebratory commentary of the tireless chanting.

The Indefatigable Conference Organisers Four figures, beyond whom are many more, were at the centre of the planning and execution that made possible this combination of scholarship and cultural effervescence.

The Chairman Local Conference Organising Committee was the indefatigable Dr. Adeshina Afolayan, Department of Philosophy, University of Ibadan, who met, in Lagos, participants coming in from abroad and from Lagos and organized our movement to Ibadan. He demonstrated the dynamism of a meteor as well as a being who can enter all corners to ferret out what was needed to be done to actualize this awesome conference congregating various institutions and individuals, academic and non-academic, from across the world.

The remarkable Dr. Samuel Oloruntoba, Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute, University of South Africa, visionary and genius of commitment, was Convenor- General of the conference, veteran of conference organisation across continents.

The restlessly dynamic Dr. Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso, Babcock University, Director of Conference Administration, assumed all roles as necessary, from conference secretary to catering organiser and dispenser, visible everywhere, could not be pinned down anywhere as she migrated at speed between locations and responsibilities. She multi-tasked between organising food for delegates as well as working on conference logistics, among other responsibilities.

Wale Ghazal was Director of Conference Logistics. Where Falola is, there he is, Ghazal’s busy, mobile presence making sure the great scholar’s multifarious itinerary across continents goes smoothly.

Questions of Relative Independence and Interdependence of Scholarly Ecologies and Traditions Emerging from the Conference

The declaration at a paper presentation session by a scholar from a Nigerian university that the culture of making promotion of Nigerian academics, particularly at the higher levels, dependent on publication in journals outside Nigeria, particularly from the West, as ultimately counterproductive to the development of a robust academic culture in Nigeria, evokes the challenges and paradoxes provoked by the conference, foregrounded by the conference title “African Knowledges and Alternative Futures”.

The requirement to publish internationally, often another term for publishing in the West, is described as a means of ensuring the international accreditation vital to academia as a trans-national and trans-continental enterprise. A laudable vision, which, however, exists in the face of serious contradictions, as suggested by that conference presenter, contradictions that foreground the challenges of epistemic dependence and interdependence of Africa in relation to the rest of the world, particularly in relation to the dominance of the West, a subject at the core of the conference, stated in the conference’s mission statement, as exploring “the global politics of knowledge production” by critically interrogating “the state of knowledge production in Africa and [reviewing] the state of cumulative knowledge about Africa” through asking these, among other questions :

“What makes alternative knowledge systems possible? How can new knowledge manifestoes be produced? How will cultural imperialism be demolished? Must Africa be bound by the logic of neoliberal capitalism? Must globalization be a one-sided Western agenda?”

Albert Einstein’s three annus mirabilis “miracle year” papers of 1905, one of which was central to transforming the world view of physics and has remained a landmark of thought in its development of the matter/energy equivalence theory, encapsulated in the world famous equation e_mc2, were published in Annalen Der Physique, a German journal, Germany being a close neighbour of Switzerland, where Einstein lived at the time, a publication geography that suggests the integration of European scholarship that is a great strength of Western academia.

As Paulin Hountundji so poignantly summed up in his essays from the 1990s, scholarship in Africa and scholarship about Africa is often oriented towards the epistemic and economic centres, the metropolises represented by the global North, the privileged zones of development and validation of this scholarship. The exodus of many African scholars to the West following the brain drain of the 80s as painfully summed up by, among other sources, Jeremiah Arowosegbe’s “African Scholars, African Studies and Knowledge Production in Africa” ( Africa 86 (2) 2016: 324–38 ) and Toyin Falola’sThe Toyin Falola Reader (2018) makes the Western academy, particularly the US, the most visible source for scholarship on Africa, a context in which the economics of scholarship have taken a serious beating in Africa, due to the effects of the World bank advised Structural Adjustment Program and other factors that enabled and consolidated this situation.

What that conference presenter was suggesting are questions of the implications of such an unequal balance of power and the challenge of changing that balance. What are the implications of having much of a continent’s own intellectual production validated by people from other continents and cultures? Is the task at stake that of reaching independence, as Western thought and academic scholarship is largely if not totally independent of other scholarly cultures while those of other continents outside Europe and North America are often dependent to a greater or lesser degree on Western academic scholarship and its support systems, such as its universities and publishing houses?

Is the challenge that of interdependence? On what grounds would scholars in Asia, South America and other parts of the global South, along with Western scholars, need the validation of scholars in Africa as the South now often operates in terms of such Western validation?

So much has been written on challenging factors external and internal to the African university system and external and internal to the countries in which these systems operate as these factors shape the countrys’ cultures of learning. Wale Adebanwi’s “Rethinking Knowledge Production in Africa”, Olukoya and Insa Nolte’s “Nigerian Academia and the Politics of Secrecy”, along with Arowosegbe’s essay already mentioned, all in Africa 86 (2) 2016, among other explorations, map these developments.

What is the health of the culture of knowledge quest in African academia generally, both for the intrinsic fulfillment it provides and for its practical value, these being the twin foci of the human quest for knowledge? Olufemi Taiwo in a TED talk sums up a central conjunction between these two motivations in arguing that that a culture that does not seek knowledge when it does not [seem to] need it [in a practical sense], will not find it when it needs it [for practical purposes], a perspective that speaks to the demand by one view that, on account of its pressing problems, often problems of sheer survival, Africa should focus on so called “relevant research”, research centred on evident, practical needs, neglecting the fact that some of the most impactful research did not originate as subjects with any practical applications.

As is evident from the “General Scholium”, the conclusion of his magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Isaac Newton’s work on gravitational theory and laws of motion, for example, using nothing more than pen, paper and rudimentary telescopes, was a philosophical enterprise conducted purely out of a desire to understand how the universe works, yet those abstract, theoretical discoveries are now central to space exploration. Albert Einstein’s development of the energy/matter equivalence theory, again conducted largely through pen and paper and his imagination in the name of understanding how the cosmos operates, became central to the development of atomic and nuclear energy and his work on relativity has created a new understanding of the cosmos, an understanding ramifying in projections about new technological forms. Quantum theory emerges from probing into the fundamental structure of matter and yet is yielding conceptions of new forms of computing. Imaginative projections beyond the present enable the creation of the future, Adisa Ajamu sums up in a Facebook essay in response to the inspirational character of the 2018 Hollywood film Black Panther on account of the film’s electrification of ideas about African and Black people’s potential.

In terms of the activities that drive the development of knowledge, what progress is being made in Africa generally in developing a culture of sustenance of academic initiatives, such as journals and books?

If a country and continent’s academic journal and book culture is not strong, how will it cultivate the confidence in its scholarly ecosystem even amongst its own academics that will make it unnecessary to call for external validation of the products of its scholars?

What resources exist to achieve what has to be described as such a leap in self-positioning and what efforts can be made to develop these resources?

To what degree are these issues purely or largely in the hands of academics and to what degree are they factors defining the larger socio-economic and political environment within which the scholars operate, such as questions of publishing and the business systems including capital required to sustain academic publishing houses and the level and quality of Internet access ?

What can be learnt from the example of Dr. Joan Ugo Mbagwu’s presentation at the conference of both her papers, “African Youths and the Indigenous Approaches to Resolving Conflict in Africa” and “Beyond Military Force as Strategy for Countering Terrorism in Nigeria : A Handbook”, which, along with drawing on endogenous African knowledge are also expressed in books published in Nigeria which were available for sale at the conference?

What will it take to achieve both a research culture that explores Africa’s own contributions to knowledge, studies what other continents are producing and makes its discoveries readily accessible to Africans in place of the current tension between the pragmatics of publishing locally and the greater prestige of publishing in books and journals produced in the West, a good number of which are either not affordable by Africans or are not even visible to them as texts physically accessible in their own environments?

How can Africa achieve what the West has achieved, bringing the world to itself as it goes out into the world, creating a space within which knowledge of the continent and of the world outside the continent can be cultivated and integrated within Africa even if sourced outside Africa?

Contrastive but correlative views on this dependence are summed up by two aspects of Jeremiah Arowosegbe’s “African Scholars, African Studies and Knowledge Production on Africa” ( Africa 86 (2) 2016: 324–38 ):
With historians whose scholarship has not gone beyond the thresholds of narrative historiography, philosophers who have no knowledge of, for example, Hegel and Heidegger, and psychologists who have neither heard of nor read Derrida, Lacan, Althusser and Foucault, the quality of interaction with the present crop of locally bred academics in most Nigerian universities is disappointing.

Resonating with the attitude suggested by the speaker on institutional independence of African academia at the Falola conference, however, Arowosegbe is also able to declare:

The dominant practices and values shaped and shared by the Northern research agenda distort and engender imbalances in knowledge production across the global South generally. Such practices and values legitimize certain regional interests but neglect others. … Engagement with them is characterized by several levels of uneven participation. Their operations also take place within a discourse in which international may narrowly refer to the global North.

These perspectives, from the conference speaker and from Arowosegbe, suggest the painful paradoxes of scholars in the global South, particularly Africa.

The Nigerian scholars referenced by Arowosegbe might not know of Derrida, Lacan, Althusser and Foucault perhaps because at the time these European scholars became prominent in the West, possibly in the 80s and 90s and beyond, those African scholars and the libraries of their institutions could hardly afford books and journals from the West, leading to a blind spot in knowledge of Western scholarship in theory after the 60s and perhaps 70s, the years when some of these African scholars might have got their PhDs, at times in the West.

The entire post-colonial movement involving Homi Bhaba and Gayatri Spivak to the rethinking of the Western tradition by such movements as Deconstruction could have been accessible only through few books in university libraries in an era when the Internet was just beginning to penetrate Nigeria, for example. The situation would have been unevenly different in various universities in different countries, though, as I learnt that even a member of the public at Ibadan in that period could take part in vigorous discussions on post-colonialism at the University of Ibadan in which Harry Garuba was prominent. Arowosegbe seems to have done his BA and postgraduate studies in the University of Ibadan in the 90s.

Many of those scholars short-changed by the challenges of the Nigerian economy, keeping them out of step with cognitive developments outside their countries, were dedicated teachers, and, and in spite of inadequate tools, their creative influence and the wealth of their humanity have forever contributed to shaping their students as a number of these students testify.

In my current explorations in Nigeria, I observe that books and many of the journals from the West remain expensive on account of the low power of the country’s currency, the books being largely not visible in my current experience in the premier university cities of Lagos and Ibadan, leaving the relatively expensive Internet access the best option for education on scholarly trends outside one’s immediate environment.

Beyond but related to questions of access to knowledge of Western scholarship as highlighted by Arowosegbe, implying that the achievements of those Western thinkers he mentions are indispensable to the disciplines they have primarily impacted, must a philosopher in a non-Western context, be informed about Hegel and Heidegger, two scholars operating within a largely Eurocentric tradition and whose knowledge beyond the stream of Western thought from the Greeks to the Middle Ages to their own time may be seen as significantly qualified?

Of what relevance to you is a thinker whose scholarly tradition is not necessarily identical with the one you are interested in? The German philosopher Martin Heidegger is strategic in restating questions and attitudes at the intersection of religion and philosophy, integrating critical reasoning with imaginative and poetic thought, probing, in his Being and Time fundamental questions of the nature of being, his range of reference indicating his questioning as reaching back towards the Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas’ seminal contributions on the question to the ancient Greeks Aristotle and Plato’s fundamental struggles with the same question, and through his creative style of philosophizing, Heidegger’s thought proving catalytic for much of Western thought in different disciplines.

The German thinker Georg Hegel was a polymath who aspired to a comprehensive embrace of the world of knowledge in terms of an understanding of the motive forces and direction of existence, combining both speculative sweep with depth of concrete examination of phenomena, as one scholar describes his work. His magisterial blend of speculative thought and ratiocinative elucidation of far reaching imaginative range makes him one of the great demonstrators of how what is otherwise mythic and religious thought in its grand aspirations can be baptized into a form of ratiocinative cognition, enabling particularly the philosophical system of the German thinker Karl Marx, one of the most influential philosophers of all times and places, Marx’s influence demonstrated in the inspiration generated by his ambition of changing the world through the power of ideas directed at a close study of human interaction in relation to the tension between social and individual existence, psyche and economics, many revolutionary movements across the world being significantly fed by his ideas or by ideas founded on his thought.

I started this essay with the aspiration of proving why the study of Heidegger and Hegel might not be necessary for a scholar whose focus is not Western thought but it seems I might have succeeded in demonstrating the contrary.

How will one understand Communism, for long the major contrast to Capitalism, grasp its influence on the Soviet Union and the Cold War, its influence in Vietnam and the Angola in their years of warfare and understand related tension prone environments over the years without understanding something of the ideas and influence of Marx and how does one grasp the foundational framework Marx transformed without some understanding of Hegel? I had hoped to question whether the study of the Arab historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun, a central non-Western philosopher of history, can replace the study of Hegel, but has Ibn Kaldun had the scope of influence of Hegel, even if indirectly as Hegel has?

It might not be possible to study adequately in their late 20th century forms onward the various disciplines influenced by Heidegger without knowing something about that influence. Can these disciplines be studied in a way that brackets out contributions by scholars based in the Western tradition, that being the tradition most influenced by Heidegger?

Explicatory Depth, Range of Integration and of Access to Knowledge about Africa and from Africa Ifa, Nsibidi, Omonigbon and Lukasa Contrasted with I Ching, Astrology and Tarot

How robust is literary criticism in classical Yoruba scholarship, for example, and can it be adequately addressed without recourse to Western critical tools, those tools being what were employed by Wande Abimbola in his pioneering analysis of Ifa literature in An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus and Ifa Divination Poetry? Emmanuel Ofuasia’s paper at the Falola@65 conference, “Deconstructionism as Illustrated in Ifa Divination”, describes the Yoruba origin Ifa knowledge system as anticipating deconstructivist hermeneutics centuries before the development of this post-modern scholarly phenomenon in the West. Deconstruction operates, however, against the background of centuries of carefully elaborated critical thought from Greece to 20th century Europe which it both feeds on and contrasts itself against.

To what degree can the valiant labours of such scholars in Yoruba Studies as Wande Abimbola, Rowland Abiodun, Barry Hallen and John Olubi Sodipo, among others, represent the demonstration of a related depth of elaboration? Benin divination theory and practice, as represented for example by the work of Daryl Peavy on Ominigbon, is rich in discussions of levels of meaning, and the styles of expression through which these are communicated. What is the depth of elaboration of this tradition and to what degree is this knowledge publicly accessible? One of the world’s great symbol systems is Nsibidi of Nigeria’s Cross River, integrating physical motion, speech, object arrangement, inscriptions of images at various levels of abstraction and figuration on human bodies and non-living surfaces such as ceramics and architecture, operating in relation to a dazzling cosmology referencing a broad range of details of human existence. How much is known of this system in the light of the relatively few scholarly and general articles and PhD theses on it, as far as these are visible online, and its influence in the art of Victor Ekpuk among other artists, particularly since its cosmology and hermeneutics-its interpretive logic- and its spirituality are largely hidden from outsiders through a rigorous and carefully guarded process of unfolding revelatory exposition as people ascend the grades of the Ekpe/Mgbe esoteric order that is central in employing this symbol system, an information vacuum evident in the Order’s effort to have Ekpe accredited by UNESCO as part of the world’s precious intangible heritage, an effort that proved unsuccessful the last I knew of it? Ifa, on the other hand, which has proven successful in the same aspiration of UNESCO accreditation, has books upon increasing number of books and essays and other communicative platforms explicating its framework, and, to some degree, its methodologies, so much so that its now possible to develop Ifa Studies as an academic discipline, possibly studying both Ifa in its intrinsic character and in terms of an extrinsic focus engaging every field of study from a grounding in Ifa, although its divinatory explicatory procedures are not explained in those books I have read, a relationship between information presentation and withdrawal of information, which, even though far from ideal, Nsibidi studies could also learn from. On the other hand, is excessive esotericism not a major reason why classical African systems of thought have not permeated their environments more than they have done so far, facilitating their marginalisation by cultural imperialism emerging with colonialism and sustained even in a post-colonial context? If Nsibidi, for example had been more democratized, would its capacities as a script not have gone beyond the stage it has reached so far, its recent expanded exposure leading to efforts such as those of the researcher Nsibiri to develop the system as evident in the online efforts under that scholar’s name? The best known and most influential divination systems are Asian and Western, the Chinese I Ching and the European astrology and Tarot, although astrology has a multi-cultural history well beyond its prominence in European esotericism, decentralized but vital forms of knowledge, as one view represented by Western esotericisim scholar Wouter Hanegraaff describes Western esotericism. The influence of these non-African divinatory systems is due to their absolute democratization in terms of a basic operational system which any interested person of average intelligence can use. The esoteric essence of these systems as aspirations to reach into mysterious forms of understanding that underlie casualty is thus highlighted. The divinatory mode of applying Ifa, on the other hand, is often mystified, described as inaccessible except to an initiate and in the US, in particular, where Ifa is gathering great momentum, initiation is made an expensive and elaborate endeavour, leaving anguished aspirants on the Facebook Ifa Studies group I run to agonising over difficulties of access not present in such religions as Christianity. Is it not more realistic to present such a system in terms of ascending levels of knowledge, made readily accessible to aspirants rather than creating roadblocks that further constrict the global impact of Africa’s contributions to the world of knowledge in reference to what is perhaps the best known and only potentially globally influential African divination system, as the I Ching has influence well beyond China? One of the world’s most sophisticated, subtle and complexly powerful hermeneutic systems is created by the Luba people of Congo, developed by interpreting the intersection of space, history and human relations through a network of relationships between physical structure, colours and shapes embodied by the harmony of vast interpretive scope and ergonomic compression represented by the hand held lukasa board. To what degree are the insights of these various systems integrated and correlated with those from other parts of Africa, such as the Fulani cosmological interpretation of the coats of cattle presented by Germaine Dieterlen in “Initiation Among the Peul Pastoral Fulani” in her edited African Systems of Thought and other works and the Zulu conjunction of all contraries representing the fundamental structures existence, from space to time to life and death in terms of the symbolism of the calabash as described by Mazisi Kunene in Anthem of the Decades? Central to the ideational range of Western scholarship is the pan-European and pan-Western scope of its ideational and epistemic core from within which it is confidently reaching out to engage with and at times integrate other worlds of knowledge. The pool of integrated knowledge endogenous to the West being drawn upon with ease in this inward and outward looking cognitive quest is huge, based upon centuries of painstaking international synthesis spanning ancient Greece and Rome as well as Arab and Persian contributions relaying this knowledge to the West. Even as a teenager or young adult in Nigeria, without even auditing any course in art, I could give names of the classical Western artists from the Renaissance to the emergence of modern art in 18-19th century Paris, knowledge gained from children’s books and general audience texts imported to Nigeria from the West. That exposure laid foundations enabling me readily identify works of various Western peoples and a number of classic masters in Western art. How easy is it for a person in Africa to educate themselves about African arts, for example, beyond what is visible in their own environment? To what degree does Internet access enable this? In the light of these challenges, what may be envisaged about the dehierachisisation of the relationship between Western and African scholarship, scholarship in the Western tradition in relation to scholarship in the African tradition, a latter tradition which certainly exists in the humanities, scholarship defined by practices of inter-referentiality within various disciplines, scholars citing and building on each other’s works, a situation in which the West is often able to maintain a closed system in which scholars in that tradition, of any ethnic origin, do not need to refer to scholarship outside the tradition on account of the range and depth of its carefully systematised ideations while African scholarship, for example, perhaps often has to reference the Western tradition even when discussing non-Western issues as Abiola Irele poignantly sums up in “The African Scholar”?

The Conference as a Personal Inspiration

I would like to reflect on the convergence of multifarious possibilities on myself as a participant at these celebrations, presenting the nexus of perceptions about life the conference and its associated convivialities have been for me.

Looking back over the arrival day and the three days of festivities that followed, it is clear I have had one of the greatest experiences of my life. The entire encounter dramatizes the celebration, by a group of people from different aspects of life, of the power and beauty of the life of the mind, a life to which I am also committed, this experience actualizing, in a spectacular manner, the power of such a life. All scholars will not be as celebrated as Falola, but people will always exist who will testify to the validity and power of the work of the scholar as a particular type of person, a committed ruminator on and disseminator of reflections on the significance of our existence as we journey between the great unknowns. The revered Alaafin of Oyo, His Imperial Majesty, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III, Oba Adedokun Omoniyi Abolarin, the Orangun of Oke-Ila, Oba Saliu Akanmu Adetunji, the Olubadan of Ibadan, accompanied by the attendant chiefs of the Alaafin and the Obas, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, the governor of Osun state, the representatives of the governor of Oyo State and other political and traditional leaders who celebrated with us were not there because association with Falola would necessarily add anything to their stature in life, assist with political connections or facilitate access to various forms of secular power. They were there to celebrate someone whose ideas have moved many, whose mentorship ripples across the globe, from PhD students to younger and senior academics whom he has guided or collaborated with or both, thereby shaping many careers. He is also a rich socialiser, as evident from his interactions at the festivities and the impromptu creative interaction I had with him and a couple of his friends on the night after the banquet. The scholarly dignitaries who were present, from the President of the Historical Society of Nigeria and Head of the Department of History, University of Ibadan, Professor CBN Ogbogbo, who gave one of the two keynote speeches, to Professor Jide Owoeye, Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council, Lead City University, Ibadan, to the representative of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, speaking for the vice-chancellors and past vice-chancellors of various universities who were at the celebrations, a declaration also articulated by the spokesperson of the Olabisi Onabanjo University in awarding Falola the honorary doctorate after the conference, described themselves as compelled to pay homage, because homage it certainly is, to a figure whose work has become an inspirational matrix, a dynamic receptacle for practically everything about scholarship on Africa. Falola’s friends who were there and the academics who organized the conference both testified to his inspiring qualities that moved so many people and so many institutions to congregate in Ibadan to honour someone who is not a captain of industry, is not and has never been a political figure and does not seem to nurse such aspirations, whose life is defined by what Gloria Emeagwali described in her keynote speech as his indefatigable work in generating knowledge, cultivating institutions and building people.

The many scholars who took part in the conference were drawn by the opportunity to continue the task of cultivating citadels of knowledge represented by the processes of reflection, empirical investigation, recording and distribution that defines the world of scholarship, Falola’s pre-eminence in which has moved so many to congregate in the city where Falola was born and where he spent his earliest formative years, a city resplendent in Nigerian cultural history by the many luminaries associated with the University of Ibadan in the course of its existence and by the city’s strategic role in Yoruba history, that history being the originating platform of Falola’s scholarship from where he has fanned out to an encyclopaedic engagement with the humanities and the social sciences particularly in relation to Africa. This whirlwind of activity has placed a mirror to my mind, compelling me to ask what my life is about and how best to bring to fruition the potential I can see within me, as has been achieved for himself by Toyin Falola, living his childhood in inauspicious circumstances, as one of his friends, Bola Dauda, described him in a paper at the conference, “Lessons from Toyin Falola’s Way of Thinking”, yet who has spectacularly reshaped that life, becoming an exemplar for many.

The Unrobing and Rerobing Sequence

A central significance of the conference is summed up for me by what I describe as the unrobing and rerobing sequence of the banquet of Tuesday, 30 January 2018, at the International Conference Centre, Ibadan. The sequence can be seen in my Flickr album on the celebratory sequence, in Toyin Falola’s Flickr album on the conference and in the official conference Flickr account. In the unrobing and rerobing sequence, Adeshina Afolayan assists Toyin Falola in putting on the agbada, an elaborate form of classical Nigerian male couture, presented to Falola by the conference organising committee composed of Afolayan, Samuel Oloruntoba, Wale Ghazal and Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso.. On being presented with the splendid agbada, Falola spontaneously removed his cap and the exquisitely prepared agbada he was already wearing, in order to put on the new one he was being presented with, in recognition of the grand symbolism represented by the presentation, in a culture, Yoruba/ Nigerian/African, in which clothes are central symbolic forms, artistic and scriptic signifiers, at times functioning as an entire library of semiotic configurators, as in Nigerian Cross River ukara cloth encrusted with the cosmos spanning Nsibidi symbolism and Ghanaian Adinkra symbolism originating from its use in symbolising messages brought from beyond birth and messages taken beyond life in the world. “Eniyan ni aso mi”, states the Yoruba proverb, which may be translated as “People represent the clothes with which I am splendidly adorned”, a saying that encapsulates the symbolism of the presentation ceremony at the Falola conference banquet, a ceremony that incidentally sums up the implications of the festivities dramatized by the celebration of Falola.

Falola’s younger professional associates whose lives he has contributed to shaping positively have chosen to expand the scholar’s self adornment generated by the reach of his scholarship by showcasing that achievement through this conference and its festivities, achieving the monumental scope of the celebrations by drawing upon the goodwill of numerous people positively impacted by the master scholar’s intellectual and pastoral genius as thinker, institution builder and mentor, the triadic configuration of Falola’s career, as outlined by Gloria Emeagwali. Without the recognition of one’s achievements by others, how will the significance of that achievement be actualised among humanity? Without helping to build others through recognition and cultivation of their potential, how will the commonwealth of human well being expand? Falola has adorned himself. Falola has adorned others. Those others whom he has adorned have chosen to adorn him in turn.

Impact of the Conference: Questions Arising

Recalling the success of the conference as I read around the subject of the development of knowledge in Africa, specifically the dismal picture painted by Jeremiah O. Arowosegbe in “African Scholars, African Studies and Knowledge Production in Africa” ( Africa 86 (2) 2016: 324–38 ) and other contributions in the same journal, Wale Adebanwi’s “Rethinking Knowledge Production in Africa”, Olukoya Ogen and Insa Nolte’s “Nigerian Academia and the Politics of Secrecy” and Ousmane Kane’s “ Arabic Sources and the Search for a New Historiography in Ibadan in the 1960s”, testifying to past achievements and current struggles in scholarship in Africa, a volume preceded by such interventions as the “African Studies and Knowledge Production in the Universities in Postcolonial Africa” in Social Dynamics : A Journal of African Studies, 40:2 2014, and looking forward to such initiatives as the “Africa in the World: Shifting Boundaries and Knowledge Production” conference to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 25-28, 2018, along with a host of initiatives around the same subject, extending beyond African Studies with the Decolonising the Curriculum movement in the West , I ask what is the potential impact of the Toyin Falola@65 conference? The conference was wonderful in providing a platform for sharing views on centring Africa in scholarship, not simply as a subject of study but as a source of methods of study, of ideas for addressing various human challenges. How far could these efforts go in inspiring a renaissance of scholarship on the continent? The conference organisers pulled off a great feat in the stupendous organisation of what turned out to be both an intellectual feast and a spectacle of food, drink, dance and pageantry, a most memorable experience combining the African culture of gay celebration with the scholarly world of feisty projection of bold ideas. To the best of my knowledge, Nigeria and perhaps Africa, are not known anymore for conferences that brings the world together, even in various fields of African Studies. The most powerful books in African art, a field I am particularly interested in, are often not written by people resident in Africa nor are they published in Africa, with few exceptions, such as the publications of Bruce Onabrakpeya’s Ovuomaroro Gallery and his latest book, a sumptuous production edited by dele jegede, Masks of Flaming Arrows, which was published by was published by Five Continents Editions in Milan, Italy. The same situation might be true in other aspects of African Studies for various reasons. Exceptions are being made by partnerships like that between Toyin Falola, at the University of Texas and Adeshina Afolayan, at the University of Ibadan, together bringing out the Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy, the most up to date definitive text in the field, in African philosophy, a book, however, that on account of its formidable size and its production in hardback will not be cheap or even moderately prized, leading to questions about the capacity of libraries in Africa talk less individuals to afford it, although this issue can be partly addressed through cheap access to electronic forms of the text made available to libraries and individuals. Falola, whose birthday and work inspired the conference, clearly has an agenda of the widest possible scope of empowerment of the broadest range of scholars and institutions in African Studies, as aspects of his broader knowledge projections which include sole authorship of books and essays in various fields, writing and co-editing books and articles with younger and more mature scholars, including at least one, Ken Saro-Wiwa, with a former PhD student of his, Roy Doron, organising book productions and conferences on various scholars and artists and initiating or contributing to journal creation and management and various book series and playing a central role in scholarly publishing houses. That agenda is increasingly bearing fruit. It is gratifying to observe with this conference a particularly concrete expression of that agenda, bringing home to Africa the site of intellectual creativity at the most dynamic level, rather than the localisation of African studies conferences in the West that has too often been the case. This Africa location focused strategy is also adopted by TOFAC, the Toyin Falola Annual International Conference on Africa and the African Diaspora, created in honour of Falola by the Ibadan Cultural Studies Group and which holds every year in an African city, and which will hold between July 3-5 this year in Kenya. What does the quality of planning and execution represented by the Toyin Falola@65 conference suggest about the possibilities of scholarly development in Africa, in a continent not famous for the power or resilience of its institutions? If four people, without extraordinary material means of means of their own, but demonstrating amazing organisational abilities, could execute a project of this magnitude, what does that say about the possibilities for scholarly development on the continent?

Amber Murrey
Department of Sociology,
the American University in Cairo, Egypt
Edith Phaswana
Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute,
University of South Africa.

The Toyin Falola @65 Conference brought together scholars from across the African continent and the world from 29 to 31 January 2018 under the theme, ‘African Knowledges and Alternative Futures.’ Our focus reflected on the long struggle for epistemic justice on the continent while centring and recognizing Falola’s important role in the project. This was a unique conference in terms of its structure, content, as well as the diversity of intellectuals that it attracted.

University of Ibadan

The venue for our coming together was the University of Ibadan (UI) – significant not only because Falola was born in the city in 1953 but also because UI is Nigeria’s oldest and most respected public university. UI was founded as the first public university in Nigeria. It was an affiliate of University College London in the United Kingdom. Built in 1948 and completed in the 1960s, UI was the first university built in British-occupied West Africa.

Early colonial universities, Toyin Falola explains, were at the centre of colonial power dynamics and political struggles in Africa. Falola writes that these universities were ‘created to meet the needs of those Europeans who envisaged a permanent homeland in Africa… The universities were seen as concessions made after the Second World War, a strategy of pacifying restless Africans and of ensuring that decolonization was controlled at a pace set by Europeans’ (2018: 608). These universities were also spatially and geographically significant.

At the conference, Oluwabunmi Fayiga traced the ideological symbolism of architectural materials in the British design in the construction of UI. In the colonial context, the design and production of spaces like UI was rich with colonial symbolism, in this case the association of certain materials with poverty and other materials with modernity/civilization. Fayiga’s discussion focused on the ways in which two British colonial architects, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, employed a conscious ‘social decision-making’ to promote the use of concrete and corrugated steel in Nigerian architecture. These ‘permanent’ materials were associated with the colonial power. All the while, bamboo roofing and the use of mud as building material was deemed ‘unrefined.’ Fry and Drew’s preferences for certain materials were regarded as ‘modern choices’ despite their inappropriateness for local ecologies and social settings. Colonial architecture, Fayiga argued, is a domain through which we might trace colonial arrogance and the resistances to it.

Honoring professor Falola

This event was differently structured. Not just by the energy of governmental leaders delivering extended speeches in honour of Professor Falola, but also through an active and conscious attention on the part of the organizers and participants to collectively celebrate the intellectual lifetime of Professor Falola, who has been an influential powerhouse across the disciplines in the study of Africa.

A historian by training, Toyin Falola’s work transcends disciplinary boundaries, appealing to scholars across different backgrounds and disciplines. The author of some 300 books, chapters, and articles, Falola has also supervised several dozens of graduate students, some of whom were present at the conference. He is the coordinator for the highly subscribed e-group USA-Africa Dialogue and is well known within African Studies for his conference and workshop organizing. Falola has been at the forefront of charting a path for African intellectuals and validating humanizing accounts of African history.
Drawing from Falola, Loui Njodzevan Wirnkar Ngah spoke of the need to break the ‘trend of negativity in African historiography.’ This, he argued, requires a new redefinition of African historiography. Such papers delivered sought to do justice to Falola’s impressive and often ground-breaking work.

From Pan-Africanism to Poverty to Decolonization

Comprised of nearly 300 papers, the conference was impressive in its breadth and interdisciplinarity. Unifying topics including critical expressions of identity, dignity, colonial critique as well as grounded discussions of political and socio-economic paths forward. Specific papers considered historical and contemporary challenges to Nigerian publishers; doctoral training programs on the continent as important places for supporting and cultivating strong doctoral candidates, ‘alternative futures’ such as epistemologies based on Islam, Yoruba, Thomas Sankara’s political thought and decolonial thought, the role of the intellectual and more.

Some scholars argued that ‘the canon’ should be eradicated because it inherently reaffirms boundaries. Others considered the ways in which contemporary Pan-Africanism makes meaningful contributions to African problems. Some argued that Pan-Africanism must deal with capitalism. Others argued for a ‘new breed of African capitalism… one that is regulated and productive.’

Yoruba does not have a word for poverty, Tunde Decker informed the audience. The sense of ‘being a victim of poverty’ does not hold true in Yoruba. Rather, inée connotes a lack that signals a miscommunication between the individual and deity. To resolve inée, a person needs to strengthen that communication by going to an Ifa priest. Also related to poverty is the concept of orí, or the force that is chosen in the spiritual realm. In this way, it is thought that a person might have chosen an orí that does not allow them to live a good life. If a person has a disconnect with the ancestors, this disconnect might manifest itself within the material world through a lack. What was not considered was how the inée might, inadvertently, bolster neoliberal capitalism through an individualization of lack.

Innocent Moyo’s work on decolonizing borders generated powerful audience responses. Borders are political institutions and the heightened securitization of borders is in tension with moves to create regional integration in Africa. Moyo asserted the importance of race for projects to ‘decolonize borders,’ this is because, on the continent, borders often operate through and are constitutive of ‘anti-blackness.’ His talk generated considerable debate about the ‘practicality’ of a decolonized border system. Although his argument was not that borders themselves be altogether eradicated but that the practices of bordering be decolonized.

The Intellectual in Africa

Professor Chris BN Ogbogbo, President of the Historical Society of Nigeria, remarked in his keynote address, ‘The academic’s primary role must be to move students to be knowledge producers.’ He argued that scholars must necessarily become activists against the backdrop of the failure of mainstream intellectuals to provide grounded and politically relevant ideas.
The role of the intellectual in Africa has likewise been a centrepiece in Falola’s work. Falola writes,

How Africans, either at home or abroad, will acquire autonomy and control the production of knowledge about their continent will ultimately depend on the possibility of a positive political and economic transformation of Africa. The marginality of African studies and Africans’ feeling of irrelevance in Western institutions reflect the marginality of the continent in world affairs. If Africa lacks the resources to sponsor research and publish, to retain excellent scholars and build viable universities, it will be hard to overcome intellectual domination by outsiders who have their own agenda, interests, and priorities. (Falola 2018: 710)

Ogbogbo argued that, at the core of Africa’s development challenges, is the manner in which knowledge is produced, disseminated and consumed in Africa – including for what purpose and reasons. He lashed out at academics for what he referred to as the ‘think tank of the post-colonial state in Africa,’ for failing to provide ideas to ‘unshackle’ people and societies from persistent capitalist crisis in the continent.

Yet there was perhaps insufficient recognition of the inability of our states to use evidence-based information to make decisions and implement policies in such discussion. Africa is, after all, home to CODESRIA, a productive research organization in the social sciences that spans more than forty-years of successfully generating and circulating African knowledges. But the question is also how many African governments make concerted efforts to or are even willing to draw from such knowledge in public policy making.

A special panel was convened by the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute in South Africa under the theme ‘African Knowledges, Epistemologies and Leadership’. Within the context of the coloniality of knowledge in which epistemic perspectives are informed by Euro-centrism, Samuel Oloruntoba asserted the need for ‘thought liberation.’ An aspect of this liberation involved the deliberate use of Pan-Africanism in a paradigm of global anti-Africanism.

Edith Phaswana spoke of the need for an Afro-decolonial curriculum at universities that draws from Afro-centered and decolonizing epistemologies. Drawing from Pedro Tabensky and Sally Matthews’ Being at Home, she spoke of the importance of African students finding a home in a university space that is usually alienating in terms of its knowledge and ways of knowing. ‘We are all products of Westernized universities —even if we have gone through university systems located on the African continent… We are all disciplined by the different disciplines we subscribe to,’ she reminded the audience.

Similarly, Falola writes, As a historical reality, Africa was integrated into an international system on terms defined by the West. African intellectuals cannot escape the reality of this integration. Neither can they escape the fact that the ideology that drives scholarship is controlled by the West and that what African scholars have done is primarily to respond…In spite of the success of many notable African intellectuals and the creation of centers of learning in the continent, ‘the Western academy remains the unique source of validation for the African scholar.’ There is a dependence on Western languages and Western-derived theories and concepts… (Falola 2018: 682).

Phaswana’s work in South Africa seeks to bridge Afrocentricity and decolonial thought to assert an Afro-decoloniality by carefully selecting knowledge that seeks to ‘advance humanity’ in ways that offer possibilities to learn from each other and discarding those that are demeaning, infuriating, marginalising and harmful to humanity. She argued that Africa is unapologetically a legitimate site of knowledge production, and Africans are also credible producers of knowledge about Africa and the world.

In her powerful keynote address, Professor Gloria Emeagwali articulated a ‘Toyin Falola framework for knowledge cultivation’: a model of knowing based on methodological plurality that draws on trial and error, is founded on diverse ecologies (including a ‘bias toward nature’), respect for ancestral wisdom, and commitments to holism and non-linear trajectories. This framework, she asserted, must connect with anti-racist scholarships.

Professor Emeagwali called on young scholars to take seriously the legacy of Africa. This is a legacy which must be preserved, improved on, and sustained for prosperity. She argued that this legacy is a bequest from ancestral wisdom, inspiration, and scientific experimentation. For her, Falola is a role model through his outstanding work, she urged the younger generation to replicate it transcontinentally.

Africa Beyond Africa

While sessions at the conference emphasized the importance of African knowledges for African futures, it is important not to lose sight of the importance of African knowledges for people and struggles outside of the continent. Our discussions at the conference should also be relevant for students in Cuba, Mexico, the Netherlands and beyond.
Falola asserts,
…Africans need not construct a cage for themselves, that Africans have to receive and use the ideas from all parts of the world, that African cultures and customs have to be refined to cope with the forces of modernity and change…Africans [must] transform ideas, create new paths, review their histories, and meet the challenges that transformation will pose (Falola 2018: 710)
This conference report was originally published by The Review of African Political Economy’s Blog in June 2018. It is available here: http://roape. net/2018/06/07/african-knowledges-and-alternative-futures/


Falola, Toyin (2018) The Toyin Falola Reader: On African Culture, Nationalism, Development and Epistemologies. Austin, TX: Pan-African University Press.
Tabensky, Pedro Alexis and Matthews, Sally, eds. (2015) Being at Home: Race, Institutional Culture and Transformation at South African Higher Education Institutions. Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Oyekan Owomoyela
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, Nebraska

African proverbs have, for good reason, attracted considerable attention from scholars, both African and non-African. One notable testimony to such attention is the international conference in South Africa from which came a monumental collection of scholarly articles now available on CD and in print. Another evidence of the interest the subject has enjoyed among African scholars is the wealth of publications they have produced in recent years, for example, Adeleke Adeeko’s monograph Proverbs, Textuality, and Nativism in African Literature; Ambrose Adikamkwu Monye’s Proverbs in African Orature: The Aniocha-Igbo Experience; Kwesi Yankah’s The Proverb in the Context of Akan Rhetoric: A Theory of Proverb Praxis; and my Yoruba Proverbs. In addition, there have been influential articles by Ayo Bamgbose, Lawrence. A. Boadi, Romanus N. Egudu, Kwame Gyekye, Yisa Yusuf, and a host of others whose omission from this rather abbreviated list is not meant as a slight. In a recent conversation, the preeminent paremiologist, Wolfgang Mieder, called my attention to the lineup of articles in the most recent issue of Proverbium [23: 2006], in which four of the five lead articles are by Nigerian scholars (Abimbola Adesoji, Bode Agbaje, George Olusola Ajibade, and Akinola Akintunde Asinyanbola) and on African proverbs, an indication, he said of the present effervescence of, and future potential for, proverb studies and publications on them on African soil. Because of these efforts we now know a good deal about proverbs as a cultural resource, their functionality and the protocols for their usage, but also their artistry-structure, wordplay, imagery, and so forth, especially after calls such as Isidore Okpewho’s (1992) that scholars pay due attention to the aesthetic dimensions of traditional oral forms.

Making Meaningful Connections

Shortly after receiving the invitation to speak at this forum, I had written and oral exchanges with Professor Toyin Falola who had received the announcement from the organizers. In our discussion, he reiterated the comments he had sent to them, in which he recommended that presenters be encouraged to go beyond providing proverb lists and focus more on additional intellectualization, on textuality, exegesis, and politics, for example. His words resonated with me because I believe that in Africa we have arrived at a time in history when we must revisit some questions that arose on the eve and early years of African independencies, especially those concerning literary production and studies and their “relevance.” Relevance, let me remind us, referred to the utility of intellectual or artistic work in advancing the development of the newly independent countries. Although the concept of the “African personality” with its cultural dimension was a prominent and quite pertinent part of the anti-colonial rhetoric, the major preoccupation of the discourse of relevance was development, in other words the elimination of the technological and economic distance between Africa and the “developed” world. It was a preoccupation that tended to eclipse all other considerations.

As an illustration, let me mention a personal anecdote. In 1963, I had a discussion with the Chief Federal Adviser on Higher Education at the time, Chief S. O. Awokoya, on an earlier commitment by the Federal Scholarship Board to extend the State Scholarship I had earned on entering the University College, Ibadan in 1959, to enable me to pursue graduate studies abroad. During the meeting, he told me that had my proposed course of study been something like Engineering he would have instructed me to go home and start preparing for departure, but since I meant to study theater he had to tell me that that subject was a luxury the country could ill afford.

The perception that such “useful” disciplines as Science and Engineering have a place in our republic while “useless” ones like Drama, Theater, or Folklore do not might have been myopic in our circumstances in the early 1960s, but not entirely incomprehensible. It has been replicated more recently even in the United States where from the 1960s to the 1980s, at least, the predominating pull, among the most progressive and enterprising in the academy was away from the humanities and towards the sciences, business management, and computer programming. But from the American experience also comes testimony to the deficiency of that perception. Sometime in the 1980s the country experienced a seeming epidemic of criminal behavior by corporate executives and Wall Street operatives, the best example (perhaps) being Ivan Boesky, who served twenty-two months in prison and paid $100 million in reparation for insider trading. A cartoonist expressed the general belief that the stress on Business Education in the nation’s universities and corresponding neglect of the humanities had resulted in a generation of executives indifferent to virtue or values. He depicted a frustrated and exasperated corporate executive plaintively calling to his Secretary through the intercom: “Find me somebody who knows the difference between right and wrong!” The more recent Enron debacle (which resulted in the conviction of Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling for financial malfeasance on May 25 this year) and several others indicate that the problem has not quite disappeared.

The Relevance of Proverb Study

What is the relevance of the foregoing to the present discussion? What do those instances say about why we should be interested in proverbs? What do we look to proverbs for, and what good are they in our present circumstances? I am proposing that proverbs and their study are synecdochic for the humanities, as purveyors per excellence of knowledge about the difference between right and wrong, the good and the bad, the social and the antisocial.

One of the employments African scholars and writers had for proverbs in the era of decolonization was the subject of Adeleke Adeeko’s publication, Proverbs, Textuality, and Nativism in African Literature. It was, as he pointed out, one of the “nativist” strategies for indigenizing African literary production and its criticism. He used the phrase “structuralist or speculative nativists” to describe those critics who conceived of any African literature that would qualify for that indigenizing qualifier as “that which has as its sources conventions and philosophies of representation derived from recognizably indigenous practices” (ix). In the chapter “My Signifier is More Native than Yours: Issues in Making a Literature African” he noted the efforts of writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, as well as critics like Chinweizu and his collaborators, who effectively “refused literary high modernism with ‘indigenist’ aesthetics.” He also distanced himself from those African critics (like Kwame Anthony Appiah) who, as Adeeko put it, in response to “the sociology of contemporary intellectual traffic, the devastation of post-independence economies, and the ideological compromises that result from migration,…want to believe that those earlier defenses of ‘local knowledge’ are wrongheaded and claustrophobic” (26).

As Chinua Achebe acknowledged early in his career, prominent among his motivations as a writer was the desire to validate African local knowledge, Things Fall Apart (1958) being wholly dedicated to that end. Instances of such validation also abound in No Longer at Ease (1960), in those instances that highlight the cultural and psycho-social relevance of proverbs (arguably representative of traditional ethos, language, and institutions). On one occasion Obi, the main character who had recently returned from studying English in Great Britain, laments his loss of facility in his own language as he admires the local Umuofians “who made a great art of conversation[,]…men and women and children who knew how to live” (57). A little later, in a rehearsed appeal to the Union to defer his repayment of their loan to him, he makes a creditable effort at eloquent, proverb-laden Igbo. But very quickly “the speech which had started off one hundred percent in Ibo [became] fifty-fifty” (93).

The sojourn in England, in the course of which he experienced “a longing to return home [which] took on the sharpness of physical pain,” did more than rob him of his native competence in the use of Igbo rhetorical resources, but it also had other devastating effects on him. When shortly after assuming his civil service duties he is arrested and charged with the crime of petty bribery, the elders of the Umuofia community in Lagos attributed his fall to his alienation from his roots and self-distancing from his people (6-7).

Young Africans who found themselves in positions analogous to Obi’s on his first arrival in England, at least before our world became captive to “the sociology of contemporary intellectual traffic [and] the devastation of post-independence economies,” adopted certain strategies to deal with the pain of separation from home and culture. My own first foray into collecting proverbs was a part of my strategy to manage the nostalgia I experienced when I first arrived in Los Angeles for graduate study in 1964. It has since evolved to encompass more significant uses, especially the correction of the sort of alienation the Lagos-based Umuofians blamed for Obi’s loss of a moral compass, and the restoration or reinforcement of our ability to tell the difference between right and wrong.

What I envisage for African paremiologists is therefore something quite different from mere antiquarianism or traditionalism. I envisage something other than slumming explorations of aspects of the African past and culture, perhaps for amusement at the contemplation of quaint ways of being whose antics we can laugh at while congratulating ourselves for how far we have advanced beyond the unenlightened and sometimes depraved state they depict. We are wont, after all, to stress that proverbs play an important role in impressing the approved cultural and social values upon members of the community, in pressuring them to abide by these, and in reprimanding them for any lapses. We testify that they are preeminently well placed to perform those services because we hold them to collectively constitute a reference library of authority on the good and meaningful life. As such, therefore, they deserve our special attention in our post-colonial present, because the effects of colonialist indoctrination and the colonial education to which we were subjected persist even today. They are evident in the little we know with any certainty about our traditional past, and in our tendency to deride the past for what we take to be its flaws.

The Imperative of Discernment

In an earlier work, I took issue with the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu for the foregoing reason, when he cited proverbs as an obstacle in the way of African advancement in the new dispensation. For him proverbs exemplify the “authoritarian odour” that fouls African cultures, in which mandatory obedience to elders suffocates initiative on the part of the young and independence of thought on the part of mature people. His bolster for this astounding claim is “the abundance of proverbs enjoining regard for age and a dearth of proverbs advocating original and independent thinking” (1980:4). Sometime after that claim he reiterated it by contrasting African and Western approaches to managing the universe: the Western approach is to debate, clarify and modify opinions, he said, whereas the African simply relies on what has been handed down to him, saying, “This is what our ancestors said” (1984:157). I have offered rebuttals for these views elsewhere (Owomoyela 1996:20-23) and will not dwell on them in this forum, except to remark that those of us who study proverbs, African or non-African, are aware that numerous sayings urge initiative on the youth, along with respect for elders, which are quite compatible, and independent mindedness on older people, on whom the truth that ọǹ à kan kò wọjà [Many paths lead to the market] is not lost.

I don’t believe that those of us assembled here today, who have obviously demonstrated some drive, initiative, and independence of thought, will attribute all of it to our emancipation by the colonizers from the addling authoritarianism of traditional upbringing. I venture to say that the same is probably true of Wiredu.

Not very different from Wiredu’s indictment of proverbs on the basis of their supposed “authoritarian odour” is a comment by another author on the reflection of certain proverbs on the morals of the societies in which they are current. Consider the Yoruba proverb “Bí ẹlẹ́yìnkùlé à bá sùn, àá mú sùúrù ni, nítorí pé, bó bá pẹ́ títí oorun a gbé ẹlẹ́yìnkùlé lò” (If the owner of the backyard does not sleep one hangs on in his backyard for as long as necessary; eventually sleep carries the home owner away). Or Bi ẹ ba ń gbọ́ gbé e gbè è gbé e, ti a ko bá wọn gbé e, ẹ̀yìnkùlé olúwarẹ̀ ni wọn yó gbé e sí (If you keep hearing “Haul it! Haul it! Haul it!” and you don’t join them to haul it, it will end up in your backyard). Or the Jabo proverb “A lie in court saves the case.” In all these cases, the import is somewhat morally suspect. The first urges patience on a person lurking outside a house at night, watching for the owner to fall asleep. The person is presumably up to no good. The second in effect argues that one is better off collaborating with people planning some odious enterprise, for that way one would be able to direct its adverse consequences away from oneself. The last simply encourages strategic lying, because “in the intertribal court which arbitrates in questions of war and peace . . . a crime is not considered to be proved, nor is the culprit fully convicted, unless a confession has been made” (Herzog, 141).

To non-members of the cultures or societies involved, or members who are not educated in the proverb usage of their societies, such sayings are cause for worrying about the moral rectitude of the groups concerned. The proverbs would constitute damaging “facts” against which there could be no argument. But these are only instances that illustrate various other facts, among them, that proverbs are sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and that any society’s body of proverbs contains and supports conflicting views, some of which are quite evidently contrary to the accepted beliefs and practices of the people. The task of proverb scholars, and the societies’ competent proverb users, would be to point out to those befuddled by such proverbs as I have cited that for all their vaunted educative and regulatory duties proverbs are not by themselves sufficient as data for distilling a culture’s ethos. They function along with experience, direct instruction, percepts, and so forth. Mindfulness of these cautionary details will enhance our ability to derive the best benefits from our study of these resources.

This is a good moment, I believe, for an elaboration on the examples I cited earlier from the American experience, the examples of Ivan Boeske, Kenneth Lay, and Jeffrey Skilling. I invoked them as manifestations of what might happen when the edifying and chastening influence of the humanities has been attenuated, and the ethics of materialism and greed glorified. I proposed proverbs in our modernity as an equivalent of the spirit of the humanities (as the creator of the cartoon I cited understood it). The spirit asserted itself in the American response to the errant behaviors of the men I mentioned. The legal system convicted all of them, and in the one case that has reached its final resolution imposed a stiff punishment. I propose that we dedicate our efforts as paremiologists to propagating and enthroning the edifying and chastening sanctions of proverbs, such that our home-grown Boeskes, and Lays, and Skillings would similarly be brought to book, not celebrated, lionized, and rewarded with the highest offices the land has to offer.

What Adeeko described as “the sociology of contemporary intellectual traffic… and the ideological compromises that result from migration” is relevant to the point I am making about the recuperative potential of proverb study in the service of rehabilitating African cultures and traditions in the face of our disillusionment with our post-independence record, the tarnish that has besmirched the concept of the African personality.

Counter-Penetration and Self-Presentation

In his 1979 Reith Lectures, Ali Mazrui defended African scholars’ migration to Europe and America by pointing out the justice of their taking up teaching positions in Western universities. Teachers from the West had in the past been actively engaged in indoctrinating Africans, he said, and it was high time Africans “counter-penetrated” the Western world to return the favor (1980: 16). The project Mazrui advocated would be gravely undermined if the knowledge about Africa the scholarly migrants purveyed reinforced the uncomplimentary assumptions their Western students already harbored about Africa. I can testify to the difficulty of the project as it is from personal experience. Several years ago, one of my students included an advice to me in her end-of-semester evaluation of my course on African literatures, during which I had tried to correct some common misrepresentations of African cultural practices. The student, who had never been to Africa and was taking her first course related to the continent, advised me to “stop making excuses and accept the facts.” What we say about ourselves has to be well-informed and designed to burnish, not tarnish our presence in the world.

In a recent article on differential access to connectivity in this age of the Internet and the perils that await the less fortunate societies in this regard, the Nigerian artist and scholar Olu Oguibe (2002) warned that such societies face not only the misappropriation of their cultural resources for unscrupulous circulation among the well connected, but also their gross misrepresentation in this forum where the societies will lack awareness that they are being misrepresented and will have no means of correcting the misrepresentation (175-83). An example of what may happen, a humorous one perhaps, is the fate of an Igbo proverb in the hands of a non-Igbo speaker. Ambrose Monye cites A. J. Shelton’s translation of the Igbo proverb, Enwe si na ya ma ka ya ra wee noo utu in her 1971 collection as “Monkey says that when he copulates he eats in order to maintain the seed of his penis.” Michael Echeruo however dismisses that as a misrepresentation, offering instead, “the monkey said that it knew the size of its anus before swallowing the utu fruit” (Monye 2-3). Misrepresentations are not always that harmless.

If I have sounded as though I am in fact making excuses for traditional institutions and refusing to entertain the thought that we might benefit from self-criticism, one explanation is my sensitivity to the importance of the point Oguibe made in his article. At the start of this presentation I mentioned Mieder’s complimentary observation of the amount of proverb scholarship taking place in Africa and especially in Nigeria, attested to by the several articles from here in the latest issue of Proverbium. Along with his praise of the effort, though, he also observed, with some regret this time, that the articles had to be sent to him for publication instead of being published in Nigeria. He recalled the time, in the latter part of the last century, when a number of highly respected journals in the humanities and the social sciences originated from Nigeria (among other African countries), and wondered if any of them continues to be published. I know that some have persisted, and I so assured him, but I also mentioned the many obstacles to running and publishing scholarly journals in many countries, not least Nigeria.

The import of the necessity to publish in European and American journals is quite pertinent to this discussion. I do not wish to spell out the inevitable “ideological compromises,” as Adeeko describes them, that often accompany dependence on foreign scholarly outlets just as much as they accompany migration and employment at foreign institutions. Speaking as someone concerned about Africa’s place and image in the world, though, I am particularly interested in the unfortunate substitution of reporting to the world about our affairs for discussing them among ourselves, especially when the report is negative, and when we have little or no input into how the recipients of the report construe it or what they do with it. I am not by any means advocating that African scholarly exchanges, on proverbs or any other subject, be confined to African scholars, but rather that they should be at least as much among African scholars as with other scholars around the globe. As far as proverb scholarship is concerned that recommendation is particularly apropos, because, after all, one of the reasons for proverb use traditionally was to make delicate or sensitive communication among close people possible in public spaces. In other words, to enable people to wash dirty linen in public, yet hidden from the wrong eyes.

The Search for Affinities

Lest I leave my listeners with an impression of paranoia I will turn to a more cheerful discussion of the possibilities of the study of African proverb for our modernity. I return once again to Falola’s admonition that we move away from compiling lists to the more profitable task of analyzing them and applying their insight to our pursuits. In his presentation at a proverbs conference in Pretoria in 1996 (later included in Proverbs: A Handbook) Mieder quotes Matti Kuusi’s observation that if one could collect those proverbs known to be common to African cultures one would then be able to compare them with available collections of the numerous common Eurasian and European proverbs to determine whether the cultures of the three continents share “a common heritage of proverbs.” Mieder then declared:
The time has surely come to assemble major comparative proverb collections based on the numerous previously published collections of small linguistic groups. Research teams need to work on this major task making use of computer technology. Only through such work will questions regarding the geographical distribution and commonality of African proverbs be answered.

What proverbs are known throughout Africa? How old are they? Are they indigenous to that continent? How do they relate to the common stock of European proverbs that were disseminated by missionaries? The first step should be the establishment of a computer bank of all African proverbs collected thus far. While valuable individual collections and studies of African proverbs exist, a comparative analysis of all these African texts is highly desirable. (2004: 124).

He credits Ryszard Pachocinski with having taken a step in that direction with Proverbs of Africa: Human Nature in the Nigerian Oral Tradition (1966), which contains 2,600 entries. More collections of African proverbs have become available since Mieder’s call, and, therefore, it is not premature to move on to the comparative stage.

But a more important goal, in my view, would be for us to determine, through the evidence of proverbs, the affinities among African peoples and cultures as a step towards removing the tendency we have of seeing difference rather than similarity. Colonialism entailed the fragmentation of peoples and cultures across the continent, and since the nominal end of the colonial era we have invested the divisions with an aura of immutability, and in many places we have fought bloody wars based on them and their claims. We have taken to heart such claims that Yorubaness, for example, is an invention of the colonizers; the people who call themselves Yoruba were supposedly a collection of non-communicating groups before the colonizers slapped them together to form a unit for administrative convenience. Witness the paper entitled “The Diaspora in the Making of the Homeland: Afro-Brazilian Religion and the Invention of ‘the Yoruba,’” which J. Lorand Matory, Professor of Anthropology and of African American Studies at Harvard University, presented at the African Studies Pro-Seminar, University of Pennsylvania on 5 April 1996. The case is more easily made with regard to countries, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, for example. The Ewe are very different from the Asante; the Luo bear no relationship to the Kikuyu, and the Igbo are nothing like the Yoruba.

Such sentiments are less likely to enhance the ability of the continent to thrive in the modern world than ones based on stressing what we have in common. For that reason I believe that a comparative study of our proverbs for bolster to our similarities is valuable enough, although it could also serve later to unearth our similarities with the peoples of other continents. Because of that conviction I have sought to contest the assertion the esteemed Chinua Achebe made some time ago about the fundamental differences between the Igbo and the Yoruba.

Proverbs and Difference

When interviewed by Kay Bonetti in 1988, Achebe contrasted what he characterized as Igbo republicanism with Yoruba monarchism, as he described it. And when Bonetti suggested that the difference probably explained the greater success of Christianity among the Igbo than among the Yoruba, Achebe accepted the reasoning as only partially correct. More responsible, in his words, was “the openness of the Igbo system” in contrast to that of the Yoruba. Elaborating, he argued that Igbo world view, unlike its Yoruba counterpart, was one of change, and added that a “very common saying among the Igbo is that there is nothing that is permanent in the world . . . everything is changing, everything is in motion.” The implication, of course, is that for the Yoruba conditions are permanent; the world is static, never changing, or as V. S. Naipaul described the African world, “finished.” He went on to offer a specified example: “Look at Igbo art,” he said; “it’s not placid, it’s not static, in the way, for instance, that [in] Yoruba art you have this composure, this sitting still and gazing placidly into the future. Igbo art is full of drama, of activity, of tension.” The Igbo, he added, again in contrast to the Yoruba, did not believe that they had all the answers, and were therefore outward looking. Accordingly, seeing the power the Europeans had, the Igbo opened themselves and their society to the newcomers and their religion.

At an earlier forum I took issue with Achebe›s contentions with regard to both the nature of the Yoruba world view and its supposed fundamental difference from that of the Igbo. I argued then that Achebe›s proverb usage significantly undermined his thesis, as indeed does what we know of Igbo proverbs in general. I mean by that statement that a large number of the proverbs in Achebe›s fiction as well as in the Igbo repertoire as a whole, are either direct translations of Yoruba sayings or strikingly close to them. Take for example the following passages from Achebe’s fiction:

1. “As the elders said, if a child washes his hands he could eat with kings” (TFA, 1966: 6).

2. “The lizard that jumps from the high ìrókò tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did” (TFA: 16).

3. “We have a saying that if you want to eat a toad you should look for a fat and juicy one” (NLAE, 1994: 6-7).

4. “Our fathers . . . have a saying about the danger of living apart. They say it is the curse of the snake. If all snakes lived together in one place, who would approach them? But they live every one unto himself and so fall easy prey to man” (NLAE: 92-93).

5. “ . . . it was true what the Ibos say, that when a coward sees a man he can beat he becomes hungry for a fight” (NLAE: 156).

6. “A man who knows that his anus is small does not swallow an udala seed” (AOG, 1977: 71).

7. “Whenever my people go to console a woman whose baby has died at birth or soon after, they always tell her to dry her eyes because it is better the water is spilled than the pot broken” (MOP, 1989: 28).

8. “It was strange perhaps that a man who had so much on his mind should find time to pay attention to these small, inconsequential things; it was like the man in the proverb who was carrying the carcass of an elephant on his head and searching with his toes for a grasshopper” (MOP: 72).

9. Odili describes the corrupt regime in A Man of the People as “a regime which inspired the common saying that a man could only be sure of what he has put away safely in his gut or, in language even more suited to the times: ‘you chop, me self I chop, palaver finish . . .” (MOP 149).

Most people conversant with Yoruba proverbs will, without fail, see an uncanny resemblance between the forgoing and the following Yoruba proverbs, in order corresponding to the above:

1. Ọmọ tó mọ ọwọ́ọ́ wẹ̀ á bá àgbà jẹ.
2. Aláǹgbá tó já látorí ìrókò . . . .
3. Ẹni bá máa jọ̀pọ̀lọ́, a jẹ èyí tó lẹ́yin.
4. Ànìkàn rìn ejò là n ń fàdá pa á.
5. Ẹni a lè mú là n ń lèdí mọ́.
6. Bí àjànàkú ò gbẹ́kẹ̀lé fùrọ̀, kì í mi ẹyin.
7. Omi ló dànù, agbè ò fọ́.
8. A kì í ru erin lérí ká máa fi ẹsẹ̀ wa ìrẹ̀ nílẹ̀.
9. Ọjọ́ a rí kéré ká jẹ kéré; ọjọ́ a rí wọ̀mù ká jẹ wọ̀mù; àgbà kì í ṣubú yẹ̀gẹ́ ká dà tikuùn sílẹ̀. Ohun a bá jẹ níi báni lọ. AND Jẹ kí n jẹ kì í payò.

In addition to the foregoing I have selected some proverbs from The Book of Igbo Proverbs, a pamphlet by F. Chidozie Ogbalu, undated but most probably printed in 1955. (I have chosen this particular collection because it could not have used Achebe’s fiction as a source.) These too echo Yoruba proverbs as I will show. For each proverb in his pamphlet the author gives the Igbo original and the English “meaning,” his word. The “meaning” was however not always a translation of the Igbo, but more often an English popular saying with the same import. For example, for the Igbo Nracha nrache ekwegh nwanyi gba afo onu he offers the English meaning, “Procrastination is the thief of time.” Here now are my selection (only their English “meanings”), with their Yoruba “relatives” appended:

1. When people get weakened . . . others probably weaker would challenge them. (Bí ìyà ńlá bá gbéni sánlẹ̀, kékeré a máa gorí ẹni.)
2. Too much talking leads to evil words. (Ẹni bá sọ púpọ̀ a ṣì sọ, or possibly Ọ̀rọ̀ púpọ̀, irọ́ níí mú wá.)
3. People are more disposed to fight if they knew that they would win. (Ẹni a lè mú là ń lèdí mọ́.)
4. It is not good for people to reveal all that they know. (Inú ẹni lorúkọ tí a máa sọ ọmọ ẹni ń gbé.)
5 Everybody must bear his own burden. (Ọlọ́mú dá ọmú ìyá ẹ̀ gbé.)
6. Helpless people are prone to be cheated always. (Bí aya olè bá dàgbà, olówó ní ń gbé e, or possibly A gbọ́ peé ẹjọ́ ọmọdé jàre ná, ṣùgbọ́n ta ni yó bá a wí?)
7. No place is sweeter than home. (Ilé làbọ̀ sinmi oko.)
8. It is not good hurrying over things that need no hurry. (A kì í fi ìkánjú lá ọbẹ̀ gbígbóná.)
9. Once a time or one at a time. (Ọ̀kọ̀ọ̀kan là ń yọsẹ̀ lábàtà.)
10. One bad apple corrupts the others. (Ẹrú kan níí múni bú igba ẹrú.)

The closeness between the proverbs in this group and their Yoruba equivalents, it is easy to see, is not quite as much as the closeness between Achebe’s proverbs and the Yoruba versions. The correspondence in the latter case can be explained in one of two ways: one, that they are proverbs that grew independently out of Igbo experience and found their way into his fiction, or, two, that Achebe borrowed them from his exposure to Yoruba culture and proverbs. My belief, for reasons I have argued in the forum I referred to earlier, is that the latter is the case. But regardless of my belief in that regard, the inference we can draw from the similarity is obvious. If the proverbs I have cited from Achebe’s fiction are appropriated from the Yoruba corpus, then the appropriation constitutes a tacit acknowledgement of a convergence of minds between the two peoples, a similarity of world views. If on the other hand they are original Igbo proverbs, as I believe the Ogbalu selections are, then they are an eloquent demonstration of like-mindedness between the two ethnic groups.

Although I stand by my contention that Achebe benefited from his long residence in the Yoruba part of Nigeria and exposure to Yoruba proverbs in his creative ventures, the conclusion one can draw from my Ogbalu selections is more important for my present purpose, inasmuch as they testify to the not so unexpected fact that the Yoruba and the Igbo actually think alike, at least as far as the subjects or propositions the proverbs address are concerned, even if they ate lexically and syntactically different. Of course the Yoruba and the Igbo are distinct ethnic groups with important distinguishing characteristics, beliefs, practices, and so forth. But two siblings who share the same set of parents are also distinct individuals, with important distinguishing traits, ideas, and habits. We may seek to seek out and maximize the differences in either case, or concentrate on the commonalities as relational bases. The latter option, I believe, is better conducive to collaboration in the project of building the sort of society and future I think we all desire.


In conclusion, let me reiterate that I am suggesting that we direct our study of African proverbs towards certain ends. Our efforts should be free of all suggestions of traditionalism or antiquarianism, marketable curiosity about exotic practices, and free of any uncomplimentary associations that “nativism” might carry. Our scholarship must be part of the effort to recuperate the best aspects of the African personality, which in turn will keep us always mindful of the difference between right and wrong, and which will, in addition, have a positive impact on our present, and on our presence in the world. Although Mazrui represented the African presence in the Western classroom as something of a payback, we should not let his humor obscure his real message, which is that we use that privileged position to better educate the West about ourselves, to the benefit of both our hosts and ourselves.
Finally, I will cite the Yoruba proverb Ilé la ti ń kẹ́ṣọ̀ọ́ ròde (It is from the home that one dons one’s fineries before venturing outdoors), which I am certain has parallels in all African cultures, and which has the English equivalent, “Charity begins at home.” I invoke it to introduce the final goal I am recommending. The evidence of the proverbs I have cited from different cultures, especially those that are culturally unique in lexis, syntax, and imagery, but nevertheless express sentiments that transcend cultural boundaries, is that along with inevitable differences all cultures also have similarities. I propose that we press proverbs from our different cultures into service to illustrate and make the most of the truth that we do have much in common that we can build upon: the Akan with the Ewe; the Igbo with the Yoruba; the Luo with the Kikuyi; the Shona with the Ndebele; the Xhosa with the Zulu; any of the foregoing with any of the others; and all collectively with other peoples. That would surely be a strategy for substituting cooperation and harmonious coexistence for conflict in our African modernity.


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