We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Vigilant Things

On Thieves, Yoruba Anti-Aesthetics, and The Strange Fates of Ordinary Objects in Nigeria

David T. Doris is associate professor of the history of African art and visual culture at the University of Michigan.

Publication Year: 2011

Throughout southwestern Nigeria, Yoruba men and women create objects called aale to protect their properties - farms, gardens, market goods, piles of collected firewood - from the ravages of thieves. In Vigilant Things, David T. Doris argues that aale are keys to understanding how images function in Yoruba social and cultural life.

Published by: University of Washington Press


pdf iconDownload PDF (76.9 KB)
pp. vii-x

Map 1: Yorubaland

pdf iconDownload PDF (99.5 KB)
pp. xi

Map 2: Detail of Map 1

pdf iconDownload PDF (71.4 KB)
pp. xii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (83.9 KB)
pp. xiii-xvii

I hear that first-time authors are traditionally given absolution, or at least a special dispensation, for writing lengthy acknowledgments. Well, then, here goes. Vigilant Things would not have happened without the generous support of many institutions and individuals in the United States and Nigeria, and one or two in England as well. ...

read more

A Note on Orthography

pdf iconDownload PDF (52.3 KB)
pp. xviii

The three tones of Yoruba roughly correspond to the first three notes of the musical scale, which would be marked like this: dò, re, mí. The vowel e is pronounced as is the a in fate, while is pronounced as in bed. O is equivalent to the O in home, and is similar to the aw in pawn. ...

read more

A Note on Language and Translation

pdf iconDownload PDF (47.7 KB)
pp. xix

Conversations were conducted and recorded in Yoruba and English, with each language inevitably infusing the other in some ratio, depending on the occasion and the relationship between participants. Now and again, Nigerian Pidgin was brought into the linguistic mix for expressive emphasis. ...

read more

A Note on Photography

pdf iconDownload PDF (46.9 KB)
pp. xx

My photographs document objects that until now have been largely neglected in the literature on Yoruba visual culture. As documents, they are meant to translate the visual impact of these objects in terms appropriate to the intentions of the objects’ creators, as well as to the requirements of a visually savvy foreign audience that may never before have encountered such things. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (454.1 KB)
pp. 3-34

In a Nigerian town called Modákk, at the junction of Okéèsọ Street and Ìgborò Street, stood the ruins of a two-story private home that had been gutted by firebombs in early 1999. It was one of many ruins along those streets, fallout from what was then the most recent outbreak of a conflict at the heart of Yorubaland, ...

Part I: Creating

read more

Presence, Power, and the Past

pdf iconDownload PDF (902.6 KB)
pp. 37-85

It is probably impossible to determine where ààlè originated. Language attests to their wide diffusion throughout Yorubaland, but brings us no closer to locating a single historical source. The vast Yoruba population—numbering upwards of twenty million— is in fact an agglomeration of many ethnic identities, ...

read more

Palm Fronds (M

pdf iconDownload PDF (836.3 KB)
pp. 86-120

In a 1924 volume entitled The Laws and Customs of the Yoruba People, A. K. Ajisafe devotes an entire chapter to legal matters attending the establishment and breach of contracts. In a firm, clipped language and outline form that lends to the book the tone of a legal brief—a tone that would have been reassuring to the colonial agents of the British Protectorate ...

Part II: Call-and-Response

read more

What We Look at and Remember

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.0 MB)
pp. 123-186

On many occasions, ààlè contain no potent medicines to combat theft, and yet they are set in place with the understanding that they will function effectively. In such cases, there is a shift in the location of efficacious power—from the creative actions of the work’s producer to the responses of its intended recipient. ...

read more

Color (

pdf iconDownload PDF (605.8 KB)
pp. 187-214

Why is it necessary to discuss color in an essay whose paradigmatic objects are old shoes, snail shells, broken pots, scrap iron, rags, peppers, and leaves? Because it will allow us to explore further the relationships between the exterior and interior qualities of things as they tend to be understood in Yoruba culture. ...

Part III: Portraits and Punishments

read more

An Ontology of the Broken

pdf iconDownload PDF (840.6 KB)
pp. 217-279

Yoruba proverbs, even when they are written, are not written in stone. Not only does the significance of a proverb shift in accordance to the specific context of its application, but also the contents of the phrase may be subtly transformed to better address the issue at hand. ...

read more

Corncobs (Ṣùkù Àgbàdo)

pdf iconDownload PDF (411.6 KB)
pp. 280-302

What supports the people if not maize?” (Igba dodo lí àgbàdo, igbà ni?) asks a phrase collected by Alfred Burdon Ellis (1894:241). The question is a play on the phonemes contained within the Yoruba word that connotes maize, àgbàdo. ...

read more

Snail Shells (

pdf iconDownload PDF (479.6 KB)
pp. 303-323

In a poem that appeared on the “Arts & Life” page of The Punch newspaper on the last day of 1998, Adelani Olaniyi, a poet with a Yoruba name, depicted his country as a long-suffering snail. To many Western readers, the invertebrate metaphor might be merely amusing, calling up associations with vaguely creepy Parisian delicacies, or with the slowness and steadiness that so famously win the race. ...

read more

Brooms (

pdf iconDownload PDF (581.9 KB)
pp. 324-342

In much of tropical and equatorial Africa, people make brooms by grouping together the excised midribs of palm fronds and tying them with fiber into a bundle. These bundles are democratic things—they brush aside accumulated filth on the floors of small family homes and royal palaces alike. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (426.0 KB)
pp. 343-388

In classical Yoruba thought, the lessons of the past flow into and nourish the present. That flow is discontinuous, however, and the nourishment comes only at a cost. In exchange, the present must acknowledge and honor the past for providing the feast. ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (77.5 KB)
pp. 389-393

Works Consulted

pdf iconDownload PDF (133.9 KB)
pp. 394-405


pdf iconDownload PDF (146.2 KB)
pp. 406-420

E-ISBN-13: 9780295802497
Print-ISBN-13: 9780295990736

Publication Year: 2011