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  • Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art by Abiodun, Rowland
  • Tunde Babawale
Abiodun, Rowland. 2014. YORUBA ART AND LANGUAGE: SEEKING THE AFRICAN IN AFRICAN ART. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. $109 (cloth).

Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art provides a seminal and authoritative work pertaining to Yoruba art and languages of Nigeria. Rowland Abiodun, the John C. Newton professor of art, the history of art and black studies at Amherst College, is an astute art historian, researcher, and culture activist, whose work will withstand the test of time and critical appraisal.

Over the years, one of the strongest criticisms of historical studies of African art has been that the bulk of its scholarship is done by those who are describable as intimate outsiders. They include scholars who may have traversed the continent, mingling and researching its cultural wealth, yet their analyses and conclusions, at best, remain shallow, misdirected, and farcical; however, this does not imply that there have not been laudable efforts by a select group of researchers, like Rene Brayman, Kevin Carroll, Herbert Cole, William Fagg, Douglas Fraser, John Picton, Arnold Rubin, Roy Sieber, Leon Siroto, Robert Farris Thompson, and others (as acknowledged by Abiodun),who have presented their findings and analyses through untainted lenses and unbiased perspectives, though the seeming inadequacy of reinterpretation of facts weakens and detracts from the quality of the products of their endeavors.

Abiodun’s artistic background and traditional education, as recounted on page xv of the book, prepared him well for this project, together with decades of research experience and collaborative works with other scholars, culture workers, and resource individuals, in both academia and the larger society; however, the major difference between this book and many other studies of Yoruba art history, as stated on page 1, lies in looking beyond [End Page 141] prevailing Western paradigms in analyzing and appreciating works from non-Western cultures.

Abiodun here challenges the inappropriateness of basing value judgments of Yoruba artworks on extraneous yardsticks and demonstrates the benefits that abound in employing the innate properties common to the visual and verbal vestiges of the Yoruba people as encoded in their artworks, proverbs, and praise poetry (in different forms), all of which qualify as oriki in Yoruba culture. Oriki, as Abiodun states, is not limited to the verbal range as traditionally held, but encompasses other forms, such as architectural space, dress, music, dance, the performed word, mime, ritual, food, and smell, which engage virtually all the senses, and it is a tool for answering varied complex theoretical issues confronting today’s Yoruba.

Abiodun proposes not only the study of Yoruba language as a prerequisite to appreciating and interrogating Yoruba artworks (since some of the codes required for their understanding are embedded in verbal oriki, such as owe, esa, ijala, ekun iyawo, and so forth, but also the elevation of such Yoruba aesthetic terms as iwa, ewa, oju-inu, oju-ona, iluti, imoju-mora, and tito ifarabale asa, to which he adds new coinages, like Ife-naturalism, ako-graphic asa, ase-graphic asa, and epe-graphic asa to be on a par with aesthetic terms from other climes, such as the Italian contraposto and chiaroscuro, which have gained global currency and acceptability. In essence, the reliance on and the inappropriateness of anthropological methodology for the study of African art, which resulted from the pathfinding role and early attention of anthropologists to African art studies, are identified as a major setback and a reason for misunderstanding and misinterpreting this art, coupled with the application of incompatible Western periodization schemes (Gothic, Classical, Baroque, Modern, and so forth).

In chapter one of the book, the interdependence of verbal and visual arts is demonstrated with a conical twelfth-to-fifteenth-century Ife art piece. Relying on oriki as captured in ifa poetry, Abiodun interrogates the piece, establishing deep-rooted similarities between it and the odu ifa, which confirms the injustice Yoruba artworks have faced in the hands of scholars whose narrow knowledge of their provenance and lack of the appropriate tools, such as language, for their understanding have deprived them of their rightful placement in art historical studies. In chapter two, Abiodun challenges scholars...


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pp. 141-146
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