- Yoruba Art and Language:Seeking the African in African Art
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What is art? Why ought we to bring the "African" into African art discourse, description, scope, and evaluation? If we take seriously the analogy with the point-and-shoot camera with which Rowland Abíódún begins this book, we can deduce that he wishes to argue that our understanding of the subject matter of African art is impacted by what tools, theories, and concepts we deploy in the task and how sophisticated they are.1 To the extent that our instrument is the equivalent of a point-and-shoot camera, calibrated to flatten the object and failing to register its many hues in as close as possible to their original realization, we are unlikely to end up with an adequate, much less correct, characterization of the object of our investigation.
The alien-derived tools with which Yorùbá art has been interpreted, described even, have meant, for instance, that "African art was not even considered art with a capital 'A' until relatively recent times mainly because art was 'for art's sake.'"2 Abíódún is not advocating the incommensurability of different traditions of art, but he wants to argue that total indifference to the ways of making, valuing, and understanding art in the context of the larger cultures within which such art is produced in Africa is likely to lead to the kinds of minimally inadequate, maximally incorrect appraisals of African art that is widespread in the discourse over time. "This study is offered as a contribution to, and revision of, the conceptual tools that we need in order to meet the challenges of studying Africa's still largely misunderstood artistic traditions."3
The aim, then, is to insert into the discourse of African art tools that are fashioned from within the cultures that gave birth to the artistic traditions themselves. This does not mean that foreign tools may not be applied. Nor does it mean that foreign scholars have no place in the interpretation of African art. Even African scholars, who do not evince the requisite familiarization with or sophistication in the language in which the original discourse is articulated, are wont to exhibit similar stumbles as those of their foreign counterparts. The problem is not with the personnel of the interpreters; it is with the conceptual tools they bring to their task.
The reason for such outcomes is not far to seek. No doubt much art emanates from the genius of single and singular individuals. But even in those situations it requires much more than the genius of the individual artist. Our characterization of art and our evaluation of same must give a nod to the enabling community within which the art piece is named and evaluated. Art may be autonomous, but it is not freefloating.
Yorùbá art, in particular, is made up of products that are indigenous to a particular area, marked by specific discourses in their original home. Additionally, some of the objects go back to antiquity and the discourses that attach to them, the context of their emergence, and the functions that they were made to perform. The criteria of appreciation and criticism by which they have been assessed and judged are, without exception, imbricated in a particular linguistic and cultural tradition and its associated practices. Any assessment of these objects in all their complexity that does not have the requisite grounding and fluency in the factors just listed is likely to be inadequate, if not false, but definitely problematic.
A note of caution is warranted here. There are other attempts at incorporating Yorùbá elements into the discourse of Yorùbá art. Too often, though, they are marked by what I would call equivalencism, under which we think all that is required is to look for equivalent Yorùbá terms for concepts derived from other traditions respecting the object of analysis. The danger with this manner of proceeding is that it takes the point-and-shoot camera as unproblematic and begins to force its object into...