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  • Ancestors and EldersPersonal Reflections of an Africanist Art Historian
  • Robin Poynor (bio)

My research in Owo, Nigeria, revealed to me three broad ways ancestors were remembered there. In the ako ceremony hundreds of pieces of commemorative cloth were woven and a life-sized effigy of a recent ancestor was carried through the streets before it was buried (Poynor 1987) (Fig. 1). Commemorative rituals at paternal ancestral shrines (oju'po) venerated several generations of named ancestors. A retablo carved or modeled in relief backed the altar, and sculpted heads (osanmasinmi) decorated it (Fig. 2). Annual egungun masquerade events entertained and honored unnamed ancestors in general through the performance of masquerade (Poynor 1978a) (Fig. 3). Each family created its remembrances in its own way.

In this issue of African Arts, several elders have chosen to remember, through different means, those who paved the way for our own explorations of the histories of the African arts—our academic ancestors. We recognize our predecessors from many places and over great spans of time. We are indebted to generations of African elders who not only passed information from one generation to the next but also shared their knowledge with those who visited their communities inquiring about the art, performances, rituals, and practices they created.1 Another set of antecedents includes those European colonial officers, missionaries, and eventually scholars, who provided a wealth of information in colonial reports, travel writing, mission accounts, academic papers, publications, and other sources that formed a strong foundation on which to build our investigations of the arts of Africa.2 However, for this issue in celebration of the fifty years of African Arts, we limit our discussion to individuals who were working fifty years ago and the preparation of their students—the precise time African Arts made its appearance. It was a time marked by the end of the colonial era in Africa and the beginning of African independence.

We chose to limit our study to these "ancestors" for several reasons. It is that generation that was active in North American academia at the time. For the most part the scholars discussed here trained a large number of students who carried out fresh research on the continent. Arnold Rubin's vision for African art studies is acknowledged in Monica Visona's First Word. Roy Sieber's impact is remembered by Roslyn Walker. Herbert Cole reminisces about Douglas Fraser's career. Lisa Aronson acknowledges Joanne Eicher's role in looking at the arts of textiles and dress. Although he was not working in the United States at that precise period, Ekpo Eyo, as Director of the Nigerian Department of Antiquities, welcomed great numbers of American researchers to Nigeria and encouraged their work. He also emboldened young Nigerians to pursue graduate studies in the United States. One of those, Babatunde Lawal, pays homage to him in this issue. Finally, Henry Drewal and Danny Dawson have solicited oriki (praise poems) that honor Robert Farris Thompson. We trust that in remembering these ancestors, memories of other elders and ancestors will be evoked.

In preparing for dissertation research in Nigeria, I planned to study leadership arts as indexes of change, connecting the court of the eastern Yoruba kingdom of Owo to that of ancient Ife and the Edo court at Benin. My proposal had been inspired by Ekpo Eyo, whose recent excavations at Owo demonstrated that the oral histories of ancestral connections to Ile-Ife were backed up by terra cotta objects found at Igbo 'Laja3 (see Figs. 8a, 9b, and 10 in Lawal, this issue.) Eyo talked with me at Indiana and convinced me that I might use objects, performances, and oral histories to investigate those relations. On arrival in Nigeria, however, I realized that political realties required me to change topics. I recognized that an array of arts memorialized the lives of ancestors, connecting them to elders, who in turn linked living progeny to forebears (Poynor 1978b). Ancestors and elders played vital roles in that culture even into the late twentieth century, and their importance, memories of them among the living, and links to the spirit world were still [End Page 8] experienced through ritual, performance, and art.

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