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341 10. Àkó-graphy: Ò . wò . Portraits R O W L A N D A B Í Ó· D Ú N The meaning of portraits, the artistic conventions of their making, and their uses are all culturally determined. So too is the concept of the person whose portrayal is the generating cause and iconographic center of the work. —Richard Brilliant In the Yoruba town of Ọ̀wọ̀, Nigeria, there were two traditional burial ceremonies . After the body was interned, a second burial ceremony might take place. Àkó is a naturalistic life-size effigy once used in and named after the second burial ceremony . Àkó is a portrait that attempts to capture the physical likeness, essential identity, character, and social status of a deceased parent through figurative sculpture , dress, rituals, dance, music, chants, songs and oríkì (citation poetry)—all of which are performed during the àkó ceremony. An uninformed observer might be struck by how “photographic” an àkó effigy appears. Indeed, Frank Willett, for example, has argued that àkó naturalism was a recent trait, suggesting exposure to photography, though the use of effigies was ancient.1 Instead, this essay will attempt to show that the fundamental elements of the àkó life-size second burial effigy informed the photographic “traditional formal portrait” in Ọ̀wọ̀, to borrow Stephen Sprague’s term, for at least the first three quarters of the twentieth century .2 I will argue that the introduction of photography was neither a significant Rowland Abíó .dún 342 interference with, nor a termination of, the àkó visual legacy of portraiture and its attendant values in Ọ̀wọ̀. We should not interpret àkó in terms of photography; we should instead interpret the latter as àkó-graphy. In his informative essay “Photography and the Substance of the Image,” Olu Oguibe wrote that “Àkó introduces us to a philosophy of the image that invalidates the contest over transparency in the discourse of image-making, one that must be central to our understanding of photography in Africa . . . and it is within this tradition of the gesture of semblance that we find one of the earliest applications of photography by Africans.”3 Àkó-graphy’s style and culturally determined visual vocabulary is as old as the institution of àkó. It is an artistic device that reinforces the Yoruba belief in immortality and the afterlife, ẹ́hìn-ìwà.4 Even though àkó effigies and the ceremony in which they functioned gradually became less frequent and finally disappeared in the 1970s, the core beliefs that sustained them have survived. For this discussion, I will be drawing mainly on my own research findings on the àkó effigy and ceremony in Ọ̀wọ̀, the excellent study of Yoruba photography by Stephen F. Sprague, and an examination of the photographs of àkó taken by William Fagg in Ọ̀wọ̀ in the 1950s.5 Additionally, I will revisit the photographic portrait of Madam Olákolí Abíọ́dún, taken in 1947, in the light of its possible connection to, and embodiment of, the traditional values of àkó in Ọ̀wọ̀. It is uncertain when àkó as we know it was first performed, but it must have started well before the twentieth century. Chief Elerèwè, Abraham Òjó, in whose lineage at least three àkó have been performed, told me that according to his father the oldest àkó was that of Elerèwè Aké .ntin, and it took place at least five hundred years ago. The date is quite plausible if we use Willett’s average of one àkó every three years.6 According to most informants whose families had performed àkó, the practice was to slaughter one goat at the entrance of each house whose family had performed àkó before. The number of goats slaughtered on any one occasion has been well over two hundred. Thus, if one goat was slaughtered for each family that had performed àkó in the past, then six hundred years would be a modest estimate of the age of àkó.7 There could have been more that are not taken into account by this number. The next datable àkó are those of Ọjọmọ Agúnlóyè and Madam Aladeeboyè (Àdàfẹn Adeegbẹ `ghà’s mother) both during the 1880s, approximately twenty years before the first European visited Ọ̀wọ̀.8 During the 343 Figure 10.1. Unidentified photographer, fully dressed, lifesize , second-burial àkó effigy for Madam Aládé, carved by Mamah, Ìpelè-Ọ̀wọ̀, Nigeria, 1972. This was the last àkó on record in Ọ̀wọ̀. Wood, the material used for this effigy, is concealed...


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