‘Foreign authors wrote on Africa from uninformed position’

Prof. Rowland Abiodun who turns 80 on July 25, is John C. Newton Professor of Art, the History of Art, and Black Studies at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA. He is author of Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art (2014), What Follows Six Is More than Seven: Understanding African Art (1995); and co-author of other books on Yoruba arts and culture. In 2011, he received the Leadership Award of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association in recognition of his excellence, innovative contributions, and vision in the fields of African and Diasporic Arts. Prof. Abiodun was a consultant for and participant in Smithsonian World Film, Kindred Spirits: Contemporary Nigerian Art. In this chat with Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME, he speaks on how brain drain decentres African culture, his years at the University of Ife, (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Leo Frobenius’ Voice of Africa as uninformed voice on Africa, the undermining of the voice and contributions of makers and users of African art and why the struggle to liberate African epistemology is difficult, among other issues.

How does it feel to be 80, do you feel any different from 10 or 20 years ago?

Good. I’m grateful to be alive. Of course, no one will be around forever. So, this is a good time to reflect on what one has learned over the years. I would not have done this, 10 or 20 years ago.

What is the state of art education today in view of the incursion of technology?

Technology is an integral component of all educational goals today, art education included. To be real innovators in the world of art, we need to be more than copycats. While I welcome the incursion of technology, it would be wise to know that it is a tool – one which can be used to project our contributions as Africans to the world of art education.

Do you miss Nigeria, or more appropriately, what do you miss most about the country since you left about 30 years ago?

I miss the country that constitutes the foundations and the inspirations of my research in African art. I miss the vibrant culture of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) enlivened by colleagues who were equally ecstatic about our quest for knowledge. When I joined the university, I was allocated Omígbiidùn House as my home. It was on Arùbídi Street in Ife¹ town, next to Olókun Cultural Centre, and within walking distance of Opá Orànmíyàn (the staff of Orànmíyàn). I witnessed the performance of many rites there. Frequently, I walked to ¸nuwá where the Ooni’s palace and a number of important shrines including Òke Mògún (the site for Ojoo/OÍojo-òní festival and annual rites). The location of my residence was priceless to my physical involvement in, and understanding of the ancient city’s culture, facilitating intimate interaction with its dynamism. This embodied intimacy was an indelibly penetrating experience which resonates through my work. It is imprinted at the intersection of the evanescent observed activities and the intangibilities of memory. The intangible but profound, in turn, vibrates in the scribal permanence of my scholarship.

 You taught at  the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) for over 25 years. Tell us what your experience was like compared to what is obtainable in the U.S.

The Ife experience of the 70s and 80s cannot be replicated outside Africa. As pioneers in Yoruba Studies, we were at the centre of the culture we were studying, yet we were also in touch with the rest of the world, as scholars from different parts of the world streamed into and out of Ife in the heyday of the birth of modern African scholarship, and our work gathered attention globally.

The Nigerian economy, university system and social fabric began to deteriorate in the 80s, triggering an exodus of Nigerian scholars to the West, often the United States. In the West, we have everything we need to do the best scholarship, except the lived environment that is the inspiration for scholars of Africa, especially those of us who study its cultures.

I took with me what I had gained in order to better develop it in the United States. The exodus of African scholars there in the late 80s combined with various economic and social factors made the United States the centre of African Studies. The relocation of this centre outside Africa has contributed to a similar decentering of African cultures as the primary sources for methodologies in my discipline. This has occurred even as the African academic environments themselves struggle with colonial mindsets. My work has opposed this trend by contributing to the discourse that privileges Africa as the epistemic centre. This moves Africa from being simply the object of study to being the source of the methods for the study of Africa – essentially seeking the African in African art, the subtitle of my 2014 book. That book, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art privileges naming and affirming Africa’s own epistemologies and ontologies (ways of knowing, and ways of being) as the primary source for understanding its art.

 Yoruba language is now recognised and has become an official language in some parts of the world, what is your take on this?

Every language is a carrier and repository of a people’s philosophy, history, psychology, religion, politics and art. It seems that in those parts of the world which you refer to, they have held on to something precious – something which we Nigerians have ignored but need to make the cornerstone of our development. During the colonial era in Nigeria, speaking in vernacular (local language) in high schools, including mine, was punishable by up to 12 strokes of the cane. Now, the British coloniser does not need to be physically present for their legacy to persist. What a price to pay for “education”! Speaking, writing and thinking in English, French, and even Latin (which is no longer even a spoken language) are enshrined and actively promoted in the Classics departments of many academic institutions of former colonies.

Today, researching and theorising African art in a colonial language and thought system is the norm. The result has been a systematic undermining of the voice and contribution of the makers and users of African art. Indeed, many scholars of Yorùbaì birth are ashamed to be caught speaking their mother tongue, for fear of being called “illiterate,” uncivilised”, “primitive”, and “not forward-looking”. This can extend even to hatred of their language and cultural heritage.

Some stolen Yoruba artworks were returned recently to Osun State, what is your take on this?

I welcome the latest trend of returning African works of art from Western museums and collections to Africa. In the meantime, a lot of irreparable damage has been done. The Western world has named and defined African art in their language and proclaimed the result universal. Take for example, the famous German explorer and scholar, Leo Frobenius whose 1913 world-acclaimed book, Voice of Africa was perceived as representing the reality of African artistic achievement. Frobenius’ ethnocentrism and mistaken attributions of the authorship of works he found at Ile-Ife have become clear with time.

The implications of Frobenius’ title, Voice of Africa, projects an ongoing challenge of what Valentine Mudimbe’s 1988 book describes as the ‘invention’ of Africa, the discursive construction of the significance of Africa. Frobenius spoke for the continent from an admiring but uninformed position. Other voices, admiring or denigrating have also spoken for the continent from a position of inadequate understanding.

The struggle of countering the problems created by these “voices” without adequate epistemological alertness in African art studies is an ongoing struggle represented by my 2014 book. One of the great ironies of African history is that the struggle to liberate African epistemology is carried out using tools of writing and scholarship introduced to Africa by colonisation. What directions could that history have taken without the disruptive yet partially empowering – as with the introduction of widespread writing – impact of Western political, cultural and religious colonisation?

Your latest book Yoruba Art and Language ‘’ Seeking the African in African art was controversial, why?

None of the reviewers of my book have thus far suggested that my book is “controversial”. I wouldn’t either. The book clears the ground of weeds, replacing them with healthy crops. The book is subtitled “Seeking the African in African Art.” For a long time, the African was “lost” in studies of African art; his or her voice was muted or elided by those who ignored or downplayed its existence and value. The book is a culmination of a career dedicated to centering that voice and excavating its message.

Reviews of my book in internationally renowned academic journals give credence to my approach in foregrounding these voices. Nkiru Nzegwu, for example, states in Journal of Art Historiography that “Yoruba Art and Language… is an epistemological tour de force on art and aesthetics from within a Yoruba intellectual scheme. Writing in English though thinking in Yoruba, Abiodun marshals the deliberative methodology of the Yoruba intellectual tradition … [he] consummately leads readers out of the Western aesthetic paradigm and its attendant epistemological scheme. He then takes us deep into the Yoruba intellectual arena where normative and meta-theoretical disputations of art, culture, and aesthetics habitually take place.” Joseph Murphy elaborates in Material Religion, “Rowland is one of the most distinguished historians of African Art in the world and his latest work is a crowning achievement … Each chapter of Yoruba Art and Language is concerned with a different religio-aesthetic concept in Yoruba thought and how it is expressed in intertwined verbal and visual media … The total effect is a master work from a master scholar and the most thorough illumination of Yoruba religious art to be found.” Allen Roberts clarifies in History of Humanities, “[Abiodun] demonstrates that Yoruba visual and performance arts must be situated in an epistemology made manifest through a narrative (and sometimes tonally drummed) idiom called oríkì … In so far as àse is “the empowered word [that] must come to pass”, it is the poetry of Yoruba creative practice as expressed through oríkì and related narrative practices that is so affecting to Yoruba themselves and to readers seeking to understand Yoruba ontology. Yoruba Art and Language will convey its own àse affecting energies to readers who take its propositions seriously…” And, in his review of my book in AFRICA, The Journal of International African Institute, William Rea writes, “It is possible that with this publication Professor Rowland Abiodun has consolidated a recognisable ‘School of African art history, one that is genuinely African, in terms of its geographic origin certainly, if not necessarily wholly in its approach towards the discipline … It is to complement Professor Abiodun’s work that his book as a history of (an)art (or arts) stands comparison to Michael Baxandall’s close reading of art and language in 15th-century Italy.”

It’s fairly easy to understand why my book has not been like any other in the field of African art. Growing up in Yorùbáland with parents, grandparents and extended family members who lived and embodied Yorùbá traditions, my early exposure to traditional education in Yorùbá art and culture has shaped the direction of my research. The unity of the lived experience of Yorùbá language, artistic concepts, and belief systems and their critical study enabled me to understand the epistemological notions at the heart of the Yorùbá worldview, sensitising me to the inseparability of Yoruba language and culture as the epistemological foundations for the study of Yoruba art. It is this commitment that has made the book different.

As a Yoruba Cultural Ambassador do you support and believe in Prof Banji Akintoye and Sunday Igboho’s struggle for Oduduwa Country?

Prof. Akintoye and Chief Sunday Igboho are pursuing a worthy cause. Let me direct our attention to a Yoruba proverb to ground their struggle. It is “Èdì ò gbodo mú aláso kan,” (Spells or charms like èdì/èdìdì, ¹Ìfún, or àsàsí no matter how powerful, should not be able to cause the person who owns only a single piece of clothing to relinquish it). Here, I use Aláso kan metaphorically to refer to “Yoruba cultural identity and political and economic integrity” – our “only piece of clothing” which Western colonisers once tried replace with theirs, and which new would-be colonisers wish to deprive us of. The success of a civilisation is dependent on the preservation of its cultural, political and economic integrity.

I link the struggles of Akintoye and Igboho with the cultural survival of the Yoruba. As Akintoye and Igboho advocate for political and economic self-determination for the Yoruba people, I strive for Yoruba cultural flourishing, as centered in Yoruba verbal, visual and performative arts and their philosophical wealth. The preservation, study, and use of our language, and the demonstration and projection of the scope of knowledge it embodies, must be pursued with vigor. This is foundational to developing successful political, social and educational structures, vital to building a lasting and progressive Oduduwa nation.

You left Nigeria 30 years ago and have not come back, why?

So much has changed from the Nigeria I knew. What was once considered relatively normal expectations like electricity, water, personal safety, and funds to do regular research have become increasingly difficult to access.

Did you receive your pension, if no, why?

No. I did not. It was not particularly convenient to jump over all the bureaucratic hurdles that made it almost impossible for anybody to access their hard earned money.

Is this Nigeria of your dreams?

Of course not. My dream had been that by now we would be leading Africa on all fronts – scientifically, economically, educationally and politically.

At 80 what are your regrets, if any.

No regrets whatsoever. There’s always an opportunity to learn and grow.

Keeping a beard seems to be an artist’s trademark, when was the last time you shaved your beard?

Can’t remember!