BY PELUMI OYINLOLA ADEWALE
Prof. Rowland Abiodun, the John C. Newton Professor of Art, the History of Art, and Black Studies at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, United States, is a prominent promoter of African arts, history and culture. The author of many books on Africa, African arts and history was a lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly University of Ife) before leaving for the United States about 30 years ago. The academic, who turns 80 on Sunday, July 25, speaks on Africa arts and culture, historical links between Benin and Owo people in Nigeria and why he does not celebrate birthdays.
You will be 80 tomorrow, but there are no plans for any celebration. Why don’t you celebrate birthdays?
Growing up in the 1940s, neither my parents, nor grandparents, nor relatives celebrated birthdays. That does not mean that they didn’t know when they were born. In Owo, my hometown in Ondo State, men celebrated age-grade ceremonies. I believe that a birthday celebration as practised today among the Yoruba is an influence from outside Yoruba culture. It seems to be aimed mainly at boosting businesses that provide anything from the sale of candles to the cakes that feature prominently in it. The short answer is that the traditional age grade ceremony is more meaningful to me than birthday celebrations.
What do you remember growing up in Owo, your hometown?
In the evenings and especially in moonlight, children and adult family members sat outside in groups to listen to parents and elders tell stories (ìtàn) interspersed with songs and (àlọ́) riddles. Most children my age would have listened to as many as several hundred stories in one year. Those sessions trained children not only in the art of sitting still and in concentration but also inculcated in them the cultural values of the society represented by the content of those verbal arts and the communal activities of storytelling, singing, riddling and listening.
As an Art Historian, you have written a lot on Owo. Owo and Benin people share many cultural values. How do you explain their relationship?
Because the ancient Yoruba city of Owo is located approximately midway between Ile-Ife (the cradle of Yoruba civilization) and the powerful Benin Kingdom, the logical reaction is to assume that Owo’s position makes her highly vulnerable. But in reality, Owo not only survived but managed to carve out and sustain a sizable kingdom of her own in pre-colonial days. Owo’s sphere of influence included many settlements, and her territory has been defined by southern boundaries at the confluence of the Ogbese and Ose Rivers, its western boundaries at the southern border of Ekitiland, its northern boundaries at the border of Kabba Province, and its eastern boundaries at the western border of the Benin kingdom, an area of well over 2000 square miles.
With strange assumptions and theories, colonial administrators and scholars have projected a weak and heavily “Beninized” image of the Owo kingdom. For example, there’s a claim that the Owo people learned all their arts and customs from the court of Benin. To support this claim, it is often cited that the 16th Olowo, Osogboye, was sent to Benin as a crown prince by his father to learn court art and customs, and bring them back to Owo. These claims, along with similarities in chieftaincy titles and regalia have been cited as evidence that Owo was, for periods of time, under the suzerainty of the Obas of Benin. These assumptions often ignore the fairly complex cultural and diplomatic histories of the Yoruba from whom the Owo people may have derived their military and survival strategies.
According to the late Ọjọmọ Adedamola, Owo people employed ase alagemo (the life-force or power of the chameleon) a strategy which not only protects the chameleon against enemies, but enriches its wardrobe by appropriating “the dress” of other creatures in its environment. Similarly, he pointed out, the Olowo appropriated certain Benin titles, chieftaincy paraphernalia and other objects which served magically as neutralizers, strengthening him and protecting the city against the menace of the Benin kingdom. Moreover, as Paula Ben-AmosGirshick, a notable Benin scholar, has pointed out, title correspondences are more complicated than a simple one-way borrowing. A number of Benin titles are derived from Yoruba. It is possible that some of these came from Owo, and that some Owo titles came from Benin, and that both Owo and Benin titles were derived from other sources.
William Fagg, a foremost scholar of African art, also noted that Owo ivories long misattributed, actually provide a striking example of how it is possible for such a place to escape notice. Some hundreds of ivories since known to be of Owo origin were in the western world (some probably have been there for two or three centuries) but none was identified, most (since 1897) being treated as Benin work.
Being on good terms with Owo was vital to Benin’s economy and trade with the hinterland, because Owo was the gateway to western and northern Yorubaland. It could not have been in the interest of Benin to alienate Owo. As Benin trade and political ambition increased, the incessant threats against Owo must have increased as well. From available evidence, however, Owo not only seemed to have been capable of repelling such attacks, but it expanded its domain and enjoyed considerable affluence. And, according to Afolabi Ojo, an acclaimed cultural geographer, Owo Royal Palace, extending more than 108.5 acres, was “by far the largest palace in Yorubaland,” more than twice the size of the next largest palace at Iléṣà which covered 51 acres.
It is also believed that Owo people migrated from Ile- Ife. Can you comment on this belief?
The history of the present dynasty of the Owo Kingdom almost certainly has its roots in Ile-Ife, belonging among the many waves of migration from that city starting from about the 12th century. It also seems reasonable to suggest that both Owo and Benin shared certain cultural, artistic, and possibly political traits in some distant past, given their common historical relationship with Ile-Ife. However, the different and changing socio-political, linguistic and geographical realities of the areas settled by Owo and Benin must have forced both kingdoms to develop independently, each choosing and reconstituting elements that best suited their growth and stability.
Most importantly, if a good majority of the terracotta works excavated from Ugbo Laja in Owo were to be accidentally mixed with those from Ife, it would be extremely difficult to determine which came from either town. The implications of such cultural consanguinity assert that the people of Owo are from Ife.
You spent about two decades of your academic career in Ile-Ife. What times would you consider memorable?
Cultivating relationships with older people, a central skill in traditional Yoruba education. I was fortunate to enjoy the mentorship of such embodiments of Ife culture, thought and spiritual practices as Chief M. A. Fabunmi, Chief M. O. Fasogbon, and Mr. J. L. Adeniran, a highly respected Ife indigene and authority on comparative linguistics.
Chief M. O. Fasogbon was the chairman of the Ife Cultural Association of Historical Monuments, and in 1985, published an important work, The Ancient Constitutional History of Ile-Ife Ooyelagbo. Chief M. A. Fabunmi, an Honorary Research Associate, Institute of African Studies, University of Ifẹ̀ (where I was Research Fellow), possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the shrines at Ifẹ̀, and in 1969 he too had written an illustrated monograph, Ifẹ̀ Shrines. Mr. J. L. Adéníran was not only a master of the Ife dialect but was also a gifted linguist whose ability to demonstrate the interconnectivity between Ifẹ̀ and other Yorùbá dialects was unmatched. My interaction and learning sessions with all of these mentors continued through all my years at Ile-Ife.
I also learned much from my colleague, Dr. Ọmotoso Eluyemi, the Apena of Ile-Ife, an archaeologist and very knowledgeable Ife historian who invited me to see most of his excavations in and around Ifẹ̀. Our intellectual pursuits were related and when in 1978, he wrote The Living Arts and Crafts of Ile-Ife, I was asked to write the preface to it.
In the 1970s, the British archaeologist, Peter Garlake joined the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ife. Not only did I visit his excavations at Ọbalara’s land in Ife, but we also had long and extensive conversations on the interpretation of his finds. This is acknowledged in his book, Early Art and Architecture of Africa where he writes that “Rowland Abiodun’s insights into Yoruba values and aesthetics can be used to reveal much of the art of ancient Ife.”
How does the Western world accept African art works?
Not too long ago, many collectors, dealers or so-called African art enthusiasts believe that once they are in possession of a piece of African art, the only meaning it can have is the one they give to it. Roy Sieber, a foremost African art scholar rightly describes this attitude as “admiration in isolation,” which he affirms “easily leads to misunderstanding, and African art vaguely understood, has fallen to the taste of the twentieth century.” As if to illustrate Sieber’s point, a 1997 New York Times art reviewer of a Yoruba art exhibition, Grace Glueck, wrote that: “Charming as it is, Yoruba art which is not, by the way the work that influenced the French modernists early in this century, seems to me (that is, the reviewer) more provincial, with less aesthetic claim, than the highly sophisticated creations of some other African cultures.”
First, judging Yoruba art works by their influence or lack thereof on French modernist art is decidedly Eurocentric. The reviewer adopts a highly subjective account which is misleading in its implications regarding the aesthetic notions and intentions of the Yoruba people and arrogant in its disregard for their point of view. Second, the reviewer goes to great lengths to represent African in the “primitive” and “exotic” milieu in which she would want her readers to define and judge Yoruba art. In other words, this 1997 New York Times review of Yoruba art not only has a lot in common with a book such as the Primitive Negro Sculpture of 1926 by Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro, but it is inexcusable because it ignores the many volumes of exciting scholarly research work published on African art since the first quarter of the 20th century.
You have co-authored African art books with colleagues who are not Africans. Can you comment briefly on these books and your collaborators?
I have collaborated with Professors John Pemberton III and Henry John Drewal on three important projects which have resulted in the publication of Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought; Yoruba Art and Aesthetics; and The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Art. I have known them for about 50 years, seen how they do research in the field, and admired their ability to let the Yoruba culture speak for itself. In this instance, we can apply the Yoruba saying that ‘if a leaf remains long enough around soap, it becomes part of the soap’. In my opinion, these colleagues, in addition to respecting the role of language in their research, do possess the right combination of character traits –composure, calmness, imperturbability, “inner eye” or insight, and good hearing, teachableness, obedience and understanding) all of which have prepared them adequately to study and understand Yoruba art.
Let me state emphatically that it would be a misrepresentation of my position to suggest that you have to be Yoruba by birth to understand Yoruba art. That would be as absurd as saying that you have to be born in Italy to understand Michelangelo. I argue that it is fundamentally important for a scholar of African art – whether born in Ile-Ife or London – to learn the language and be prepared to immerse him/herself in the African culture that they are researching for their work to be credible.
How would you want to be remembered?
As evident in my 2014 book, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African art, I’d like to be remembered for helping to ensure the survival and essential role of African artistic and aesthetic concepts in the study of art in Africa.