Sight, covet, negotiate : the fate of traditional sculpture

Kuba Headrest
A Kuba headrest with human figures, 20th century

This review of Wole Soyinka's Beyond Aesthetics : Use, abuse, and dissonance in African art traditions appeared in The TLS, 9 April 2021.

Few book titles fly higher than Beyond Aesthetics, a somewhat scary pairing of words that might well put off the casual scanner of a bookshop’s philosophy shelf. Quick reassurance however would be found by glancing at the name of the author, since that of the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka always guarantees challenging and lively reading.

The subject of these essays is the art of Africa. Yoruba by birth and spiritual inclination, Soyinka is an indefatigable collector, a revenant in the favoured cities of traders and in those streets around the Rue de Seine or Portobello Road. One of the (unfortunately greyishly printed) illustrations to the book shows the garage of his erstwhile home full of what he describes as “my extended family” of mostly Yoruba artefacts, ranging from trinkets to lifesize figures and wide-eyed ceremonial masks.

Half a century ago when I started collecting African sculpture myself, I haunted those shops and salerooms which offered such works under the heading “ethnography” or, more abusively, “primitive art”. Tribal Art (a term not much liked by African scholars) has now become the standard description. As it so happens, the first object I acquired from a trader’s stall was from the Yoruba, a modest ibeji figure (nowhere near as fine as the twin couple Soyinka illustrates from the Harvard Museum). I soon became addicted to collecting, and all too familiar with the stages of acquisition as described in Soyinka’s pithy litany: “sight, covet, negotiate, pretend, return, reopen haggling … until purchase”.

Of all the prodigiously varied sculptures produced by the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, those of the Yoruba are the most exuberant. Often enriched by colour (with a particular fondness for Reckitt’s blue) their generosity of form gives them dramatic presence. No female figures are more emphatically motherly nor male divinities more fiercely majestic. Soyinka lovingly enumerates their roles in the theatre of Yoruba society and their potency is reflected in his own creative work. As a writer he could safely be described as a playwright of the larger-than-life.

Inevitably, any discussion of African art leads to an ever more hectic historical debate. Soyinka himself is a political realist and unlikely to be impressed by Emmanuel Macron’s naive scheme of sending everything African back to Africa. He is equally too sophisticated to barge into the question by the all-too-customary route of instancing the looting of the Benin Bronzes by the British so-called Punitive Expedition in 1897, an ugly though untypical event. Instead he casts his accusing eye on the results of religious fanaticism in Africa as it persists today, suggesting that

It would be more than justified, indeed vengefully satisfying to view the frequent sanguinary face-offs between Islam and Christianity as poetic justice, a recompense of history on behalf of what I have described as the “invisible religions” of the world, a revenge on two of the most culpable, bloodstained religions in the history of humanity, Islam and Christianity.

I had my small glimpse of how things were when I was curating the exhibition Africa: The art of a continent at the Royal Academy (1995). Travelling in Senufo country in a van with local friends, I was once or twice stopped at villages to be greeted by people who rushed out to offer for pennies the well-worn figurative images, and even the locks from granary doors or the tiny heddle pulleys used by weavers, that they would otherwise forfeit to the approaching punitive march of Islam. It was a small if sad reminder of accounts of similar purges in the Reformation. I have, on the other hand, relished the ironic fate of so many statues which, brought out of Africa by missionaries to demonstrate to their flocks what they would have called the savagery of heathen fetishes, have now found their way into many progressive museums to accompany the wonders of antiquity or triumphantly to hold their own among the finest icons of Christian mythology.

Given Soyinka’s wide range of connoisseurship and knowledge of contemporary critical modern trends, one might have expected the essays to refer with some sense of hope to the now numerous African artists, many of them from Nigeria, who not only take their place in the international forum of contemporary art but often employ the imagery of their heritage in their work. But the bad news at home continues to mount. With one emphatic exception, Soyinka perseveres with his catalogue of the tragic fates of traditional sculpture, finally mentioning the claim of puritanical Christian fanatics in the Mbaise region of south-east Nigeria to have burned down a hundred shrines and their boast that they will destroy hundreds more “to cleanse the land”.

The exception is a sudden departure from the fate of shrine figures to what, for Soyinka, seems to embody the degradation of culture itself. His new topic is Nollywood, the name adopted by Nigerian cinema in imitation of India’s Bollywood. Fond as he is of the odd, often jesting expletive, his anger now drives him to what typesetters call an interrobang. “N****wood?!!!”, he shouts as he begins his attack on its outsize “pulp surreal” cinematic horrors. I have not seen the films that come out of Nollywood (nor those that come out of Ghana’s equivalent, the unfortunately self-styled Gollywood), but I am tempted to take Soyinka’s rather hardline evaluation on trust.

Soyinka (now in his mid-eighties) is happily still a believer as much in action as he is in speech. His recent years have been devoted to developing that once well-stocked garage into what is becoming a richly endowed museum. Situated in the beautiful forest grove near where he was born in Abeokuta, this treasure house of appropriate reappropriation, glimpses of which can be seen online, is his practical answer to some of the questions his book asks.

Nonetheless, I am still somewhat perturbed by the title, though it makes me ponder Wittgenstein’s assertion that ethics and aesthetics are one and the same thing. In the arena of art, the conflicts Soyinka brings to our notice would seem to defy any clear resolution. We should yield perhaps to the Yoruba deity Esu, who faces both forwards and backwards in time and presides over the random factors in human affairs.