Authorship in African Art: The Case of Yoruba Art

Ghana_Akuaba figurine
Akua’ba figurine (Source: British Museum)

Have you ever stood in front of an African mask and wondered about the artist who made it: what was his name, origin, and life like? A few weeks ago, I had an argument with a European friend who specializes in art history, who tried to convince me, a child of mother Africa, that African art does not have authorship. He claimed that while looking at African masks, they were all cloaked with anonymity, and that probably African art traditions prized anonymity. I had to tell him that he needed to stop looking at African art through his tainted European lenses, but rather try it through African tunnel vision. First of all, African art’s function is not similar to that used by Europeans as decorative art. African art actually has functions that go beyond decorative; the art work has meaning, and a real place in society.

Ghana_Akuaba figurine being carried on the back
An Akua’ba tucked into the wrapper of an Asante woman. Photograph by Herbert M. Cole, Ghana, 1972 (RandAfricanArt.com)

For instance, in the Asante (Ashanti) culture of Ghana, the Akua’ba (Akua’s child) figurines which are among some of the best well-known African wooden figures recognizable by their small disc head lodged on a cylindrical torso with or without arms, were used as legend says by Akua who could not have children; she ordered a figurine which she tied to her back and cared for as instructed by an African traditional priest, eventually being able to conceive; since then, many women desiring children have ordered Akua’ba figurines from artists and gotten them consecrated at shrines, and cared for in hope of conceiving. Also, some of the statues, like fertility statues, serve a particular purpose as the name states.

Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century)
Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century), exposed at the MET

Anonymity in African art is only a myth invented by Europeans as they came in contact with a foreign culture which they tried to explain via their own tainted cultural glasses. In the case of the Yoruba people of West Africa, as we saw earlier in the naming ceremonies [African Naming Tradition], names given at birth are not just used to differentiate individuals, but also serve to identify the essence of one’s personality and destiny called ori inu (inner spiritual head), which in Yoruba religious belief, determines a person’s success or failure in this world and directs his or her actions. The name also gives information about the person’s family, beliefs, history, origin, and environment. It is sacred! With every naming celebration, there begins a corresponding oriki (citation poetry), which grows with an individual’s accomplishments. Leaders, warriors, diviners, and other important persons, including artists are easily identified by their oriki, which chronicles their achievements [The Griot, the Preserver of African Traditions]. In Yoruba culture, there are different kinds of oriki: oriki Olurun (oriki for God), oriki orisa (oriki for gods/goddesses), oriki Oba ati Ijoye (oriki for monarchs and chiefs), oriki Akinkanju (oriki for warriors), oriki idile (oriki for families), to name just a few.

Below is the part of the oriki of Olowe, one of the greatest traditional Yoruba sculptors of the twentieth century; it was collected by John Pemberton III in 1988 from Oluju-ifun, one of Olowe’s surviving wives, and has been found to be instrumental in reconstructing his life and work. Outstanding Yoruba artists like Olowe whose works have been collected and studied by researchers have been identified in scholarly literature only by their nicknames or bynames such as, Olowe Ise (meaning Olowe from the town of Ise); Ologan Uselu (Ologan from Uselu quarters in Owo); and Baba Roti (father of Rotimi). This was done to protect the artist as he could become a vulnerable target to malevolent forces because of his standing in society or closeness to the king’s court, etc; in that case the artist never revealed his full name to strangers. However, when a person’s oriki is recited, it is assumed that anyone who listens carefully and understands it will know enough about the subject’s identity, name, lineage, occupation, achievements, and other qualities so that stating the person’s given name becomes superfluous. This is found on P. 11 – 12 of A History of Art in Africa, Monica Blackmun Visona, Harry N. Abrams (2001). Thus, authorship in African art is not veiled in anonymity, but rather the way authorship is conceived of is different. Enjoy!

Olowe, oko mi kare o

Aseri Agbaliju

Elemoso

Ajuru Agada

O sun on tegbetegbe

 

Elegbe bi oni sa

O p’uroko bi oni p’ugba

 

O m’eo roko daun se…

 

Ma a sin Olowe

Olowe ke e p’uroko

 

Olowe ke e sona

O lo ule Ogoga

Odum merin lo se libe

O sono un

Ku o ba ti de’le Ogoga

 

Ku o ba ti d’Owo

Use oko mi e e libe

Ku o ba ti de’kare

Use oko mi i libe

Ku o ba ti d’Igede

 

Use oko mi e e libe

Ku o ba ti de Ukiti

Use oko mi i libe

Ku o li Olowe l’Ogbagi

L’Use

 

Use oko mi i libe

Ule Deji

Oko mi suse libe l’Akure

Olowe suse l’Ogotun

Ikinniun

 

Kon gbelo silu Oyibo

Owo e o lo mu se

Olowe, my excellent husband

Outstanding in war.

Elemoso (Emissary of the king),

One with a mighty sword

Handsome among his friends. 

Outstanding among his peers.

One who carves the hard wood of the iroko tree as though it were as soft as a calabash

One who achieves fame with the proceeds of his carving …

I shall always adore you, Olowe.

Olowe, who carves iroko wood. 

The master carver.

He went to the palace of Ogoga

And spent four years there.

He was carving there.

If you visit the Ogoga’s palace, 

And the one at Owo,

The work of my husband is there.

If you go to Ikare,

The work of my husband is there.

Pay a visit to Igede,

You will find my husband’s work there.

The same thing at Ukiti.

His work is there.

Mention Olowe’s name at Ogbagi

In Use too. 

My husband’s work can be found

In Deji’s palace.

My husband worked at Akure.

My husband worked at Ogotun.

There was a carved lion 

That was taken to England.

With his hands he made it.

World’s First Set of Nonuplets is 1-year Old!

Mali_Nonuplets
Halima Cisse, mother of nonuplets and the medical team in Morocco (Source: Africafreedomnetwork.com)

Can you imagine trying for one baby and ending up with 9 at once? It has been one year since the birth of the world’s first set of nonuplets. Conceived naturally, a first in the world, the 5 girls and 4 boys have all survived and are healthy and growing well. The parents, Abdelkader Arby and Halima Cissé, are from Mali. The babies have been taken care of by a full medical team in a hospital in Morocco. Initially, the medical teams both in Mali and then later in Morocco thought Halima Cissé was expecting septuplets, and so they were all surprised to find 9 babies in the end. Again, I salute the wisdom of the Malian government who saw fit to have the mother transferred to Morocco for more advanced specialist care; and I salute the immense dedication of the Moroccan team and government to the well-being of the babies. Excerpts below are from an article on the BBC website.

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Mali_Nonuplets_BBC
The nonuplets (Source: BBC)

The world’s only nonuplets – nine babies born at the same time – are “in perfect health” as they celebrate their first birthday, their father has told the BBC.

They’re all crawling now. Some are sitting up and can even walk if they hold on to something,” said Abdelkader Arby, an officer in the Malian army.

They are still in the care of the clinic in Morocco where they were born.

He said their mother Halima Cissé, 26, was also doing well.

It’s not easy but it’s great. Even if it’s tiring at times, when you look at all the babies in perfect health, [in a line] from right to left we’re relieved. We forget everything,” he told BBC Afrique.

He has just returned to Morocco for the first time in six months, along with their elder daughter, Souda, aged three.

They will just have a small birthday celebration with the nurses and a few people from their apartment building, Mr Arby said.

Nothing is better than the first year. We will remember this great moment …”

The babies broke the Guinness World Record for the most children delivered in a single birth to survive.

Mrs Cissé and the children are currently living in what their father described as a “medicalised flat” that belongs to the owners of the Ain Borja clinic in Casablanca where the babies were born.

There are nurses who are here, in addition to my wife, who help to take care of the children,” Mr Arby said.

… [The] boys are called Mohammed VI [in honor of the Moroccan king], Oumar, Elhadji, Bah [in honor of the Malian president at the time], while the girls are named Kadidia, Fatouma, Hawa, Adama and Oumou.

Each one has a unique personality, their father said.

They all have different characters. Some are quiet, while other make more noise and cry a lot. Some want to be picked up all the time. They are all very different, which is entirely normal.”

Mr Arby also thanked the Malian government for its help. The Malian state has put everything in place for the care and treatment of the nine babies and their mother. It’s not at all easy, but it’s beautiful and something that is comforting,” he said.

Everyone [in Mali] is very keen to see the babies with their own eyes – their family, friends, our home village, the whole country.”

Mali Rescinds France Defense Agreements

Map of Mali with its capital Bamako

On Monday May 2, 2022, Mali rescinded the defense treaties linking it to France. Remember that, as part of the colonial tax forced upon the Malian people by France (and all other 14 past French colonies in Africa), there is one rule which links Mali to France via defense agreements where France is supposed to help Mali in case of external attacks. As we have seen, France has not held its part of the bargain, instead funding and letting jihadists proliferate on the Malian territory and committing abuses against the local populations. Thus, the government of Mali decided to break off from its defense accords with former colonial ruler France, condemning “flagrant violations” of its national sovereignty by the French troops there. “For some time now, the government of the Republic of Mali notes with regret a profound deterioration in military cooperation with France,” spokesman Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga said in a televised statement.

The tata of Sikasso, illustration by Édouard Riou published in Du Niger au golfe de Guinée, Hachette, 1892, by L.G Binger, p. 95

What might have further exacerbated the already tense relationship might have been the finding, about two weeks ago, of a mass grave near an army base which had been occupied by French forces. Although France has denounced these accusations, given the history of France abuses in Mali, and the region, it is hard not to believe. We all remember the French capture of the Tata of Sikasso on May 1, 1898 with Colonel Audéoud‘s troops and the destruction and desecration that followed. Even though it has been over a century, French abuses in Africa are numerous, from the genocide in Cameroon, Algeria, Madagascar, and countless other places.

Flag of Mali
Flag of Mali

The decision to rescind the French defense agreements is an awesome decision, and it is about time! The remaining 14 countries still held under the rule of France via the colonial tax should rise up to say NO!… stand up as one man to say NO MORE!… ENOUGH is ENOUGH! … and stand alongside Mali.

The 11 Components of the French Colonial Tax in Africa – Component at the heart of the tension today:

#6. Right for France to pre-deploy troops and  intervene military in the country to defend its interests

Under something called “Defense Agreements” attached to the Colonial Pact, France had the legal right to intervene militarily in the African countries, and also to station troops permanently in bases and military facilities in those countries, run entirely by the French….

The Travelling Telescope – Stargazing in Kenya

Kenya_Travelling Telescope_1
A student at Ololomei Primary School in Maasai Mara, Kenya, looks through a Dobsonian telescope during a school workshop with the Travelling Telescope (Source: Travelling Telescope)

Have you ever stared at the sky wondering what each constellation is? or whether you can see the surface of the moon? or other galaxies? I am sure many African children, and children everywhere have spent countless hours staring at the night sky trying to pierce its secrets, but very few will ever get the chance to look through a telescope. One organization which I have recently been introduced to, the Travelling Telescope, wants to change that. Any person in love with astronomy appreciates the value of a telescope, and will definitely love the idea. Based in Kenya, the Travelling Telescope is an organization which focuses on empowering youths and is dedicated to social change via the use of astronomy. It offers astronomy entertaining and educational tools and is the only astronomy company in the Eastern African region. The vision came to founder, Susan Murabana, when she met her now husband during a solar eclipse; their love gave birth to the Travelling Telescope – a gathering place for people to look through a telescope and observe the wonders of the night sky.

The BBC did a podcast on the Travelling Telescope, as well as Lessons in awe and wonder from Kenya’s Travelling Telescope from the Christian Science Monitor. The article from the Monitor – The Travelling Telescope brings stars to students is pretty good as well. Excerpts below are from Lessons in awe and wonder from Kenya’s Travelling Telescope.

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Kenya_Travelling Telescope_Susan Murabana
Susan Murabana, co-founder of The Travelling Telescope company, points out objects on the night sky with a laser pen for students at the Kisaruni Girls School in Kenya (Source: Travelling Telescope)

After watching a solar eclipse together in 2013, Susan Murabana and her partner, Chu Owen, hatched a plan to share the night skies with Kenyan schoolchildren.

They bought a big, 12-inch optical telescope and started an astronomy business: The Travelling Telescope. They’ve reached more than 200,000 kids. They charge Kenya’s wealthier private schools and safari lodges for astronomy lessons so that they can freely share the telescope and a portable planetarium with public-school children.

As they peer at the objects in our solar system, they hope to awaken a deeper sense of what makes this planet so special.

Yes, we want to get more astronomers. That would be good,” says Ms. Murabana. “But more than that, we want … the next generation of leaders and scientists – who will be in charge of our planet – to be more kind and make better decisions about our home.”