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.

Two Benin Bronzes returned Home to Nigeria

Return of cockerel sculpture and head of an Oba raises hopes that thousands more artefacts could be returned to their ancestral home. Photograph: Kola Sulaimon/AFP/Getty Images – The Guardian

It has been 104 years since Benin City: the Majestic City the British burnt to the ground was looted and destroyed. Now, a century later, two of the numerous Bronze statues that were taken at the time, are being returned. Some may ask, who cares about 2 Bronze statues? These statues are not just a symbol of the craftsmanship of the Benin people, but they also symbolize the essence of the people. Back in those days, the statues were not used like they are by Europeans, to be placarded in museums, they had a symbolic, and some even had a spiritual or energetic importance. Below are excerpts from the article on the Guardian’s website.

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Two Benin bronzes were returned on Saturday [19 February 2022] to a traditional palace in Nigeria, more than a century after they were pillaged by British troops, raising hopes that thousands more artefacts could finally be returned to their ancestral home.

The artefacts, mostly in Europe, were stolen by explorers and colonisers from the once-mighty Benin Kingdom, now [part of] south-western Nigeria, and are among Africa’s most significant heritage objects. They were created as early as the 16th century onwards, according to the British Museum.

At a colourful ceremony to mark the return of a cockerel sculpture and head of an Oba or king, spokesperson Charles Edosonmwan for the Oba palace in Benin City noted that some of the bronzes were kept as far away as New Zealand, the United States and Japan.

Rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century)
Rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century), exposed at the MET

The two artefacts were handed over to the Nigerian High Commission in October by the University of Aberdeen and Cambridge University’s Jesus College but had yet to return to their ancestral home.

They are not just art but they are things that underline the significance of our spirituality,” Edosonmwan said in an interview on the sidelines of a ceremony attended by traditional leaders.

… About 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe, French art historians estimate. Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris alone holds about 70,000 African objects and London’s British Museum tens of thousands more.

Belgium takes Step towards Restitution of African Artifacts

Flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo

Belgium recently shared the inventory list of artifacts looted from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the Congolese authorities. Are we supposed to applaud? In this day and age, what is an inventory list supposed to do? Is this a menu from which to choose what to ask for, and what not to? Are they hiding more: like giving you list A, while the real deal (list B) is kept in the vault? Does the inventory guarantee that all artifacts will be returned? Will the Royal Museum of Central Africa, with one of the largest collection of African artifacts in the world, graciously give back its collection, and lose the money from the million of visitors that come yearly? Moving forward, what will the ‘partnership’ between Belgium and Congo on this subject entail? The excerpt below is from Africa News.

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Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo has submitted a complete inventory of Congolese works of art and artefacts [to DRC’s prime minister] which potentially could be returned to the former African colony.

… “I’m not really going to take this as repairing wounds, but I want to take it as a very voluntary act of having relationships today that are not only improved, but very much calmed down in comparison with our expectations“, said Congolese prime minister Jean-Michel Kyenge.

The inventory contains around 84 thousand objects divided in categories.

The Belgian prime minister hailed the moment as a step forward in building a partnership of trust between Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This program of restitution is an important element that shows the way we want to work together. It is a partnership between our two countries and a partnership of trust“, added Belgian prime minister, Alexander De Croo.

The Royal Museum of Central Africa, opened in Brussels in 1898 is the legacy of Belgian  King Leopold II who ruled over Congo from 1885 onward.

The Calabash : An Indispensable Fruit/Tree in African Culture

Calebassier_1_2021
The calabash tree (Le calebassier) under the African sun

Have you ever eaten out of a calabash? It seems the food has a particular taste, and that eating out of the calabash adds an extra ‘mmph‘ to the food. In the old days, and even to this day we used homemade utensils such as calabash, especially when eating fufu (yummy)… Well, I recently stumbled upon the tree from which the calabash bowl is made out of, and found the fruits hanging down from the tree. The tree is cultivated not only for its fruits but also for the utensils, and for making amazing musical instruments. I love the idea that everything is used and nothing is thrown out: from the fruit, the meat inside the fruit, and its shell. The calabashes are hollowed-out and dried, and used to cook, carry water, and food. The smaller sized ones are used as bowls to drink palm wine: the white wine made in Africa (Le Vin de Palme: Vin Blanc Made in Africa).

Calebassier_2_2021
The calabash fruit

Calabashes are used in making the West African kora (a harp-lute), xalam/ngoni (a lute) and the goje (a traditional fiddle). They also serve as resonators underneath the balafon (West African marimba). The calabash is also used in making the shekere / shegureh (a Sierra Leonean women’s rattle) and balangi (a Sierra Leonean type of balafon) musical instruments. Sometimes, large calabashes are simply hollowed out, dried, and used as percussion instruments, especially by FulaniSonghaiGur-speaking and Hausa peoples. In Nigeria, the calabash has been used to meet a law requiring the wearing of a helmet on a motorcycle. In South Africa, it is commonly used as a drinking vessel and a vessel for carrying food by all people across the continent. In Ethiopia, children from the Erbore tribe wear hats made from calabashes to protect themselves from the sun.

Calebassier_3_2021
The calabash all dried up… almost ready to be made into a bowl

For the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the Soccer City stadium which hosted the tournament in Johannesburg was made in the shape of a calabash on cooking fire.

South Africa_Soccer City Stadium_2021
FNB Stadium also known as Soccer City Stadium or The Calabash in Johannesburg, South Africa

Sencirk : Senegalese Circus helping to Reinstate Children Beggars

Senegal_Sencirk performer
Sencirk performer during a show

When I was a child, there was a circus which used to perform in our town, but which later closed down. The first time I visited the circus, I was amazed at the performances of the acrobats, trapezists, magicians, cyclists, puppeteers, jugglers, dancers, and of course clowns. I loved it… For the longest time, our national public television used to show circus performances on the weekends, and I must admit that I was glued to the TV, amazed by the flexibility of these acrobats, and wondering if I could reproduce some of their acts. One can only imagine the amazing training they had to go to, to give us such outstanding performances day in and day out. I just wish that we could have kept the circus going in our city, or country for that matter. Thus, it is a no-brainer that I have been happily surprised to learn about Sencirk: a Senegalese circus based in Dakar, which focuses on giving a second chance to street kids, or kids who have been stuck begging in the streets. Not only is Sencirk the first circus company of Senegal, but it also uses its platform to help with the reinsertion of these youths back to society by teaching them, training them, and helping them discover new passions, and unleash new capacities. Sencirk is a diverse troop made up of professional artists, coaches, and volunteers from around the globe, and much more. It has been in existence since 2006, but only obtained the status of association in 2010. It has trained countless acrobats aged 14 to 28, and artists across Senegal, and definitely brought smiles to many lovers of circus.

To learn more about Sencirk, please check out this photojournal on the BBC, and the Sencirk‘s website.

Somali Love Story, The Gravedigger’s Wife, is this year’s FESPACO winner

“The Gravedigger’s Wife” by Khadar Ahmed

This year’s winner of the Golden Stallion of Yennenga at FESPACO 2021 is the Somali movie The Gravedigger’s Wife by Somali-Finnish director Khadar Ahmed. It defeated 16 other movies to win the Golden Stallion of Yennenga. The movie tells the story of a man, whose job is to wait outside hospitals to bury the dead, and what he has to do to save his sick wife. It is a beautiful movie, which tells the simple story of humanity and love, what we have to do for our loved ones. Set in Djibouti, the movie follows the struggles of Guled (Omar Abdi) as he tries to raise funds for his wife’s treatment who is dying of kidney failure. The movie took a long time in the making, as director Khadar Ahmed  wrote the story 10 years ago, but wanted to direct it himself and so took time to learn how to direct movies. Aren’t we glad he was determined to tell the story himself? Well, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga is a tribute to his hard work, and tells us to keep being engaged with our passion.

Golden Stallion of Yennenga
The Golden Stallion of Yennenga

The second prize went to Haitian director Gessica Geneus for her film Freda, while the third prize went to Tunisian director Leyla Bouzid for A Tale of Love and Desire.

This year’s edition of the FESPACO did not disappoint, we loved it… and wish all the runners up the very best, and are proud for Khadar Ahmed with The Gravedigger’s Wife. I leave you here with the trailer. Enjoy!

The 5th Edition of the El Gouna Film Festival

El Gouna Film Festival Logo

This week has been the week of film festivals on the continent. Few thousands of kilometers from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, at El Gouna in Egypt on a resort on the shores of the Red Sea, another film festival is taking place. It is the El Gouna Film Festival which started in 2017. It is an annual event, which has been running since October 14th, and will end today, October 22nd. Just like the FESPACO, it has seen some adjustments due to the pandemic. The focus of the El Gouna Film Festival is more on movies from North Africa, and the Middle East like Costa Brava, the Sea Ahead, and the Blue Inmates from Lebanon, Feathers, Amira, Captains of Za’atari, Full Moon from Egypt, and countless others. The festival also offers movies from Europe: Norway, Sweden, France, and many others. The only commonality with the FESPACO this year is the presence of the movie Feathers by the Egyptian director Omar El Zohairy. Enjoy!

Below is the introduction found on the website El Gouna Film Festival

Known for being the cultural hub of the Middle East and Africa, Egypt has long been considered a pioneer within the realm of cinema and filmmaking. Serving as an intersection for civilizations from East to West, Egypt’s position has fueled its leadership in filmmaking, and has opened doors for some of the best international films to enter the region. This makes Egypt a prime choice to host the top creative minds and provide them with a platform for cultural exchange.

FESPACO 2021: One of Africa’s Biggest Film Festival is back!

FESPACO official logo for 2021

The African film festival, FESPACO, is back this year after the pandemic, the lockdowns of the past year and half, and an 8-months delay (the biennial event was originally scheduled for February 27 – March 6, but had to be postponed because of the Coronavirus pandemic). It is back in Ouagadougou amidst the health situation and also the security issues that have surfaced in the Sahel region, and particularly in Burkina Faso, in the past few years.

The Festival Panafricain du cinema et de la television de Ouagadougou (FESPACO) is the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, which happens to be the largest African film festival. It is held biennially in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. First established in 1969, and boasting some of Africa’s greatest writers and filmmakers (like Ousmane Sembene), the FESPACO offers a chance for African filmmakers and professionals to showcase their work, exchange ideas, and meet other filmmakers, and sponsors.

This year’s FESPACO started on October 16th and will end on October 23rd. It promises to be great with filmmakers from around the continent coming to Ouagadougou to celebrate African cinema. After over a year of confinement, with life and particularly travel almost coming to a grinding stop, the festival promises to bring some much needed entertainment and joy.

Golden Stallion of Yennenga
The Golden Stallion of Yennenga

Over 200 films made by Africans and mainly produced in Africa have been selected for the week-long event. The official selection will see 17 feature-length films compete for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga.

Among them is Burkinabe Boubacar Diallo’s comedy Les Trois Lascars (The Three Lascars), Chadian Mahamat Saleh Haroun with Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui, the sacred links), Congolese Dieudo Hamadi with documentary En route pour le milliard (On the road for the billion), Ivorian Philippe Lacôte with his much appreciated La nuit des rois (The night of the kings), Senegalese Aissa Maiga with Marcher sur l’eau (Walking on water), Algerian Hassane Mezine with Fanon hier, aujourd’hui (Fanon yesterday, today), Tunisian Leyla Bouziz with Une histoire d’amour et de desir (a story of love and desire), Cameroonian Narcisse Wandji with Bendskins (Moto-taxis), Namibian  Desiree Kahikopo-Meiffret with The White Line, Tanzanian Ekwa Msangi with Farewell Amor, …  It will be impossible to list here all that the festival has to offer, but know that it is quite extensive and everybody will have its fill. Enjoy FESPACO 2021!!!

The 2 Congos Seek to have the Rumba Recognized as a World Treasure

Putumayo cover of African Rumba disc (Source: Putumayo)

There is no doubt that the Rumba has gone global, or that it has influenced other musical types throughout the world. To those who do not know, Rumba is a music style that originates from Kongo … and here I mean the whole area that is encompassed by both Congos, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and in the olden days it was even bigger including areas of Angola, Central African Republic and Gabon. The rumba was born in Cuba from the enslaved Africans who had been taken there from the Kongo.

Flag of the Republic of Congo

Today, authorities in both Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the capitals of the DRC and the Republic of Congo, have submitted a joint bid to add Congolese Rumba to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Don’t you wish both countries could join together more often on other topics as well?

Flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo

The submission will help showcase the diversity of the heritage and raise awareness about its importance. If Congolese rumba were to be added, it would join the Budima dance of Zambia, hawker food of Singapore, sauna culture of Finland, handmade weaving in Upper Egypt, traditional pomegranate festivity and culture of Azerbaidjan, Traditional Thai massage, and traditional irrigation systems in the United Arab Emirates, among countless other customs on the list.

Papa Wemba, the king of Congolese Rumba, on his cover of Emotion

The word Rumba derives from “nkumba,” meaning belly button in the local Kikongo language, a dance originating in the ancient kingdom of Kongo.

The music style was born of the melting pot of 19th century Cuba, from the enslaved Africans, combining their drumming and dancing with their melodies and those of the Spanish colonizers. The African slaves who were taken to the Americas created the rumba as a way to stay connected to their inner beings, their histories, cultures, and probably also as a way to escape the daily grind of slavery, the inhumane practice that ripped them of their dignity of human beings.

It was re-exported to Africa in the early 20th century on vinyl, where it found a ready audience in the two Congos who recognized the rhythms as their own.

Catherine Kathungu Furaha, the DRC’s minister of art and culture, said, “when our ancestors who were taken abroad wanted to remember their history, their origin, their memory, they danced the navel dance.”… “We want rumba to be recognized as ours. It is our identity.”

Cuban rumba has been inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2016. It only makes sense that its counterpart, the mother-source, the origin, the Congolese Rumba be inscribed in the list as well. We will know in November when the committee will decide.

The Ethiopian Festival of the True Cross or Meskel

Ethiopian religious leaders carrying crosses during the Meskel celebration (Ethiopiaonlinevisa.com)

September 27th this year marks another big Ethiopian celebration. An even bigger festival than Enkutatash the Ethiopian New Year, is the Meskel “True Cross” Celebration which takes place on September 27th or 28th in leap year. Meskel 2021 is on September 27th . The festival commemorates the discovery of the “True Cross” on which Jesus was crucified, and is held annually in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa.

The word “meskel” is from the Ge’ez language which translates to “cross.” The festival is basically a celebration of the finding of the cross. The festival is held at the iconic Meskel square in Addis Ababa and draws out a large number of religious and civil leaders as well as public figures and Christian faithful. Meskel has been celebrated in Ethiopia for more than 1,600 years as an outdoor religious festival and has been registered at UNESCO since December 2013 as an Intangible World Heritage.

Meskel celebration in Addis Ababa (Source: Wikipedia)

The legend goes that in 4BC, the Roman Empress Helena (Queen Eleni) was able to locate the important artifact in Jerusalem by using the smoke from a huge fire. The celebration is especially important to Ethiopians as it is alleged that a piece of the cross Helena discovered was brought to Ethiopia, and hidden away somewhere in the mountains of  Amba Geshen, which itself has a cross-shaped plan.

Ethiopians commemorate the find by building their own massive bonfire, the Meskel, which they decorate with yellow flowers known as Adey Abeba before burning. Ethiopia’s religious leaders lead colorful processions and prayer around the fire, and attendees intently watch to see which way the bonfire will collapse, as it is believed to predict the future.

As you can see, the month of September is a month of cultural and religious celebrations in Ethiopia.