Journalism in the service of society

Looking at Yoruba Art through a new lens

The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things but their outward significance – Aristotle 

(Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, published by Compcros, Lagos, 2022, 565 pages)

THE Yoruba nation is one of the many nations that constitute what is today known as Nigeria which was cobbled together by the duo of Lord Lugard and the defunct British Empire. During the colonial period many nations were corralled together to form one nation without regard to culture, language, and other considerations that make a nation homogenous. Apart from the Yoruba nation in Nigeria, there is the Hausa, Igbo, Fulani, Edo, Urhobo, and other several groups that could have constituted their own different nations, if not for the 1914 amalgamation.

Many have come out to declaim the 1914 decision as “The Mistake of 1914”. However, that is not our business, at least not for now.

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Prof Rowland Abiodun, a John C. Newton Professor of Art, History of Art, and Black Studies at Amherst College, Massachusetts, United States of America, has through his book Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, embarked on a very deep introspective search to put together a book that would for as long as man can read and write occupy a very important space in the study of the humanities. It is a book of understanding and searching to know a people that constitute a larger part of the terrestrial world of knowledge. A group of people who have existed from the dawn of creation and have contributed significantly to the world of knowledge and civilization.

The writer has with thorough lens of understanding his people and culture (the Yoruba) through art history, archaeology, and anthropology situated the Yoruba and offers new insights and understanding into his people’s material culture which he examines by their civilization, cultural norms and values as well as language. With the adept use and application of Yoruba material culture, the writer (Prof Abiodun) has been able to take readers through an experience of the key philosophical notions at the heart of Yorùbá worldview. His fluency and prodigious knowledge of the writer’s culture, which he acquired through his closeness to his root and his grandmother (Yeye Olakoli) are all well-articulated thus producing a book that is rich and full of native wisdom.

Prof Abiodun in this important book makes the reader understand the importance of the relationship between Yoruba art and the language, he makes one understand the Siamese kind of relationship between the two and shows that you cannot fully understand the art without the language!   In demonstrating this vital link, he writes, “In my eventual journeys within educational landscapes far removed from those years sitting on the sand of the family courtyard in the moonlight, listening to stories and other verbal creativities, I took with me the intimate empowerments of this informal yet potent form of family centered oral learning – voices from a kind of knowledge that is not written anywhere except in the human mind and heart, yet resonant across time. Those voices, distant in time and space but vibrant in my being, called out to me to represent them in my new worlds of knowledge – Western written epistemology, where they had no place.”

His quest into this is not a surprise, last year when he clocked 80, Prof Abiodun in an interview with this writer had when asked to comment on the fact that Yoruba language has become official language in some parts of the world said, “Every language is a carrier and repository of a people’s philosophy, history, psychology, religion, politics and art. 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 colonizer 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 theorizing 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.” (

It is perhaps to correct this colonial orientation and the degrading of Yoruba language and culture that made him to embarked on the project that led to the publication of this book. There is no doubt that Prof Abiodun has in a very grand way achieved this aim through laying the complex interlocking network across disciplines, structured methods of understanding, and explored and shaped the reality of the Yoruba art.

He has demonstrated that his journey through cultural education in his home country of Nigeria, and western education at home, in Canada, as well as academic research and work in the United States of America and around the world are not sufficient enough to uproot him from his native land.  Through what he calls “oral epistemology”, he has been able to express ideas that might also be communicated in a more enduring manner in writing, thus taking the Yoruba oral literary tradition to writing for coming generations.

On how he came to choose his career path, he writes, “Going into the field of art history was not something that I had planned to do as a vocation, even at the time I commenced my graduate education. I was galvanized onto this path by the lack of awareness in scholarly writing on African art of the oral culture that is so integral to this African artistic creativity. These limitations, pervasive at different points of my scholarly life, marginalized African reflective and shaping capacities and their embodiments in African languages.”

He goes ahead to pay worthy tributes to many from whom he was able to suck from their fountain of knowledge about African arts, such include Bernard Fagg, Ulli Beier and the early path breakers known as the “Zaria Rebels”, in which is are such eminent artists as Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo and Bruce Onobrakpeya, personalities who eventually became internationally renowned African artists. From his education at the Government College Ibadan to the College of Arts and Science which later transformed to Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Prof Abiodun has done a great service to Africa Art History with his book and it deserves to be read by all those interested in Africa, and Yoruba art. It is noteworthy that a Nigerian edition has been promised so as to make the book which was first published by Cambridge University Press in 2014, available and affordable at home.

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