MINT TEA, GOSSIP, AND CELEBRATION
WOLE SOYINKA: Antiquities Across Times and Place
jeffrey mcnary with gallery photos courtesy of Melissa Blackall
“Some of us – poets are not exactly poets. We live sometimes – beyond the word.” - Soyinka
(CAMBRIDGE, MA) Wole Soyinka is someone to celebrate. Africa's most acclaimed writer, dramatist, poet, novelist, "writer of genius", politico activist who spent 22 months as prisoner of conscience and, for the most part has transcended negativity in a host of camps. He’s been iconic across the board, with his mad hair, quick, hip wit, and his work, which will be along …a long time. His is uncommon work, perhaps monumental.
Here arrives a show, a collection, an exhibition primarily of works owned by this Nobel Laureate at The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art of The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Here, offering a collection of African pieces to the neighborhood of "high art", with its deep running tradition of eurocentrism. "The products of African art traditions", writes Prof. Johnston A.K. Njoku of Western Kentucky University, "through the result of creative imaginations and skills, are often presented as mere crafts or folk arts". However peripatetic, the aesthetic canon of art out of Africa holds fast, and rattles the notion of such creations as, "crafts", this should break that mold of nonsense.
Curated by New York University professor, Awam Amkpa, a Nigerian actor, playwright, and professor of dramatic arts, this show rolls out a different visual proof…here… in this challenging, current moment. For now, in this place, one can view art and talk, and he's gone to great lengths to gather these far-flung works...for this, this here.
With a fascinating, sophisticated collection of works on loan by Mr. Soyinka at its center, is an elegant, well balanced exhibition offering masks, head-dresses, dolls, busts, vessels, and weapons made of wood, brass and other media. There's conversation going, with the ancient, the contemporary, and perhaps, without being cheeky, things to come, things yet on the scene. It's, as the elders once called, "good church".
Entering, the viewer is introduced to Moyo Okediji via a large, tasty Ogun Onire, 2017, Acrylic on canvas on mixed media support (mud and sand) 120x 98", full of earthy browns, beiges and dark shades near shadow. We find a painter/artist with work holding signs and aspects of the Yoruba tradition of Mr. Soyinka. Part of Ona, an art movement at Obafemi Awolowo University, his works thread this show. Divinities standing watch, hanging/floating in the forms of three pieces great and welcome, Irunmole II, 2006-2017, Acrylic on canvas on mixed media support, 210.8cm (83”), his, Irunmole IV, 2006-2016, Acrylic on canvas on mixed media support, 187.9 x 114.3 cm (74 x 45), and, Irunmole V, 2006-2017, Acrylic on canvas on mixed media support, 106 x 121.9 cm (63 x48”), all courtesy of the artist, all aglow, beckoning.
Yoruba agency, the forces of nature, their divinities tied with regularity into trees, rocks, rivers, and forests, hills, etc. flow throughout this show, greeting, teaching, and looking back at you and at a point or two evoking a flinch. Amkpa, selectively presents the Yoruba tradition, and as a one time student and later staff to Professor Soyinka, pulls this off well with worn experience and grace. He received his B.A. in Dramatic Arts from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, Dr. Amkpka, was awarded his M.A. in Drama from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, and his Ph.D. from University of Bristol, Bristol, England.
Peju Alatisse’s haunting piece, Abracadabra – Government magic, 2016, granite stone cast, wrought iron, textile, 26 x 186 125 cm (10.23 x 73.22 x 49. 21”), also courtesy of the artist, stuns, and reminds just how fucked up politics gone bad can do, and be...and appear. Her work, in no need of musical accompaniment, shouts, "LOOK IT". It's political art minus over thick notions of false hope and empty promise. There are no critical assumptions. The work critiques out right the government abuses with wired human figures, hanged and tied, torture lurking. It’s socially raw work, and that’s alright, and right as well.
"I am but an alien addicted to the taste of freedom", Ms. Alatisse's artist's statement reads. "I am an alien/sojourner. Sent to this part of the world to work my work. Orun meni tomala", referencing the divinity," agreed with me, master artist to prodigy, that an experience on this planet called earth would be what I needed to find a part of myself."
In the midst of all of this, of course a high point of the exhibition, Death and the King's Horseman, Wole Soyinka's Nobel winning play, holds place. It's bank. It’s a fever, proving so for Mr. Soyinka. Based on an actual event taking place in Nigeria during British colonial rule, the horseman of an important chief was prevented by colonial authorities from committing ritual suicide, then required. It’s an intriguing, complex story explored in the “media room” of the Gallery. There is footage of a production of the play to be found there, and relevant pieces, among them; Olu Amoda’s, Death and the Kings Horseman: Mrs. Pilkings and Olunde, 2009, Recycled wood, steel and Persex, Mrs. Pilkings: 132 x 91.4 x 60.9 cm (52 x 36 x 24”) figures from the work; At the Ball II, 2009, Welded mild and stainless steel, 20.3 x 15.2 x 64.7 cm (8 x 6 x 25.5"); At the Ball I, 2009, Welded mild and stainless steel, 20.3 x 15.2 x 64.7 cm (8 x 6 x25.5"); all courtesy of the artist, with Okediji revisit in the form of, The King's Horseman, 2012, Acrylic on canvas on mixed support, 304.8 x 248.9 cm (120 x 98x), continuing his courtesy.
In his essay, Drama and the African World View, Mr. Soyinka wrote, "...we must jettison that fashionable distinction which tends to encapsulate Western drama as a form of esoteric enterprise spied upon by fee-paying strangers, as contrasted with a communal evolution of the dramatic mode of expression, this latter being the African." This makes its way to his work for stage with a remarkable sense of passion.
The remainder of the exhibition is primarily comprised of works from the laureate's personal collection, with a reach into first person, via the Ife Head (Ori Olokun), year unknown, Bronze; Ife head with striations on the face; 36 x 12 cm (14.1 x 4.7"), 3.3; an Ogboni Bracelet (Yoruba), year unknown, Bronze, with four human faces; an Ogboni Sword (Yoruba), year unknown; Ogboni sword with an edan as handle and perforations on the blade, 71 x 9.5 cm (27.9 x 3.7"), 1.4 kg., and there is yet another Bronze Figure, year unknown; Bronze; Male and female figures, attached together depicting Oni of Ife and Queen; 32.5 x 16 cm (1.7 x 6.2"), 4.3 kg. Still, his written words fill pages far exceeding those detailing or saluting his selection and enveloping works of visual art. The, “why such pieces” lingers.
Njoku ask if, “…exhibitions of African Arts in art galleries and museums adequately represent them as both products of creative judgements and phenomena of life?” In some fashion, that leads us cyclically to the flavor of the art of the artist collecting and collected. It’s the question of the hour we need explore. It’s a question to keep the thoughtful awake on the subway. And it is something we’ll explore further in the second part of this review.
“I happen to believe and accept implicitly what goes under the broad umbrella of socialist ideology, believing this to be the logical principal of communal organization and true human equality”, Mr. Soyinka once shared. If not directly decorating the personal Mr. Soyinka choices of art, this welcomes Njoku’s expressing, “When looking at masks, shrine objects, and other items displayed as African art, I feel distanced from my folk reality when made to stand still or reverently pass by and observe.” There are things here one wants to touch…bells to ring…horn(s) to hear…pages to turn...emotions to experience.
The, Priest with Beaded Cow Horns,(Yoruba) Bronze, cow horns, beads; 46.3 x 10.7 cm (18 ¼ x 4 ½ “); and the, Wooden Clapper, year unknown; Wood beads, horse tail; A wooden female figure, with clapper on the head and horse tail beneath; 62 x 10 cm )24.4 x 3.9”) 0.4kg; and the Bronze Bell; year unknown; Bronze bell with human figure on the gong; 41 x 12 cm (16.1 x 4.7”) 1.6 kg., have found a home here for a bit, but not answered our whys.
Movement of the exhibition, without slowing down, leaning on the past, connecting tactfully with modernity and the today. It’s an often, ignored, stepped over conversation regularly filled with false argument when viewing the visual works. The investment in the objects of art later…and without tension…reached into this game…works for stage remaining his passion.
The story, in and of this exhibition is complex and full of tradition and pluralism in width and breadth questioning if the works follow the writer, or do these pieces, these works...old and new, are linked to Mr. Soyinka and his works...the selection and collection process lurks deep...the link from the what to the why or inversely. The pieces of his collection, as his writing, say something. Yoruba, we know, is meant to center, not to be confrontational, and could be an extension of his writing. After all, there's a stretch of his cultural loyalty with his Igbo, Maiden Spirit Mask (Agbophommwo) year unknown; Wood and Pigment; A wooden face mask with super structure, the face is painted white; 46 cm (18.1"), irregular cylindrical, 1.5 kg. "I shudder", Njuko acerbically wrote, "when I see, adjacent to each other in the same room, two Igbo masks or headdresses of masquerades which in certain parts of Nigeria would not appear in one arena without a major commotion...So when I see a mask, I draw like association." Prof. Soyinka doesn't appear to share such angst.
The show should, in spite of remaining questions of art and artist connections, delight, enlighten and erase more than a few prejudices needing correction.
Seizing on the laureate’s plans to deliver his BEYOND AESTHETICS: Use, Abuse and Otherness in African Art Traditions, the three part Richard D. Cohen Lectures, November, 14, 15, and 16, 2017 at Harvard University, we'll continue our exploration the art of and by Wole Soyinka in Part II of this review. Surely shedding further light on contributors Chris Abani and Peter Badejo to the exhibition while continuing the conversation as art through choice, and whether, in this case, does art run alongside or behind the collector, offering to catch and hold on…and keep holding…and holding…
Wole Soyinka: Antiquities Across Times and Place, The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, 10 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, MA 02138 HOURS TU-SA 10AM-5PM. The show will run through 21 December, 2017.