Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review:Nigerian Artistry

Title: Nigerian Artistry
Author: Pat Oyelola
Publisher: Mosuro Publishers, 2010
Page Number: 328
Figures: 431
Reviewer: Sola Olorunyomi
NIGERIAN Artistry is the title that Pat Oyelola gives her new book, but it smacks of an unacceptable humility, for this artistry is itself a signifier of a hidden homophonic referent – a chip of Nigeria?fs art history.

Surely, not designed as a formal pronouncement on art history, the examined art works seem to defy self-effacing authorial intentions: They narrate in settings and mimesis, manners that gesture an art time-line that recedes into antiquity. Even in their supposed inert states as textile, bead works, pottery or metalwork, they evoke creative agencies and, albeit obliquely, date the historiography of artistic production in this land, prior to the Berlin Conference. No doubt, there is sufficient gestation and reflection in this new title, and one gets the feeling that in the process of its coming-into-being it was tested out with students, professional colleagues and the coterie of the art circles in Nigeria.

How else does one explain this journeying back in time that straddles the, circa, 900 BC Nok terracotta head showing elaborate coiffure, 900 AD Igbo-Ukwu beaded bronze ornament, 1000 BC drawing of decorated pottery from Iwo Eleru and an 11th to 14th century AD Anthropomorphic Vessel from the Cross River co-mingling with Adire Eleko, dolls from Argungu and Yinka Davies’ avant garde hair-beads? We are invariably turned witnesses to the acknowledgement of sameness and difference, perhaps only matched by Nigeria’s eco-diversity. Here is the source of the offering’s unusualness; it celebrates juxtaposition: The ancient and the modern, the realist and the surrealist, the sacred and the profane – all flung out in 328 pages for inevitable cohabitation. And in spite of the overt apolitical texture of the book’s presentation, this format underscores a compelling metaphor on Nigeria’s laboured socio-political space.
The scope of Nigerian Artistry is broad and extensive, with a structural pattern that is equally diverse. Both in text and image, it speaks; it speaks exploring body art, textiles, beads and bead-work, pottery, calabash decoration, mat-making and basketry, wood-carving, metalwork and a section on Connections. This is complemented by a detailed biography and index. No wonder it received the endorsement of one of the commanding intelligences of modern Nigerian art – Bruce Onobrakpeya – who described the book as “a narrative epic and a reference work offering comprehensive information on many aspects of Nigerian art.”
In his foreword, he observes that “Like the griot with the memory and raiment of the chameleon, Oyelola takes us on a journey through time and the art of this geographical entity, Nigeria.”

Both author and the subject matter seem inextricably tied to a clime-hypothesis. This complexity is readily evinced in the dynamic unravelling of raw materials and motifs of artistic production across the vast geographical expanse of the country from the evergreen mangrove and rain forest of the south to the increasingly sparse vegetation of the savannah and the northern Sahel. While the forest region may exhibit a greater variety of artistry in wood, pods and vines, an outcome of its vegetation, Oyelola nonetheless directs our attention to a vast array of other cross-cutting products and motifs such as metal work, fabrics and the bead-works and body art. Particularly in relation to body art, she demonstrates the infinite possibility of art, extending beyond the cave wall, murals and calabash to the human body. Wherever these traditional artists had found a platform, they exhibited – such as we find in the section on Body Art where the men, women and children become a canvas for facial inscription, belly tattoo or more. Prominent here are the Fulani, Bini and Yoruba tattoo patterns, which have sometimes been anticipated centuries back as with the bronze pendant from Igbo Ukwu and the Ife bronze head, both showing facial marks dating back 8th-15th century A.D., respectively.

The author provides the informing ethnography and social biography of stylisation. Of hairstyles she gives details on their social and, sometimes, sacred roots. We learn about the modern, high-crested Yoruba women?fs hair-style, a motif that could be found in 19th and early 20th century carvings in the same region. She alludes to the fact that this style is still worn by priests of the deity, Sango, although we know that legendary narrations of this 15th century monarch of Oyo have always acknowledged him in plait. Sometimes, the hairstyle portrays stages in the woman’s life-cycle, as child, adolescent, married, parent and aged. Beyond Nigeria?fs shores, Oyelola also demonstrates transatlantic connections with evidence of the ‘Afro’ hairstyle, and plumbs into the depths of the Civil Rights Movement in America and notable figures like Angela Davis for causative agents. As with this section, all through the book, she stresses process such that the reader could have a fair idea on the procedure of production of a particular style. In this sense, the ‘art-historical’ angle of the narrative keeps popping up as the various exhibits also acquire the status of date markers. One could list some reflecting the current affairs of the times; ever heard of hairstyles with such coded names as ‘Naira and Kobo,’ ‘Kalakuta’ or ‘The War is Over’? Now and again naming could derive from nature: ‘Spider,’ ‘Snail,’ ‘Dog’s Ear,’ ‘Crab,’ ‘Pineapple’, ‘Horns’ and, wait a minute – ‘Snake!’ Such is Oyelola’s sense of detail that you also get a chip of the cultural economy of style production for the would-be hair-artist. She informs: “A skilled hair-artist can operate from her home, the market or a salon: she does not need elaborate equipment to create her styles.”

Nigerian Artistry is a design in breadth and nuance. In exploring the nation’s textile it accounts for, albeit in detail, a wide range of forms. Getting personal now, I think Oyelola’s favourite is the blue vat dye on cotton fabric called Adire; even if her couture is nuanced, I can hardly recall her without a patch of this indigo. She nudges our memory on other such pattern dyeing as tie-and-dye Adire, and reminds that this is the oldest form of resist patterning in Africa although the semantic field of the word Adire has expanded to include any cloth patterned by other forms of resist technique which may include cassava paste or wax batik. Forms of the resist technique include Adire Oniko (tied with raffia), Adire Eleso (tied around seeds, creating small circular patterns), Adire Alabere (done in hand-stitch with raffia) and Adire Eleko (with corn-pap applied for resist patterns).

Oyelola shows that in the hands of contemporary artists like Nike Okundaiye pattern dyeing becomes quite adventurous, exhibiting fresh creativity in form like the modern wax batik Adire, stencilled Adire Eleko and patch-work on denim. The outcrop couture, especially with the admixture of Aso Oke, Akwete, and the hand-woven fabric, has found space along the diverse social rungs in the country. It has received endorsement from royalty as seen in the regal garb, yet in social engagements such as wedding, graduation ceremonies, casual wears and interior decorations, the embroidered cloth has acquired added meaning.

The book equally adopts a similar format in examining mat-making and basketry, recognised as sharing similar methods with the loom tradition of cloth-making. After exploring the more traditional forms of metalwork, wood-carving, calabash decoration and bead-work, the author invites us to a clash of imagination in the section titled Connections. This section is partly peopled by neo-traditional and modern artists, and the author?fs intention seems to be focused on contemporary art-making for primarily aesthetic consideration. She also seems to show the intrinsic interconnectedness of the region’s art across time. And this is a connection that could also be inter-genre in the manner of the works of the master print-maker, Bruce Onobrakpeya, which often derive from textile art, particularly the Yoruba cassava paste resist design. Of this, Oyelola notes: “His works contain direct references to the old indigo cloths through his use of geometric motifs borrowed from them and used as background fillers but he also abstracts design principles from Adire Eleko and employs them in the organisation of the picture surface.”

Connections is the zone of connection of the complex whole of Nigeria’s art and its major artists. It is also a querying moment of notions of originality, tradition and the indigenous. The intertext in this section is quite intricate, sometimes direct, apparent or merely coincidental – stressing cultural universals. For one, on origins, we merely approximate Nigerianess for works whose primeval creators could as well have emigrated from this shores or gone extinct. And on the artifacts, there appears a constant habit of reconstitution of forms. The Esu symbol begins to wear beads at some point in its long journey to contemporary modernity, in the same manner that objects once held sacred and distinguished by courtly habitation have crept into public imagination and use. There are now beaded sheaths for the iron staff of Orisa Oko, a beaded pouch for an Ifa priest – items that would have to be reworked into the narrative verses of divinity and deity.

The diasporic extension of this continuity equally expresses major shifts as seen in the 1990 photograph of the sculpture of the deity, Obatala by Jose Rodriguez. This constant mutation is further seen in the contact between Arabia (11th century A.D.), Portugal (15th century A.D.) and West Africa. The visitors provided raw materials that were reworked. Over time, both raw materials and craft were, sometimes, considered indigenous to West Africa. Benin artists worked extensively with bronze and brass, metal items that do not occur in the ground. This new mode of artistic expression owes its possibility to the alloyed metals derived from copper and tin, in the case of bronze, and copper and zinc, in the case of brass – two imported metal items. These factors underscore the deeply diffusionist potential of cultural production.

Oyelola seems driven by an anxiety to ensure that an historical heritage gets documented appropriately. Apparently she does not want to see known, historical experiences and artifacts later becoming symbols requiring the expertise of decipherers – such as happened with ancient hieroglyphs. Lest our contemporary experience turn a sudden cipher. And early comments have been coming. Louis Oladunmoye, an art historian, thinks the book will encourage creativity among the younger generation and monitor teachers to pattern their students towards ornamental display of Nigerian styles of creativity.

Another colleague of his, Mike Adeoye, reasons that Oyelola’s book is a balanced and profound view of the Nigerian indigenous art industry cutting across all levels of artistic creativity in the country. The artist and art scholar, Peju Layiwola, of the University of Lagos, finds Nigerian Artistry highly illustrative, a good guide to the art of Nigeria, and very much in the mode of Oyelola?fs 1976 publication – Everyman’s Guide to Nigerian Art as it provides an overview of various craft traditions in Nigeria.

The author, Patricia Oyelola (Pat in Nigerian art circles) was born on November 20, 1938 in London. British/Nigerian by marriage, her training was originally in languages. She graduated with a B.A. Honours in French and Latin from the University of London, and has put her knowledge to service in Nigeria.

I wanted to know how she acquired her taste, knowledge and skill. “Through visiting museums early in life”, she quipped.
Much later in life (late 1958), her husband bought her a gift entitled African Folktales and Sculpture, which further excited her interest in African art. Later, Art History was introduced to the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan (1981/82) under Professor Sabiru Biobaku as Director. This was an early teaching component to complement research, the Institute?fs primary mandate. Art History became big and very popular and Oyelola then took a course in African Art from the Department of Archeology. Later she took a Ph.D in Art History from the same Institute. Pat Oyelola feels quite upset about many Nigerian artists who do not document their works, but is quick to make an exception in Bruce Onobrapkeya, whom she identifies as a “brilliant exception.”

Dr. Oyelola takes advantage of this edition to introduce the reading public to many other Nigerian artists. Besides Obobrakpeya, you encounter Sokari Douglas-Camp in her studio, Obiora Udechukwu on The Road to Abuja, Kunle Filani’s Vestiges of the Past and Moyo Okedeji’s untitled soil on canvas motif. Also included are the works of Tola Wewe, Yekini Folorunso, Agbo Folarin, Senabu Oloyede, Ademola Onibokuta, Sangodare Gbadegesin, Nike Okundaiye, Jimoh Buraimoh, Ademola Akintola, El Anatsui, Susanne Wenger and Ulli Beier.

Add to this the rarity of a publisher called Mosuro. The editorial requirements of Mosuro Publishers is rather too rigorous for the hodge-podge that now characterises publishing in the country, hence its titles seem deliberately infrequent. The author had earlier noted that she could not think up a better option than Mosuro, if only as a mark of courtesy to the historical reconstruction of the nation?fs artistry. Headquartered on Magazine Road in Ibadan, Mosuro Publishers is increasingly fanning across the country. In 2008 it came out with A Gift of Sequins: Letters to My Wife by the late idealist Lt. Colonel, Victor Banjo of the civil war fame. And even as Nigerian Artistry berths, it’s doing so with a title from Nigeria’s master of verse, J.P. Clark, whose collected poems, Full Tide, Mosuro has finally put to bed.

Nigerian Artistry strikes one as art, memoried on one another, thereby serving as a constantly evolving aesty and agency. The different genres and sub-genres of styles fehetic loop but also journeying back and forth in time. Is it a coincidence that the last illustrative figure (9.54) is the Sankofa? That sagely bird of imagination in Ghanaian myth and lore, emblematised by a bird looking at its own tail, and urging us to go back and pick...it's not too late...never too late!


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