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Yoruba Art and Language
Seeking the African in African Art


  • Date Published: November 2014
  • availability: Replaced by 9781107663923
  • format: Hardback
  • isbn: 9781107047440
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About the Authors
  • The Yoruba was one of the most important civilizations of sub-Saharan Africa. While the high quality and range of its artistic and material production have long been recognized, the art of the Yoruba has been judged primarily according to the standards and principles of Western aesthetics. In this book, which merges the methods of art history, archaeology, and anthropology, Rowland Abiodun offers new insights into Yoruba art and material culture by examining them within the context of the civilization's cultural norms and values and, above all, the Yoruba language. Abiodun draws on his fluency and prodigious knowledge of Yoruba culture and language to dramatically enrich our understanding of Yoruba civilization and its arts. The book includes a companion website with audio clips of the Yoruba language, helping the reader better grasp the integral connection between art and language in Yoruba culture.

    • Provides an important contribution to studies of indigenous African aesthetics and art history
    • Richly illustrated with 146 illustrations with nearly half in color
    • Includes a website with audio clips of the Yoruba language to illustrate the book's arguments
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art provides a seminal and authoritative work pertaining to Yoruba art and languages of Nigeria. Rowland Abiodun, the John C. Newton Professor of Art, the History of Art and Black Studies at Amherst College, is an astute art historian, researcher, and culture activist, whose work will withstand the test of time and critical appraisal.' Tunde Babawale, Africa Today

    Customer reviews

    06th Jun 2015 by OVAdepoju

    Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art in Relation to Yoruba, African and Non-African Philosophies and Art Rowland Abiodun has arrived at last. The world is privileged to receive the magnificent production represented by his book Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, published by Cambridge University Press on 13th November, 2014. ISBN: 9781107047440. Hardback. £75.00.US$115.00. From decades of scholarship and a lifetime of immersion in the subject, Rowland Abiodun has put together a comprehensive statement on his research into the intersection of aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics and ethics in classical Yoruba art and thought. The book is beautifully bound and richly illustrated, its form a sumptuous delight. It magnificently complements, and with reference to some of its ideas, takes forward the developments represented by landmark publications on Yoruba arts, Yoruba : Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, The Yoruba Artist : New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts and Yoruba Oral Tradition as well as decades of studies in the field of Yoruba arts, by Abiodun himself, Babatunde Lawal, Henry John Drewal, Margaret Thompson Drewal, Olabiyi Babalola Yai, John Pemberton III, among others, scholarship that has made Yoruba aesthetics perhaps the best studied body of aesthetics in classical African philosophy. The book demonstrates conclusively that Yoruba philosophy has reached a point of explication in English that enables it stand on its own as a resource for addressing a broad range of philosophical questions. One may explore any phenomenon, concrete or abstract, artistic or social, from any context, through reflection on central concepts in Yoruba philosophy. Yoruba philosophy also provides a platform for interaction with cognate philosophies in order to expand the ideational and practical scope shared by these constructs. Such philosophies include Igbo philosophy, which, according to Annechukwu Umeh in After God is Dibia : Igbo Cosmology, Healing, Divination & Sacred Science in Nigeria also demonstrates an emphasis on the power of visuality similar to the difference and complementarity represented by the Yoruba concepts oju lasan and oju inu, and in terms of Achebes description of ike in The Igbo World and its Art, also involves a recognition of a creative power like the Yoruba ase. Similar ideas of cosmic energy emerge in other African cultures, as summed up by John Mbiti in African Religions and Philosophy and which may be traced to discussions of particular civilizations, as in the nyama concept of the Mande, described by Margit Cronmueller Smith as a cosmic principle, present in human beings, animals, plants, and things... a sacred quality that can be affected by the ‘word’ ” [ of particular specialists, such as artists of Kora music] in The Mande Kora : A West African System of Thought, this correlation between cosmic force and the artistic use of language as a means of cultivating and directing this power being also evident in the Yoruba concept of ase as described by Abiodun in “Ase : Verbalising and Visualizing Creative Power through Art” and in other works. Related ideas are also evident in non-African contexts, such as the Chinese concept of chi, as presented by Paul Wildish in Big Book of Chi: An Exploration of Energy, Form and Spirit, the Indian Shakti as described in Pandit Rajmani Tigunaits Shakti : The Power in Tantra and the Indian concept of the sacred word, Vac, as explored by Andre Padoux in Vac : The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras. Abioduns discussion of visuality in Yoruba aesthetics is conducted within the context of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics as developed in Yoruba civilization. It is complemented by the work of other scholars, such as Babatunde Lawals summation of the cognitive continuum of visuality in Yoruba thought in his Àwòrán: Representing the Self and its Metaphysical Other in Yoruba Art, providing a platform for engaging with other philosophies in relation to the role of visuality, in particular, and embodiment, in general, in human cognition. These include the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotles grounding, in the Metaphysics, of metaphysical inquiry in sensory perception, of which sight is pre-eminent, Indian Tantric epistemology which understands the senses as enablers of insight into the ground of being, and the Western theory of embodied cognition represented by George Lakoff, who analyses language as demonstrating the shaping of human cognition by embodiment. As understood in the correlative Aristotelian and Tantric formulations, this sensory foundation may be used as a platform for exploring the idea of moving from sensory perception of the multiplicity of phenomena to a grasp of their unifying qualities as these demonstrate the essential character of being, the quest for essential identity, iwa in Yoruba, being also a central goal of Yoruba philosophy. Yoruba philosophy, as represented by this book, also takes the reader beyond ratiocinative philosophy, philosophy based on reasoning, and even beyond philosophy that foregrounds the conventionally understood range of human cognition in terms of the senses, emotion and imagination. Yoruba philosophy facilitates exploration of human creative capacities and of the character of nature as demonstrating possibilities beyond conventional human perception, an understanding of the nature of being and of creativity evident, for example, in Indian Yantra theory, yantra being an Indian artistic form, and represented also in other animistic cosmologies that recognize sentience as existing beyond animate beings. Yoruba philosophy provides a powerful ideational base for the practical exploration of these ideas, placing these cross-cultural constructions, perhaps for the first time in written history, on a foundational ideational structure transcending but recognizing cultural peculiarities, from which platform these ideas may be explored in theoretical and practical terms. Central Points of Enquiry Demonstrated by this Book What is a work of art? What is the relationship between art and the nexus of human and cosmic creativity? What is the conjunction between art and the intersection of temporality and timelessness, the human aspiration towards infinity in the context of the necessary finitude of material existence, as humans aspire to transcend the constrictions that shape human being? What does it mean to exist? What may art and the process through which it is created demonstrate about the essence of being? What are the various dimensions within which the cosmos is constituted and how may the human being engage with as broad a range of dimensions as possible? What faculties does the human being possess to enable this multidimensional engagement and what is the significance of aesthetic forms in relation to the stimulation of these capacities? This is one way of summing up the significance of the expositions of Yoruba aesthetics demonstrated by Abioduns strategies of approach to the subject, in relation to the work of other scholars on Yoruba thought. Aiku pari iwa : Existence is consummated in deathlessness Iwal’ewa : Essential being is an aesthetic configuration Mo iwafun oniwa : I grant to the existent, their [ distinctive ] existence are some summative proverbs encapsulating positions on these questions emerging from classical Yoruba philosophy and which Abiodun explores in great depth and delicacy of treatment as he describes the conceptual web woven by this body of ideas communicated through the expressive techniques of the Yoruba language. Abioduns Scholarly Career in the Context of Discourse on Yoruba and African Thought and Art Appreciating this book is assisted by taking stock of Rowland Abioduns scholarly achievement so far and the contexts in which he has been working. The book represents an aspect of the primary work of mapping the shape of discourse and describing the content of classical African knowledge systems. Abiodun’s scholarly career has been dedicated to the demonstration of the aesthetic values of classical Yoruba philosophy as a nexus of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics actualised in the character of Yoruba arts. This focus demonstrates a correlation of artistic forms and their informing aesthetics outlined as a necessary direction for the study of classical African art in his 1987 essay The Future of African Art Studies : An African Perspective in African Art Studies : The State of the Discipline, a crystallisation of research building on the orientation initiated by one of his earliest publications, Ifa Art Objects : An Interpretation Based on Oral Traditions, in Yoruba Oral Tradition, 1975, and taken forward in subsequent works. In his programmatic essay on the study of African art, complemented by his other summative essays on aesthetics, he outlines key concepts in Yoruba philosophy. These concepts may be seen as grounded in the epistemological and metaphysical concept of oju inu, the inward eye, a continuum of cognitive refinement and expansion ranging from corporeal vision to the full spectrum of conventional insight and beyond, a cognitive potential critical for art because of the role of creative perception in both the creation and the appreciation of art. These ideas also include the ontology of art in terms of iwa, which may be understood as the being of an entity, its characteristic mode of existence, vital to understanding the distinctive character of being/s in general and of art in particular. Abiodun’s immersion in Yoruba oral literature and visual and performative arts and his magnificent expository capacity come to play in his two essays known to me on ase, which may be understood as the Yoruba conception of a cosmic force that enables being and becoming, vital to an understanding of art as a primary demonstration of human creativity manifesting cosmic creativity. In Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics: The Concept of Ase” in African Arts , vol. 27, No. 3 and “Ase: Verbalising and Visualizing Creative Power through Art “ in Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 24, No. 4, he brings alive both the contexts and the semantic rhythms of verbal and visual art in ways that enable a glimpse of the embodiment of this concept of creative transformation, through a density of quotation from Yoruba, carefully translated and articulated in detailed exposition in English. The picture he creates through quotation and exposition is so vivid his work succeeds as both a scholarly presentation and a recreation of a universe of thought and practice, so that anyone, anywhere, may recreate and even adapt those ideas and practices in other contexts beyond those described by Abiodun’s texts. I also find his essays on women in Yoruba religious images wonderful for depicting the numinous and practical range of classical Yoruba conceptions of the feminine. The achievement represented by his essays are further demonstrated in his contributions to central guide posts in the study of Yoruba art, the books The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought and Yoruba Aesthetics. His latest book, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, expands the range of subject and exposition of his essays and book contributions to give a comprehensive and unified depiction of the universe of classical Yoruba aesthetics, in its epistemic, metaphysical and ethical formations, exemplified by a magnificent array of visual and verbal artistic forms, Abiodun’s lyrical and analytically rich commentary on these forms unveiling the souls-the imaginative and ideational essences- of these creations as he understands them. He begins with the concept of ori, which may be described as the head understood as both the biological centre of the embodied self and a metaphor for the essence of the individual as an immortal entity who constitutes the ultimate potential of the self and exists beyond its material expression, the relationship between these two aspects of the person constituting the self’s orientation to the world and the dynamic of its progress through life, and therefore a fundamental point of orientation for all creative activity, of which perhaps the arts are most prominent. Beyond the value of educating the world about the contributions of a particular civilization, Yoruba civilization, to aesthetics, what does Abioduns work bring to the table in terms of answers to central questions in the field? Are we able to learn anything new in terms of responses to aesthetic questions that are not evident from other cultures or does he demonstrate new ways of presenting already known perspectives? A thrust of scholarship in Yoruba aesthetics, which Abiodun’s work has been central in developing, may be summed up in terms of an emphasis on the role of the senses as enabling a continuum of perception ranging from the most basic data accessed by sense perception to more inclusive penetrations into the nature of phenomena, culminating in a grasp of the conjunction of the distinctive identities of forms of being and the eternal. Abioduns distinctive contribution to this conceptual structure is the elaboration of the relationship between this epistemology and metaphysics with ethics as composing a comprehensive aesthetics. Abiodun explicates this cultural form through magnificent demonstrations of the intersections of Yoruba visual and verbal arts, thus highlighting the complementarity of the imaginative and the ideational in a manner that includes and yet resonates in value far beyond the basic significatory capacity demonstrated by concepts. The Global Context With Yoruba Art and Language, we have a signal contribution to the task of demonstrating the cardinal role of aesthetics in civilization. Texts are steadily emerging presenting the aesthetic visions developed by various peoples. The dominant presence in discussions of aesthetics is Western because of the Wests particularly vigorous development of the culture of widespread literacy, while other civilizations that may have reached a high level of intellectual culture before the West may not have democratized literacy or advanced education as early as the West. These advantages are magnified by the massive enablement of printing and the recent information revolution, all pioneered by the West. The global spread of the achievements of Western civilization has also been aided by Western colonialism, enabling the disruption of local social systems in favour of the Western model. That picture is changing and Abioduns book is a giant leap in the direction of that change. We have entered an era in which anybody, anywhere, can take robust advantage of the cognitive developments of many civilizations without ever living in the social and geographical contexts represented by those civilizations. You don’t need to have lived in Europe in order to study the ideas of European philosophers and adapt them to your own use. This development has been facilitated by Western introduction of widespread writing to its colonies at the time of its imperial spread and its pioneering of globally employed technologies of information management and distribution. With the aid Abioduns book, taking his sophisticated research and profound and clear expositions beyond the limitations of academic journals to the more public sphere of book publication, print and electronic, one is powerfully enabled to engage with Yoruba philosophy of art in the conversation between discourses.

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    Product details

    • Date Published: November 2014
    • format: Hardback
    • isbn: 9781107047440
    • length: 409 pages
    • dimensions: 260 x 188 x 23 mm
    • weight: 1.1kg
    • contains: 73 b/w illus. 67 colour illus.
    • availability: Replaced by 9781107663923
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction. What is African in African art studies?
    1. Orì: no Òrìsà blesses a person without the consent of his/her Orì
    2. Àsẹ: the empowered word must come to pass
    3. Òṣun: the corpulent woman whose waist two arms cannot encompass
    4. Òrúnmìlà: henceforth, Ifà priests will ride horses
    5. We greet Aṣọ before we greet its wearer
    6. Àkó: re/minding is the antidote for forgetfulness
    7. Ilé-Ifè: the place where the day dawns
    8. Yoruba aesthetics: Ìwà, Ìwà, is what we are searching for, Ìwà
    9. Tomorrow, today's elder sibling.

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    Yoruba Art and Language

    Rowland Abiodun

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  • Author

    Rowland Abiodun, Amherst College
    Rowland Abiodun is John C. Newton Professor of Art, the History of Art, and Black Studies at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. He is the author of What Follows Six Is More than Seven: Understanding African Art (1995); co-author of Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (1989), Yoruba Art and Aesthetics (1991), and Cloth Only Wears to Shreds: Yoruba Textiles and Photographs from the Beier Collection (2004); and co-editor of The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts (1994). Abiodun was a consultant for, and participant in, the Smithsonian World Film, Kindred Spirits: Contemporary Nigerian Art. A former member and chair of the Herskovits Book Award Committee of the African Studies Association, Abiodun has also served on the Board of Directors of the African Studies Association and as the President of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association. He chaired the Executive Board of the Five College African Scholars Program, Amherst, Massachusetts, and has been interviewed by the BBC World Service on the Art of Africa. In 2011, he received the Leadership Award of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association in recognition of his excellence, innovative contributions, and vision in the fields of African and Diasporic Arts.

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