The collector as compulsive mythologist – Wole Soyinka’s “Beyond Aesthetics”

by • December 10, 2020 • FeaturedArticle, NewsComments (7)2388

By Dr. Joseph Oduro-Frimpong

In 2013, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University, initiated the annual Richard D. Cohen Lectures. A key goal of the series focuses on “scholars who address the vast expanse of African diasporic art communities through the study of contemporary works, specific historical concerns, or traditional art considerations in communities in Africa and elsewhere”. Professor Wole Soyinka delivered his version of the Lectures in 2017.

The choice of Professor Soyinka for the lecture is perhaps due to his reputation, aptly described by the African Humanities Program of the American Council of Learned Societies as someone who passionately promotes “the role of the humanities in contemporary life, [and whose] distinguished career [has] championed writing that inspires individual self-examination and collective self-understanding”. Titled “Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse, and Dissonance in African Art Traditions”, Yale University Press published his lectures under the same title in the US in January and the UK in March, 2020.

Beyond Aesthetics — which extends Soyinka’s known reputation as an essayist – explores his experiences with the arts and passion collecting art from different parts of the world. In the ‘Preface’, the author begins with two anecdotal narratives saturated with the essence of “Renaissance fervor” (p. 17). The first revolves around one of Soyinka’s experiences in Senegal where he encountered the famous African Renaissance Monument.

This colossal public art installation, constructed by North Koreans, and inspired by “the aesthetics of neo-fascist public art masquerading as proletarian realism” (p.11), nauseates Soyinka for a justifiable reason: “not one single aspect of [the] sculptural figuration bears the slightest resemblance to anything African [in general or Senegalese in particular] – certainly not in concept, style, form, not even gesture” (p. 10). The extent of Soyinka’s disgust is due to his later understanding that President Wade had rejected a model for the monument by highly regarded Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow.

The second story focuses on an international arts festival in the United Kingdom and dubbed ‘AFRICA 92’, where Soyinka plays a mediating role, and through which one becomes aware of his “compulsive trait toward artistic anthropomorphism” (p.18) when it comes to the visual arts. Here, Soyinka is keen on how assembled artworks, notwithstanding their geographical/cultural origins, should speak to each other as such works are not “passive or inert object[s] of contemplation” (p. 19). In giving us these personal stories, the author’s goal is to “lead us into the realms of African creative muses” (p.10) which he goes on to explore in the three chapters that form the bulk of the book.

In Chapter One, ‘Oga, Na Original Fake, I Swear’, Soyinka explores two layers of what he terms “the peace of aesthetic wisdom” (p. 24). One layer explores culturally influenced notions of what constitutes taste or beauty through “an aesthetic voyage” (p. 24). The first of Soyinka’s two key examples here occurs in Venice. A colleague, W. H. Auden distracts Soyinka’s attentiveness from Peggy Guggenheim’s collection to refocus Soyinka on Peggy’s peculiar aesthetic choice to surgically slice her buttocks so as to be able to wear designer clothes.

Soyinka then presents former military dictator and later democratically elected president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obansanjo’s criteria of who a beautiful woman is. This benchmark, also Soyinka’s, vastly contrasts that of English men, such as Auden. As in the ‘fashion arts’ where emaciated-looking models are tacitly fronted as beautiful, within Yoruba arts, the ideal beauty is visibly generous, visualized through, for example, wooden fertility art pieces. 

Soyinka furthers this exploration through the “acquisitive lust” (p. 36) of the art collector. In this journey, where the narrative swings between the past and the present, Soyinka introduces us to some of his own antique collections from Nigeria, Japan and South Korea. Nested in these stories about ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ are subtle but powerful critiques that concretely reject a narrow understanding of ‘aesthetics’.

When Soyinka insists that “there is an inherent beauty in ancient objects, a leisurely but penetrative distillation of material, form, and history, one that we struggle vainly to capture and define, but that remains elusive under the rubric of “aesthetics”” (p. 78), what I hear is this: that the normative theoretical thrust of and approaches to ‘aesthetics’ is currently inadequate. Thus, a holistic ‘aesthetic experience’ of artworks needs to also acknowledge the tangible/material dimensions of such works. 

In Chapter 2, titled Procreative Deities: The Orisa’s Triumphal March, the overarching discussion focuses on religion and its relationship to artworks in pre-and post-colonial Africa. Soyinka draws attention to the negative role of the “twinned alien religions” (p. 82) of Christianity and Islam which, since the missionary era, and up till now, have contributed to the destruction of African religious artworks.

Here, he shows how in Nigeria, fundamentalist African Christians and Muslims with their attendant “puritanical conventions” (p. 81) almost never disagree in leading the charge to destroy priceless African religious artworks, but that they cannot eliminate the creative and imaginative energies which in one form or another will continue to help create cultural/religious artifacts. Soyinka’s conviction about the generative capabilities of the human imagination is grounded in the phenomenon of abiku – a belief and practice in most African societies related to transmigration of souls.

In the final chapter, From Aso-Ebi to N****wood, this directional and geographical focus is sustained as Soyinka deals with two main artistic practices related to fashion and media in Nigeria. With fashion, Soyinka examines female practices around aso-ebi, which literally means “family or relations attire” (p. 133). Here, the author is interested in how the practice raises questions about what and how it means to be feminine without patriarchal imposition, as well as how the aso-ebi practice sartorially instantiates the philosophical value of communitarian ethics.

With regards to Yoruba femininity as witnessed in the aso-ebi , Soyinka points to the women’s agency which manifests in “selecting and creating from internal options, within [their] own community of self-conscious females”(p.133). The discussion on media focuses on the contemporary popular movie industry in Nigeria, officially known as Nollywood. Drawing on sacred Yoruba (African) naming practices, which are based on careful and creative considerations, Soyinka argues against such a “deleterious name” (p.143) and instead proposes “Afrowood” (p. 159).

In all, I find Beyond Aesthetics very refreshing. The work invigoratingly engages with certain key notions such as creativity, (in-)authentic(ity) and aesthetics in ways that go beyond normative approaches, nudging us to reflect and engage more deeply with these ideas than perhaps we currently have in the humanities and social sciences. Implicitly then, Soyinka reminds and encourages us to avoid unproductive and modernist binary approaches and armchair theorizing of concepts – such as suspicion, fake(ry) and imagination – so as to allow for grounded analyses of these ideas. 

My only critique of Beyond Aesthetics relates to the last chapter where Soyinka feels the movie industry’s branding of itself through ‘Nollywood’ is silly in its imitativeness, engendering a state of “imaginative retardation” (p. 144), dooming it away from “a tendency of adventurousness, experimentation and originality” (p. 143). This willingness to be innovative through the power of constructive imagination that Soyinka mentions was a key marker of the early phase of postcolonial African cinema whose film producers had either state or foreign funding for their productions. Thus, making a profit or a loss from film-making seemed not to concern these ‘conscious’ filmmakers.

The situation is now different. Nollywood producers directly finance their films. To recoup funds and/or make profits requires an imaginative inventiveness which these producers have rightly identified as being embedded in “Nigerian social actualities” (p. 146). Thus, in as much as I agree with Soyinka that Nollywood should make as socially engaging/conscious movies as their predecessors, this goal remains, at this stage, an ideal. The practice does not guarantee profits. It is this state of affairs which makes producers settle for what Soyinka aptly terms as “lowest common denominator” (p. 144). 

Beyond Aesthetics clearly calls for grounded experiences and the senses as equally critical to one’s meaningful engagement with appreciating and critiquing artistic works. More importantly, in this work, we encounter Soyinka as both a mythologist and philosopher of (fine) art who strongly advocates, to borrow Francis Nyamnjoh’s words, for ‘convivial scholarship’ in the appreciation of the arts. Here, Soyinka encourages us to move ‘beyond aesthetics’ to see the wisdom to pluralize our gaze or lines of vision in order to move past a reductionist lens that one so often hears from and in the West.

Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. His many publications include You Must Set Forth at Dawn and Of Africa. Soyinka is also a longtime art collector. Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse, and Dissonance in African Art Traditions, offers a glimpse into the motivations of the collector, as well as a highly personal look at the politics of aesthetics and collecting. Detailing moments of first encounter with objects that drew him in and continue to affect him, Soyinka describes a world of mortals, muses, and deities that imbue the artworks with history and meaning (bio. c. Yale UP).

Joseph Oduro-Frimpong is a media anthropologist. He currently directs the Center for African Popular Culture at Ashesi University. Two of his works on Ghanaian cartoons respectively appear in the volumes: Popular Culture in Africa: The Episteme of the Everyday (Stephanie Newell and Onokoome Onome, eds), and Taking African Cartoons Seriously: Politics, Satire, Culture (Peter Limb and Tejumola Olaniyan). 

Pictures – Yao Ladzekpo

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