Speaker Discusses Power and Spirituality in Yoruba Art
Issue   |   Wed, 02/22/2017 - 02:16

Nkiru Nzegwu, Professor of Africana Studies at Binghamton University, held a talk in Pruyne Lecture Hall on Thursday, Feb. 16 to discuss aspects of Yoruba artistic culture in relation to power, spirituality and gender.

The talk, free and open to members of the public, was hosted by the Art and the History of Art, Black Studies and Sexuality, Women and Gender Studies departments and supported by the Lurcy Lecture Fund. Amherst Professor of Art Rowland Abiodun introduced Nzegwu at the start of the event.

Nzegwu explained that part of her lecture was drawn from a book she was currently writing. The book aims to “undermine the role of gender, not because I don’t see the utility and efficacy of gender … [but because] we need something ... to be able to undercut the logic of subordination that so permeates studies … of African women.”

In order to accomplish this, Nzegwu said she “had to look at the concept of power, and I have to deal with the image of Africa and African women” by scholars around the world.

Nzegwu then focused her attention on a Nigerian artist, Nike Davies-Okundaye. Before her discussion, she acknowledged that much of the academic writing on Davies-Okundaye’s artwork was completed by Western intellectuals.

“Ideas that have been disseminated about Nike and her work may not necessarily align with what the culture is saying about her, or what actually she herself is saying about herself and her work,” said Nzegwu.

She explained that, unlike Western academics at the time, prominent Yoruba artists did not focus their work and ideas around questions of identity.

“Questions about identity, name or authorship are typically raised by one who is unfamiliar with Yoruba artistic leadership,” said Nzegwu.

“If you’re not within the tradition, the kind of questions you’re going to raise may not necessarily be similar to the ones the locals raise.”

Nzegwu said that Davies-Okundaye’s art utilizes “beautiful patterns, complex symbols and expressive details … encoded into her art are messages in this indirect language as well as in the Yoruba language,” said Nzegwu.

Nzegwu presented various works by Davies-Okundaye, arguing that she uses “colors, form and pattern to create profound immensity.”

This artwork, Nzegwu said, created a challenge for Western scholars “because of … philosophic difference, and the fact [that] Yoruba art is not given to literal interpretation.”

“Although she is a modern artist with modern sensibilities and a modern sense of Yoruba personhood, her indirect batiks and paintings, artistically, aesthetically and conceptually invoke complex ethical and religious ideas,” said Nzegwu.

Nzegwu also noted the spiritual aspect of Davies-Okundaye’s artwork, particularly “the influence of Osun, the most powerful and influential divinity of ownership in Yoruba.”

References to Osun were typically shown through “something associated in meaning with her” rather than direct depictions of her form or name, thus restating the importance of symbols and motifs, explained Nzegwu.

By “asserting the dominance of Osun” in her work, Davies-Okundaye is “undertaking a discourse on power that is no less subversive than it is powerful,” Nzegwu said.

Osun, Nzegwu said, is “a conception of power … that is inherently female, a power that seems to be at the center of life.”

“In [traditional] feminist discourse, there is a greater hesitancy to deal with power,” Nzegwu said. “…The early literature of power in feminism tended to view power as masculinity … something that seemed to be anti-woman.”

Following Nzegwu’s talk, several audience members were able to ask questions on topics that ranged from the power of symbols in art outside of a culture’s context to the significance of color.

Abby Douglas ’20, attended the lecture for a class on African art history.

“I’m just sort of getting started on African art … Last semester in our first-year seminar, we talked about Yoruba art and actually had a presentation from Professor Abiodun … so I know a little bit about the concept of power,” said Douglas.

Douglas added that she “really, really enjoyed” Nzegwu’s lecture about Davies-Okundaye, whose art she had not previously studied.