The brilliant colors and intriguing cultural stories of the Yoruba people in Nigeria are now on display this semester at Hope College’s Kruizenga Art Museum.The Yoruba consist of more than four million people, which makes them one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. Their art, which portrays scenes of daily life and religious culture, was lost for a time during British colonization after the Yoruba had been weakened by civil wars and ethnic conflict. Colonization created immense challenges for artists, including few patronage opportunities for artists and more competition from secular products such as textiles, baskets and metals. However, the art form was rejuvenated in the 1950s after the collapse of colonization, and now artists practicing traditional Yoruba art are spread out around the world, resulting in a great diversity in style, genre and material in Yoruba art forms.
Four students helped put the exhibition together—Nina Kay, Sylvia Rodriguez, Holle Wade and Caleigh White—under the supervision of Dr. Anne Heath, a professor of Art History at Hope. Caleigh White (’20), an Art History major, found out about the exhibition through a class she took with Dr. Heath about the Osogbo School. Dr. Heath says the class was also part of an effort to offer more classes in art history that focused on non-European/Western cultures. White mentions that the exhibit was inspired when Charles Mason, the director of Hope’s Kruizenga Art Museum, obtained some different works from the Osogbo School and other traditional Yoruba works.
Not literally a physical school, the Osogbo School was actually an artist movement around Yoruba art in the 1960s and 1970s. The movement brought national attention to Yoruba art and brought the Osogbo artists’ status in Nigeria to a level comparable to famous artists in Paris, France. Osogbo works include paintings, sculptures, beads and works depicting Yoruba deities and festivals. The name for the School came from the name of a religious site in Nigeria. The Osogbo site is a place containing shrines and sacred groves in honor of the Yoruba river goddess Osun. During British colonization the site was abandoned and fell into disrepair. However, it was restored in 1958 by an artist named Susanne Wenger and a team of Nigerian artists. The site’s restoration inspired a rejuvenation and restoration of the culture’s art and traditional religion. The Osogbo School owes much of its success to Suzanne Wenger, who led the movement to rejuvenate Yoruba art and culture after British colonization. Wenger was an Austrian-born Nigerian artist who became enraptured with Yoruba art and fought to keep it alive. Even though much of the art lacks technical finesse, it has still been recognized globally as a unique display of beauty, skill and Yoruba culture.
Although the students didn’t actually help set up the exhibition, they did the research and wrote some of the informational placards hanging next to each piece of art and also prepared a floor plan that made sense within the context of the art. White says that a lot of the research was spent comparing the designs of the traditional art to the later art during the Osogbo period. She says about the importance of the exhibit, “In art history most of the time we are talking about the canon, which is just a bunch of white male artists, and we don’t really learn about the art that was being made in different parts of the world that are just as important… I just want this show to enlighten visitors about other artists who are working from their past but also moving forward as a movement, bringing in current events, understanding it within its context and not projecting western ideas onto it. I want it to be seen as an art show and not an anthropological study, because that’s not what it’s about.”
White’s research centered around Kunle Filani, an artist who helped bridge the gap between traditional Yoruba art and modern techniques such as drawing and painting. His art also incorporated elements of activism. A Filani piece portrayed at the exhibition, “People’s Mandate,” portrayed a Yoruba politician who ran for president in Nigeria’s first democratic election and won. However, the military junta that controlled the country negated the politician’s victory and instead gave power to a military strongman.
Some of the Yoruba artists on display created paintings and sculptures. However, much of the art is embodied in objects of daily life. For example, one feature at the exhibition is “Woman’s Wrapper with Stylized Floral Design,” a large piece of cloth that would have been worn around a woman’s waist as a dress or a long skirt. A paste made out of flour and copper sulphate was used to give it a floral pattern. A placard hanging next to the piece informs the audience that different designs on womens’ dresses often have symbolic meanings. The design on this dress has the general meaning of, “I’m getting myself together.” Other pieces express various aspects of the Yoruba religion. “Egbere, The Weeping Spirits” by Jacob Afolabi portrays the myth of the egbere, malevolent spirits, said to live in remote forests, who make terrible wailing sounds during the night. It is said that anyone brave enough to resist the noises and steal an egbere’s sleeping mat will win great wealth.
At least two of the paintings portray an important part of Yoruba culture—the importance of twins. The Yoruba have one of the highest birth rates of twins in the world. Twins have spiritual significance in the Yoruba culture and are cherished as a gift. The sculpture “Sacred Twin Figures” represents the Yoruba tradition of ere ibeji. If one or both of a set of twins died in childhood, the family would commission an artist to carve a wooden figure called an ere ibeji to commemorate the deceased twin. The figure would be kept on the family altar, and in some cases it was even washed, fed and cared for as if it were the actual child. In another example of the abundance of twins, Prince Twins Seven-Seven, another artist featured in the exhibit, chose his name because he was the only surviving child from a set of seven twins, all from the same mother.
Dr. Anne Heath, who oversaw the students’ work, hopes that visitors, “see the technical and creative breadth in these works and the relationships between tradition and innovation and tradition and experimentation.” She adds that Hope College has one of the best collections of Nigerian art in Michigan. The Yoruba exhibit will remain open for the rest of the semester at the Kruizenga Art Museum. For those wanting to find out more information about Yoruba art, White will be presenting research on Kunle Filani and the movement on April 17 at the Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids. Otherwise, admission to the Kruizenga is free!