Use, abuse, and dissonance in African art traditions
160pp. Yale. 20 [pounds sterling] (US $25).
Few book titles fly higher than Beyond Aesthetics, a somewhat scary pairing of words that might well put off the casual scanner of a bookshop's philosophy shelf. Quick reassurance, however, would be found by glancing at the name of the author, since that of the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka always guarantees challenging and lively reading. The subject of these essays is the art of Africa. Yoruba by birth and spiritual inclination, Soyinka is an indefatigable collector, a revenant in the favoured cities of traders and in those streets around the Rue de Seine or Portobello Road. One of the (unfortunately greyishly printed) illustrations to the book shows the garage of his erstwhile home full of what he describes as "my extended family" of mostly Yoruba artefacts, ranging from trinkets to lifesize figures and wide-eyed ceremonial masks.
Half a century ago when I started collecting African sculpture myself, I haunted those shops and salerooms which offered such works under the heading "ethnography" or, more abusively, "primitive art". Tribal Art (a term not much liked by African scholars) has now become the standard description. As it so happens, the first object I acquired from a trader's stall was from the Yoruba, a modest ibeji figure (nowhere near as fine as the twin couple Soyinka illustrates from the Harvard Museum). I soon became addicted to collecting, and all too familiar with the stages of acquisition as described...