by Wole Soyinka. Yale University Press, January 2020. 144 p. ill. ISBN 9780300247626 (h/c), $25.00.
Reviewed January 2021
Kim Collins, Director of Research & Engagement Services & Art History Librarian, Robert W Woodruff Library, Emory University, email@example.com
Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse, and Dissonance in African Art Traditions presents three very personal essays by Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright, poet, activist, and a self-proclaimed compulsive mythologist/collector, based on the Robert D Cohen lecture series the author delivered at Harvard in 2017. In turn, these lectures were inspired by a contemporaneous art exhibition of mostly Yoruba traditional sculptures from Soyinka’s personal collection.
Soyinka contends art exceeds mere aesthetics; it transmits a culture and a sensibility, sometimes with spiritual overtones, that retains an ancient origin, no matter its transformations. Art defies its role as a passive object of contemplation and struggles between creative originality and reference to the past. The aesthetic voyage begins with a discussion of beauty and its beholder, infused with Yoruba iconography. Guided by the impish spirt of Esu, Soyinka recounts stories of his checkered career as a collector. Yet, these personal musings touch on issues of interest to scholars of African Art. For example, art can conserve tradition while transforming it; art can close the cycle of the ancient with the modern; and art uses material, form, and history to convey inherent beauty.
In the second essay, Soyinka describes a culture of religious fundamentalism and “postcolonial-cum-Christianized and Islamized conditioning” that discourages African traditional culture and may even promote destruction, cultural negation, and racial disdain. Wole Soyinka sees museums as spaces of contradiction and alienation, but he applauds the Musée du quai Branly for taking African Art away from anthropology. The Yoruba archetype, Abiku, a problematic child that constantly dies and is reborn, serves as a metaphor for the emergence of African traditions across the diaspora.
The final essay begins with reflections on the Yoruba wedding tradition of having guests wear uniform regalia and concludes with a tale of the Nigerian film industry, which too often values oversized extravagance at the expense of quality. In an explanation of his dislike of the term “Nollywood” for Nigerian cinema, Soyinka describes the Yoruba culture of naming, elucidates his theory that words have shapes that can either expand imagination or reduce quality, laments hackneyed imitation, and worries that bad branding can affect the product.
This small book, appropriate for academic and museum libraries, will be of interest to scholars of Black art and literature, as well as anyone curious about a great writer, thinker and art collector. While art historian readers will wish for more illustrations, all readers will appreciate the faithful translations and thoughtful definitions provided by Soyinka.