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Osogbo and the Art of Heritage: Monuments, Deities, and Money

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Osogbo and the Art of Heritage: Monuments, Deities, and Money. Peter Probst. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2011. Pp. pp207+ xi. ISBN. 978 0 253 22295 4 (pb). £16.99.

The town of Oshogbo (to use the un-subscripted version of the name) is a small, thriving northern Yoruba town that has a unique place within Nigeria (and beyond) as the locale for a thought experiment that produced fabulous material manifestations.  What distinguishes Oshogbo from many, similar, Yoruba towns is a recent history of intersection with two expatriates – one an artist, the other a cultural entrepreneur.   There is of course a history of Oshogbo before the arrival of Susanne Wenger (the artist) and Ulli Beier (the scholar entrepreneur).  It is a history that follows the lineaments of much Yoruba settlement and development, certainly unique in its own trajectory, but nonetheless familiar to scholars of south-western Nigeria.  The distinctive part of this long history is undoubtedly Oshogbo’s adherence to its tutelary deity – Osun, but other Yoruba towns and other places have similar, named, metaphysical figures that stand at the font of their founding.   The singular nature of Oshogbo in the world today, similarly, undeniably rests upon the transformations wrought in the 1960s and 1970s. This is a problem, for it is all too easy to describe Oshogbo as the product of external intervention.

Peter Probst’s book is a clever articulation of both histories.  While at times it feels that this is a work that has to address two markets (anthropology and heritage studies) and that heritage is a convenient frame for the marketing of ethnography, there is little way that, given the nature of Oshogbo, things could have been any different.  The book is in fact an excellent ethnography of the local; it is just that this local has an undeniable international imprint.  Probst’s challenge is to marry the two elements of this within his ethnography.  That to do so is to inevitably bump up against current debates in the understanding of African art, material culture, the relationship between tradition, culture and the “modern” is all grist to his mill.

The framework of heritage structures the book.  Each chapter marks a reflection upon a facet of this theme.  Thus Probst builds the book on chapters that are all headed “Heritage as…” (source, novelty, project, style, spectacle, remembrance, control and finally presence) and under which titles a particular study is examined.  The first chapter, “Heritage as source”, describes Oshogbo history, outlining the familiar mythic narrative of the town’s founding, but also providing a brief archaeological and colonial history.  The next three chapters are about the event of Ulli Beier and Susanne Wenger’s arrival in Oshogbo and their effect upon the town.  Calling the arrival an event refers back to a Yoruba mytho-historical understanding and there is something of the mythic about Beier’s intervention, even if it is myth of his own making.   Nonetheless Beier’s Mbari Mbayo workshops undoubtedly changed the employment prospects of quite a number of young men and women in Oshogbo, creating a genuine cultural industry.  There is undoubtedly more that Probst could have done to situate Beier into the context of the extra-mural department in Ibadan, as well as within and the general sense of modernisation (theory?) abroad in Nigeria at this time, but as Oshogbo is the central character in this book and not Beier, perhaps this is to the good.  Wenger is inevitably given more space – and mainly because the chapters on spectacle, remembrance and control  are directly related to the political manoeuvrings surrounding the Osun festival, the prominence of which undoubtedly does depend upon Wenger’s German expressionist experiments at the Osun grove, as well as her (until 2009) prominence within the town.  Having said that, Probst’s analysis of the growth and cultural dominance of the Osun grove and festival is excellent, it is judicious in the analysis of the political events surrounding the incorporation of the grove as world heritage site and the contestations around the festival’s “religious” reformulation.  It is a shame that, in Chapter Five (spectacle), he slips into an all too familiar art-historically inspired analysis of the festival as ritual, that is the most speculative and weakest moment of the book.  It seems that there is a form of Yoruba studies that cannot avoid the temptations of “deep meaning” even when the rest of the book so demonstrably shows the mutability of that concept.

This book achieves a real sense of Oshogbo as a place.  That the place has a complex festival that offers the ethnographer a phenomenon that differs from other places and invokes global penetration should not distract from Probst’s genuine ethnographic analysis.  In a sense this anthropological treatment offers a real solution to the Beier / Wenger problem as it allows Probst to demonstrate that despite the modernist interventions of that couple, Oshogbo is structured by, develops and looks to the future according to the very real social relationships within the town, and those do not depend upon any external mediation, expressionist or not.  And while heritage offers a useful framing device, what Probst has actually produced in this book is an ethnography that allows  Oshogbo and its people to emerge as a very real presence in the formation of its own cultural narrative.

Reviewed by: Will Rea, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 101-103]

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