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Review of Art of the Lega / Ways of the Rivers / African Folklore / Omoluabi


By Martin Banham

Art of the Lega by Elizabeth L Cameron. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History (distributed by University of Washington Press, Seattle), 2002. 236pp. ISBN 0939741889, £30.50 (pb).

Ways of the Rivers: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta. eds. Martha G Anderson and Philip M Peek. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History (distributed by University of Washington Press, Seattle), 2003. 363pp. ISBN 0930741900, £37.95 (pb).

African Folklore: An Encyclopedia. eds. Philip M Peek and Kwesi Yankah. Routledge, London and New York, 2004. 593pp. ISBN 041593933X, £120.00.

Omoluabi: Ulli Beier, Yoruba Society and Culture by Wole Ogundele. Bayreuth African Studies 66, Bayreuth, 2003. 302pp. ISBN 3 927510 79 3, ISSN 0178 0034. EUR 22.95 (pb)

These four books, in various ways, make significant contributions to the study and understanding of African arts and culture. The first two, Art of the Lega and Ways of the Rivers, arise from exhibitions curated and shown at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA. They are both sumptuously illustrated and offer scholarly commentaries on their respective subjects. The Lega of Central Africa have a rich and complex culture and remarkable skills in wood carving and decoration. As Dr Cameron’s admirable and enthusiastic commentary illustrates, this is, in the African tradition, art with a function – art arising from social ceremonies, community myths and rituals, and the celebration of crafts and trades. The work is discussed and shown in helpfully thematic chapters – The Bwami Society, Rhetoric, Metaphor and Mpala, Artists and Aesthetics, The Public and the Secret in the first part, and Found, Assembled and Utilitarian Objects, Animal Figures, Human Figures, and Lega Masks in the second part.  Cameron refers to the ‘bewildering diversity’ of the several thousand Lega objects still in existence, observing that the Lega never numbered more than 250,000. From this she points to the likelihood of an ancient tradition of wood carving, and one that has been voraciously collected by individuals and museums world-wide. The photographic illustrations are in themselves of the highest quality.

Whilst, almost inevitably, the Lega collection is assembled outside the bounds of its indigenous home (though Dr Cameron’s study is firmly based on field experience), the second of the collections from the Fowler Museum, on the arts of the Niger Delta, is seen very much in its own environment. The editors, themselves authorities on the subject and the authors of many individual chapters within the book, have assembled a group of scholars with intimate knowledge and understanding of aspects of the Rivers’ culture and are to a strong extent showing materials still based, and to be seen, in the region. This is logical given the subtitle referring to ‘arts and the environment’, as the arts include living festivals, customs, performances and craft materials. There is also a strong historical perspective, illustrated with photographs and documents. The result is a real sense of a living culture and an unrivalled chronicle of one of the most culturally (and politically) vibrant areas of present day Nigeria. Once again the quality of illustration reproduction is exemplary. A final note on these two books: to find such quality publishing, and such remarkable illustrations, at such modest prices is a rare treat. Libraries should pounce.

Philip M Peek, one of the editors of Ways of the Rivers, is again involved in African Folklore: An Encyclopedia. He and his co-editor Kwesi Yankah have taken a helpfully broad view of what is meant by folklore, and have in fact produced a varied and adventurous work of reference to a range of areas of African performance, religion, custom, languages and traditions. Drawing on the expertise of over 150 contributors, a good proportion of them African scholars, they offer entries that, in their words, span ‘the whole of the African continent, thereby emphasizing both the singularities and commonalities of African folklore traditions’. This manifests itself quite often in interestingly compound entries such, for instance, as that on ‘Queen Mothers’ that takes examples from various parts of Africa, or ‘Body Arts’, or a range of associated pieces on aspects of the Oral. There are, as in all good books of reference, some special delights - ‘Tongue Twisters’ for instance – and some nice decisions on entries – as in ‘Work Songs’. The encyclopedia shows its roots in the USA by some of the apparatus. It lists ‘African Studies Centers and Libraries in the USA and Africa’ and ‘…Dissertations and Theses on African Folklore at U.S. Institutions’, both areas of reference that would have been enriched by material from Europe and elsewhere, but it remains a helpful and useful addition to the study of African – in a refreshingly un-pedantic sense – ‘folklore’.

The panoramas of the first three books discussed are replaced in Omoluabi – a Yoruba word the book translates as ‘a man who has two hundred friends’ – by a focus on one individual, the eminent teacher, playwright and scholar Ulli Beier. There is no doubt that Beier’s impact on the Yoruba world where he first settled in 1950 was dynamic. As Wole Ogundele describes in this affectionate and robust chronicle of Beier’s life, he found there a personal satisfaction and an artistic stimulus that was not only profoundly important to him but also enriched the community with which he became engaged. Numerous Yoruba and other artists – playwrights, musicians, painters, carvers – worked with him, and co-operatively (but crucially) Beier was responsible for such initiatives in the arts as the creation of the Mbari Club in Ibadan, Mbari Mbayo in Osogbo, journals such as Odu and Black Orpheus, and a range of exhibitions, translations and publications. Certainly no ‘expatriate’ (and as Wole Soyinka says in the foreword to the book, Beier ‘rescued the word “expatriate” from its usual negative connotations’) has done more to champion Yoruba art of all kinds, or to make it available to the outside world. Ogundele’s affectionate research is thorough and fascinating – even telling us that in his youth Beier was a professional show jumper! He follows Beier’s career in detail, and although inevitably partial in his interpretation of the kind of artistic controversies that anyone as committed and energetic as Beier is bound to encounter, a valuable side of the study is its coverage of the work of the many artists and writers who flourished particularly in western Nigeria from the 1950s to the 1970s. This is a splendid and informative tribute to a very remarkable man.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 78-80]

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