If meandering visitors to the University of Michigan Museum of Art are lucky enough, they will stumble upon “Masterworks of African Art: Yoruba,” a small but splendid exhibition tucked in the upstairs corner of the museum. The relatively modest space that the gallery occupies at the UMMA almost appears to mirror the understated consciousness of the African art of the typical museum-goer. However, those who walk through the exhibit will find a vibrant collection of pieces that radiate with brilliance and charm.
To the untrained western eye, these objects may at first seem cryptic and bizarre. However, David Doris, an art history professor and co-curator of the exhibit, challenges this common reaction, saying, “We often think of Africa as somehow backward and primitive. We think African culture doesn’t move; Africans don’t concern themselves with moral issues. But this is the art of a classical civilization.”
All of the pieces presented in gallery are taken from the Yoruba, an ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria that enjoys a rich cultural and artistic heritage, dating as far back as 1,000 years ago. Though visitors may appreciate the magnetic beauty of the items within the display, to the Yoruba, these pieces of art were the ubiquitous objects of everyday life. Guest curator for the exhibit Michael Kan, said, “Art for art’s sake is practically unknown in Africa.” Indeed, it appears that even the most dazzling pieces of Yoruban art are embedded in the context of day-to-day life.
For example, one piece on display is a warning sign to thieves, called an aale. The piece is a haunting assemblage to trespassers; its creator used palm fronds to tie together a number of empty and broken objects intended to reflect the thief’s eventual downfall. While, as Kan puts it, “Most of our art comes from Madison Avenue,” the aale serves as a potent example of how remarkable pieces of art can sprout unself-consciously from the grit of everyday life.
Most of the pieces in the showcase were created to perform practical roles as the emblems of spiritual or moral beliefs, and religious affiliations appear to manifest themselves in all aspects of Yoruban life. Carvings throughout the display depict the dramatic and colorful personalities of different deities. The spirits depicted in Yoruban art act as what Doris calls, “the personification of natural forces, regarded as moral issues.” Sculptures of the spirits therefore serve as powerful social reminders of virtues such as modesty, respect for ancestry and careful decision-making. One example, of these spirits, is the figure of Sango, who personifies “lightning as moral force.” This trait is viewed as the sudden ability to counteract evil. Perhaps, the moral emphasis of art work can be best understood as the expression of the Yoruban proverb: “character is the beauty of the person.”
The exhibit is the third in a series of installments intended to showcase different varieties of African art. The first exhibition displayed art from the Congo Basin, while the second presented works from Gabon and Cameroon. Kan opted to shape each installment around specific cultural niches.
“It is impossible to do justice to the art of an entire continent. I thought it would be better to do style areas in some depth and thereby do them justice,” Kan said.
However, what makes the exhibit most inventive is that it was created in collaboration with a freshman seminar class on Yoruba visual culture, taught by Doris. The project allowed students to plunge into real museum work, as they researched and composed extensive texts for each work of art, excerpts of which appear on the showcases and walls of the exhibit. Throughout the semester, the class learned to manage the practical tasks of museum work while exploring the abstract nuances of the Yoruban art. According to Doris, the students of the seminar have enjoyed immense rewards for their efforts; they can see the fruits of their labor printed in the gallery guides, while awaiting the expected publication of their complete essays.
In the final product, the gallery has welded together an eclectic mix of viewpoints from students, curators and artists. Visitors are invited to view the objects through a number of different lenses, and realize their own interpretations of Yoruban artistry. Doris describes the mutable possibilities of the artwork saying, “The text includes many different voices — you get a sense of the object as not one thing, but many things. It becomes what we require it to be.”