Sunday, February 22, 2009

More on the moon...

Osayuki asked for more on the moon, her namesake. I don't know a lot beyond its visual use as a kind of charm to go and return safely ("Iyare!") when it appears with the sun. But I can demonstrate its frequent appearances over time at least. Here it is at right, on the Oba's egbele, worn at the Emobo ceremony in 1994.

But it also showed up on the seat of 18th-century Oba Eresonyen's throne, along with many blacksmiths' tools. The tools symbolize Ogun and the ability to clear pathways to get the job done, and the sun and moon's presence here is likely to be protective. But moons also show up as corner decorations on lots of 16th century plaques. What do they mean there?

Are they occasionally not moons at all? On a handful of hip pendants made for ritual specialists/native doctors, they are crescent-shaped seed pods, an ingredient in medicine. But where there's a sun, there's the moon to cool it and throw light on the darkness.

I never heard older Edo people say much about the sky, except for referring to the star-filled sky as being like a guinea fowl--spotted. But I dug up an old article by Northcote Thomas, a colonial officer in Benin in the early 20th century. In 1919 he wrote about the deserted "Iwuki" headquarters on the right-hand side of Ikpoba Road (Akpakpava) "just above the rest house"; he was talking about the Iwoki guild, but this group (founded by Uti and Avan, two Portuguese in Oba Esigie's service) dealt with celestial phenomena, as well as weapons (probably because they were sailors, used to watching the sky), so its association with the moon is understandable. Thomas said an elderly man took him to the group's place on Ikpoba slope, and that it included a shrine to the sun and moon that was marked by a mud "heap" and by a "chained" Osa and Olokun, who were to "settle any quarrel between the sun and the moon." Eclipses are certainly considered notable in Benin, and the phenomenon involves Iwoki.

Thomas went on to say that the moon would signal Iwoki for sacrifices: chalk for the moon, camwood and chalk for the sun. He also quotes some incantations for the celestial bodies, though the spelling is in the old orthography and probably includes some mispronunciations. Can anybody help with a modern transcription and verify or argue with his translation? Here's what he said: "In Edo when people see the new moon they take sand and throw it up and say 'Gevaxwe; nuyaxwe owe nogbedi; ogaluki noma, semime; gumeka bauki-womame; waluki nogbama itenue (here is soap; take it and wash your son Ogbedi; if you are a good moon, bless me; let me reckon you a good moon for my good luck; if you are a bad moon, I run away." Also "When they see a halo round the moon they say the moon has killed an elephant. When the moon looks dull they say, 'Uki lal ogiami' ('The moon has entered the playground of his enemies'). He also lists several Ishan prayers regarding sighting the moon and asking for blessings.

So perhaps plaques bearing moon motifs are also referencing protection, or they may be connected with Iwoki...I will have to look more carefully now at how many bear them, and what they have in common. And I promise when I return home I'll post a moon-in-the-corner plaque

Thanks for this question and a new direction of thought! Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese send more questions, requests, or degrees of separation!

Quotes from N.W. Thomas, "Nigerian Notes: IV. Astronomy." Man 19 (item 92, 1919): 179-183

Leo Asemota

All of you who love Benin--get to know the works of Leo Asemota, a London-based Edo artist. I first saw his pieces at a conference two years ago, and I was struck by how efficiently they conjured the pain, nostalgia, pride, anger, and wistfulness of reflections about the 1897 British invasion and subsequent looting.

They're a part of contemporary art that is aimed at an increasingly small elite, one which presupposes familiarity with art history or other arcane references. I don't often think this is a good thing, though as an art historian I always enjoy the referential sampling of "greatest hits," whether they are Western (as in Yinka Shonibare's work, or that of Kehinde Wiley).

But in teaching...ah... Leo, if you ever Google yourself and see this, thank you for the work below! Your painting created pathways for me to introduce students unfamiliar with Benin's location, talk less of its history and art, into a complex world of colonialism, traditional religion, art history, ethnicity, divine kingship, conceptual art, color symbolism and more, in an efficient way that held students' interest (not a given, by any means!) and provoked indignation. This same efficiency prompted me to use the image in a public lecture on Olokun yesterday.

Is this kind of work really for the elite? Or, looking at the history of what the artist has produced, is it meant more for small, specific audiences? After all, he has produced photo and video documentations of sites in particular London neighborhoods which track their own nostalgias, sorrows, and angers. In a way the practice reminds me of a spectacular theatre professor at Uniben (whose name I've forgotten, though he won a Fulbright) who would send his students to an Edo village or neighborhood. They'd be there less than a week, talking to all kinds of people and making notes, then creating a community play that had its local audience laughing, nodding in agreement, and perhaps mobilizing.

Asemota says these works were inspired by a Benin exhibition he saw in 1994 at the British Museum (or its former Museum of Mankind satellite?). I like it a lot. In its absences, gaps, and interstices, it speaks to interrupted (but not stopped!) history.

Leo Asemota's official website is:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Reworking the past

I always get a kick of how artists rework the past, even when they are attempting to copy it. This isn't a Benin bronze plaque, it's a wall sculpture at Benin City's Saidi Centre (home of arguably the best spring rolls in all of Nigeria). Though modeled after 16th century objects, the artist has altered the head to body proportions. Instead of the head being about a fifth of the total body, it's more like a sixth; the rosettes in the background are raised and so neatly lined up. The figure no longer have that solid, stolid stance; they're at ease. Saidi Centre is full of other examples--fun to compare with the originals.


It has been an unconscionably long time since I wrote on the blog! Deepest apologies, but I've been working on the catalogue (do you like the cover?) which is almost ready for the printer! It won't be cheap, but it will be sold at cost and is chock-full of color photos. Besides long catalogue entries on each piece in the IYARE! exhibition, it will have six illustrated essays, one for each section. I will keep you posted when and where it will be available.