Yoruba Epistemology, Art, Language and the Universe of Meanings: A Meta-Analysis


I had the rare privilege of delivering in proxy the original paper of Professor Moyo Okediji at the African Studies Association meeting, where it was first presented on December 2, 2016. Although short in quantity, I consider it to be loaded in quality, contents, intents, intensities, and in its ability to problematize a discourse critical to our understanding of indigenous scholarship and all its epistemological implications that span the entire landscape of the humanities. Indeed, Okediji’s pedagogy is the proverbial Yoruba drum of “ògìdìgbó” which is revealed only to the wise and the prudent, and they are the only two capable of effectively dancing to its rhythm. The paper reminds one of the title of the memoir of Ellen DeGeneres, the famous American comedian, titled Seriously . . . I’m Kid[1]ding. Even as a non-apologist of Ellen DeGeneres, or of any other American comedian for that matter, one would find profound meaning to that title, and embrace it as very deep and philosophical. Like in many Shakespearean plays, many truths are expressed in the acts of the jesters, not in the court of the privileged kings and pundits. This is exactly the way I responded to Okediji’s beautiful write-up. It got me thinking. It is a needed shock therapy, an organic rendition of an intellectual exposition of the Yoruba art. This commentary is janus-faced. On one hand, it looks at the unique way in which Moyo Okediji critiqued the work of Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art. On the other, it concurs with Abiodun’s thesis of the indispensability of the Yoruba language and oral tradition in the understanding of the Yoruba art.

In his contribution to the roundtable forum on Professor Abiodun’s book at the African Studies Association in Washington, DC (December 1-3, 2016), Okediji provided his full presentation in Yoruba language, unalloyed (see the first essay in this forum). In order to broaden the scope of his readership and audiences, I chose to translate his write-up to the English language (Appendix 1). However, I used the translation to underscore the challenges of inter-cultural interpretation. The translation process demonstrates the problem of using one language to dissect another language without the depth of knowledge of the cultural make-up of the originator of the text. The attempt provides the data in which we are able to draw conclusions on a variety of issues: One, it highlights the futility of translation of a cultural theme at any level; two, it speaks to the frustration inherent in the imposition of one language over the art and culture of another; and three, it demonstrates the need for a cultural understanding between the originator of a text and the translator as precluding any reasonable translation and/or interpretation of the text. Using my attempt at translating as an example, I argue that at the very best what my effort could produce was an interpretation rather than a translation of Okediji’s text. I then argue that Okediji’s text brings to light the main thrust of Abiodun’s argument, which is that the indigenous language that births the art and culture of a people is the only channel through which the said art and culture could be most accurately interpreted or critiqued. Any attempt at superimposing other languages on the art can only result in a secondary, if not tertiary, interpretation and consequently a watered-down version of the original. The corollary is that such attempt will of necessity tamper with the sacred epistemological authenticity of the language-art-culture continuum.

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