Rowland Abiodun’s Yorùbá Art and Language contains many extremely valuable features, wrapped around a question he raises in its introduction: can foreign scholars ever truly understand a work the way its Yorùbá makers and users do? Language mastery certainly provides the native speaker with access to inestimable insights regarding not only general worldview, but specifics of philosophy, history keeping, and subtleties of knowledge transmission. However, in the attempt to read an artwork and unpack its meaning, cultural insiders also face obstacles as well as advantages, particularly when pieces date from the more distant past. The import of Abiodun’s major contributions regarding Yorùbá art’s history and the validity of his contentions are considered here in light of the varied contributions both foreign and Yorùbá art historians bring to Yorùbá scholarship, in the recognition that working with art of bygone centuries makes all scholars outsiders to a degree.
A kì í gbójú-u fífò lé adìẹ àgàgà; à kì í gbójú-u yíyan lé alágẹmọ. One should not expect the flightless chicken to soar; one should not expect the chameleon to stride.
Can outsiders ever truly understand a work of art the way its makers and users do? In the introduction to his book Yorùbá Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, Rowland Abiodun concludes that only those with a mastery of the Yorùbá language and deep cultural familiarity can interpret Yorùbá artworks effectively. His argument produces numerous salie observations and the viewing framework he creates provides an exceedingly valuable set of lenses for interpreting Yorùbá sculpture. However, the question posed above remains intriguing, and is more complex than it appears. Even when an artist and his patron live in the same community at the same time, their interpretations of a commissioned work may not be identical, so when one moves out to the analyses of art historians, Yorùbá or not, one cannot necessarily assume a third party will understand the work just as its maker and user did. Additional corollaries to the question exist as well. What are the parameters of outsider status? Do they constitute a spectrum? Do insider advantages always trump outsiders’ perceptions? These issues become even more pertinent as distance from our own era increases. While the question of outsider/insider status does not constitute the thrust of Abiodun’s book, it is a major aspect of his introduction, and thus worth considering.1 While this paper considers the unique multiple contributions of Abiodun’s book, it also argues that careful considerations of objects and context can be made by outsiders, while insiders, like all researchers, can choose to ignore elements that conflict with their own preconceptions, develop greater interest in one topic than another, generalize their known experience to the whole of Yorubaland or apply it half a millennium into the past. While these perspectives differ, one does not automatically eclipse the other.
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