Keynote lecture delivered at the African Textiles Exhibition of Carleton University's Arts Gallery, February 16, 2011 It was one of those auspicious summer days when the horribly English weather of Vancouver, British Columbia, uncharacteristically decides to wear a tropical smile. Sometimes there is a computer glitch in heaven and the sun mysteriously defies all that dour, cloy, and grey wetness and marches across the permanent penumbra that the residents of Vancouver call the sky. For those unable to afford that vital occasional escape to the tropical heat and brightness of Mexico or Hawai'i, such rare sun-sodden days offer an occasion to spill into the streets, city parks or fan across Vancouver's famous beaches.
For the African in Vancouver, the sun whispers one word, only one word to the soul: home. "The Negro speaks of rivers", says Langston Hughes, that famous African American poet of the Harlem Renaissance. That, perhaps, is true for the uprooted black of the New World for whom rivers and the Atlantic Ocean – any moving mass of water – hold a special historical resonance. For the contemporary diasporic African whose immediate identity is rooted not in rosy memories of the giant strides of ancient empires and kingdoms, just before Kunta Kinte boarded the ship to Annapolis, Maryland, but in the immediate actualities of the nation-states that emerged from the trauma of colonialism between 1957 and 1994, remembrance of the vivifying essence of the African sun – the famous African warmth when it becomes metaphor – always comes before rivers. In the unforgiving coldness of Euro-America, we huddle together to remember and speak of the warmth and heat of Africa, not necessarily of the luminous currents of the Nile, the Niger, the Congo, and the Zambezi.
Because the continent's heat and warmth have allowed us to evolve a culture of the public space and the street as year-long sites for the expression and instantiation of culture – dance, music, celebrations, rituals, festivals, and myriad forms of aesthetic revelry – the occasionally bright and sunny day in a city such as Vancouver is always an opportunity for what I call instant-mix jollification by the African community. For those of us in the diaspora, a sunny day is always an excuse to try and reproduce poor photocopies of continental public festivities that our people back home take for granted. You call up a few friends and the African thing takes its full colourful course. To any observer from a distance, these activities may look like any regular Western barbecue gathering or community centre event. You won't have to listen for a long time before you discover that the difference lies in the decibel level for Africa, especially Nigeria, insists on not partying quietly. If you've got the culture, flaunt it. No apologies.
And so it was that on this particular sunny day in Vancouver during my years as a doctoral student in that city, a Nigerian friend and I were returning home from a party when we noticed a group of gaily dressed men and women having a nice time in one of the city's public parks. More than the great weather and the sight of what to us could be any group of Africans partying in an open public park, something else attracted us to that motley crowd and I will come to that presently. First, let us examine the instinctive reaction of my friend. I was driving, he beside me in the passenger seat. We see the party group from a distance and my friend exclaims: "Ol'boy, e be like say e dey happen over there o. Na Naija people sef. Abeg make we go chop awoof." Never mind that we had just left a party!
Needless to say, I agreed with his assessment and we soon started looking for a parking space. By now, every Nigerian in this room already understands where my friend and I are coming from and where I am going with this analysis. "Ol'boy, e be like say e dey happen over there o." Nothing extraordinary here. That is just an observation that a party was probably going on. The clincher – and I need you to pay attention here – lies in the next two sentences. "Na Naija people sef". That's my friend already declaring with absolute certainty that the party people we had just seen were Nigerians. Remember, we are still in the car, looking for parking. We hadn't seen any familiar faces. How could he possibly have known? At this stage, that group could still reasonably be from any part of subsaharan Africa. Then comes his last sentence: "abeg make we go chop awoof." That's Nigerian-speak for the Canadian: "let's help ourselves to some free food."
Nigerians and Africans in this room will probably complain that I have ruined that fantastic African cultural peculiarity just by translating it to Canadian English. Let's help ourselves to some free food – that sounds so ordinary and hollow. Render that statement in any African language and in the proper contexts and an entire universe of meaning comes alive, totally untranslatable to Western audiences, bearing stories of Africa's legendary philosophy of hosting and hospitality. The Yoruba, an ethnic nationality of some forty million people in southwestern Nigeria – not counting their kith and kin in West Africa and the New World from Bahia to Cuba via Barbados and Trinidad – have gone a step ahead by reducing that continental philosophy to one catchy expression: "mo gbo mo ya". Again, I must commit the heresy of translating the untranslatable: "I heard about your party so I'm crashing in on it."
In essence, when you see twenty Africans gathered in a party or a reception, chances are that only six of them were formally invited. The rest are probably exercising the cultural license of "mo gbo mo ya." It is a very bad African indeed who invites six people to a party and goes ahead to prepare food and drinks for the six just because they all RSVP-ed. Your ability to envisage and provide for the uninvited sixteen – most of whom you probably have never met before because the friend of a friend of your in-law's nephew invited them to your party without telling you – is a crucial cultural proposition.
This explains why my friend and I parked the car and approached an open air party to which we were not invited, walking magisterially like we were the Mayor of Vancouver. We joined the group and got the sort of loud, effusive, and absolutely warm African reception we expected. But it was immediately obvious to us that we had made a mistake in our initial assessment of their national identity. My friend had uttered "Naija people" when we spotted the party group and I had concurred. How do you explain our error? How to explain that two Nigerians mistook a group of Africans partying on a bright summer day in a Vancouver park for Nigerians?
I can picture the answer in the minds of some of our African brothers and sisters in this room: well, it is like you Nigerians to think that Africa starts in Calabar and ends in Maiduguri. Well, we did not make that mistake out of the habit of believing that Nigeria is Africa and Africa is Nigeria. Our error came from the vestimentary splendour of the women in the group: those Sierra Leonean women were all dressed in what any Nigerian would immediately recognize as aso ebi!
Aso Ebi, that famous Nigerian cultural testament, was the culprit that induced the error of mistaking Sierra Leoneans for Nigerians from a distance. Many Nigerians in Euro-America have similar tales of encountering aso ebi among nationals of other African countries. Nigeria's cultural transnationalism and globalism are not just about Nollywood. Aso ebi is inflecting vestimentary styles and aesthetics all over Africa and the Diaspora. Because aso ebi immediately evokes imagery of party crowds and carnivalesque street revelry, it is perhaps apposite that we say a thing or two about crowds before we probe the cultural warrens of aso ebi any further.
This is a particularly auspicious time to talk about crowds because North African crowds, seeking freedom and political agency, have invaded our living rooms and other private spaces lately. Television and the internet have taken us to the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and now Algiers. I tell you, listening to Western pundits and commentators go on and on about these auspicious developments in North Africa is pure torture. From London to Washington via Ottawa, we are being told by condescending commentators, ignorant as usual of the trajectory of the crowd in their own immediate history and culture, that the African crowd is finally learning the ropes and picking the praxis of political and cultural expression from paths already beaten by the Western crowd.
Crowds – or the mass, as modernist discourse referred to them – have not always been the organic entity whose right to the pursuit of happiness, we are told, the democratic Western state exists to guarantee with all sorts of welfare packages. As they built modernism and its associated cultures in all spheres of existence in the 19th century, European intellectuals, going all the way back to the legacy of Nietzsche, despised crowds and the mass as polluters of culture. The cultural critic, John Carey, has given us the most fascinating account of the epistemological violence that the intellectual inventors of Western modernism visited on crowds and the mass. The advent of crowds, masses, and mass culture was viewed as a clear and present danger to high culture by a European intelligentsia that proceeded to constantly try and raise the level of culture and the arts beyond the reach of the ordinary people.
Nietzsche had many heirs in the 19th and 20th centuries. In no particular order, everyone from Jose Ortega y Gasset to T.S. Eliot via Hermann Hesse, Flaubert, Andre Gide, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh, D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, weighed in on the menace of crowds, mass culture, and even mass literacy. Everything that could make cultivation of the mind easily available to and accessible by the mass – newspapers, radio – was contemptuously dismissed by the modernist crowd whose aim was to write the people out of the history of the production of culture. Hear John Carey:
"The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand – and this is what they did. The early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement has become known as modernism. In other European countries it was given different names, but the ingredients were essentially similar, and they revolutionized the visual arts as well as literature. Realism of the sort that it was assumed the masses appreciated was abandoned. So was logical coherence. Irrationality and obscurity were cultivated"
But this is even still good news. As modernism pursued its inexorable course in European culture, the prism through which she viewed European masses began to border dangerously on lunacy. Thus it was that Ortega y Gasset would opine that modern art must divide the public into two distinct and antagonistic classes: those who can understand and those who cannot. Naturally, those who can understand art belong in the category of the chosen few; those who cannot belong in the category of the inferior mass. John Carey sees a natural progression from the arrogance of modernism to the sophistry of the avant-garde among the European intelligentsia:
"As an element in the reaction against mass values the intellectuals brought into being the theory of the avant-garde, according to which the mass is, in art and literature, always wrong. What is truly meritorious in art is seen as the prerogative of a minority, the intellectuals, and the significance of this minority is reckoned to be directly proportionate to its ability to outrage and puzzle the mass. Though it usually purports to be progressive, the avant-garde is consequently always reactionary. That is, it seeks to take literacy and culture away from the masses."
I could go on and on about modernism's and the avant-garde's representation of and attitude to European masses but those of you who have read the great texts of that age are sufficiently familiar with that scenario. Suffice it to say that the science of that age was not deaf to the language of the poets and the philosophers of Europe. Hence we began to hear of projects such as Tom Harrison's Mass Observation which reduced lower people to scientific specimen; we began to hear of the masses being compared with bacteria. It just so happens that there was a fellow named Adolf Hitler who was listening to all of that philosophico-scientific discourse on lower peoples and crowds with keen interest. Across the Atlantic, the European diaspora in America was also listening to what their elder brothers were saying back home in Europe about lower people and classes and began to develop a healthy appetite for the "science" of eugenics...
If Europeans of a certain class could treat their own masses and crowds this way, what would they not do to the "natives" that they were busy manufacturing at the time in India and all over Africa? They carried the same modernist and avant-gardist arrogance to the theatres of Empire and colonial violence and tried to impose a certain genteel Victorianism on everybody and everything in sight. This is where they failed. Modernist and avant-gardist arrogance met their cultural nemesis in Africa for Africa had a different way of looking at crowds and the masses.
Those of you who have read Chinua Achebe will understand what I am talking about. Think of Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Think of all those communal celebrations and ritualistic feasts in the novels. How do you separate the people from all of that? How do you elevate the new yam festival above the people? How do you begin to rewrite the peoples of Africa as impediments to all the cultural enactments that the continent is famous for? How do you go to Yoruba land in southwest Nigeria and tell the people that culture and its street expression must be elevated above their heads? We are talking of a people whose philosophy of the ownership of culture is expressed in the processional hymn that the Yoruba present here in this audience will sing along with me:
Oro ile la wa lawa nse o
Oro ile wa la wa nse o
Esin kan o pe, o eh
Esin kan o pe ka wa ma s'oro
Oro ile wa lawa nse o
This homiletic call to ritual observance firmly locates the ownership of culture in the idile (family unit in a much extended sense). How do you take this away from the idile in an avant-gardist move to relocate culture on higher grounds? This is, of course, not to imply that there are no elevated observances known only to initiates in African practices as is the case with the distinction between "awo" and "ogberi" in Ifa hermeneutics. High or low, these practices derive their hegemony from the vivifying essence of communalist validation and collective subscription. No Orisha and her intelligentsia (initiates and priests) will thumb their noses at crowds in the manner of the European modernists. And you must recall what happened when hubris and other human foibles led Ezeulu to attempt to put his intercessory practice above the heads of his people: the wall cracked and lizards are let in.
This explains why the Yoruba people would teach Euromodernism a lesson or two in the ownership of culture and the treatment of crowds. The Yoruba would not evolve an ethos of culture in which the people would progressively be treated as bacteria, a blight on high culture. Rather, even in the context of colonial rape and the succeeding context of postcolonial atrophy supervised by local buffoons who have ruled Nigeria since independence, the Yoruba have always insisted that the crowd is the owner of culture, especially in its more expressive, aesthetic, and performative dimensions of "miliki", "faaji", and "ariya".
I am again confronted by the burden of translation and I'm afraid that I must do further violence to African untranslatables by rendering those three as "jollification". Or "joie de vivre" for those of you in the upper classes! When these three instances of jollification – "miliki", "faaji", and "ariya" – combine in the streets of Lagos, Ibadan, Akure, Ondo, Ijebu Ode, Abeokuta or Osogbo, the result is the Yoruba party phenomenon now famously known all over the world as "owambe". I am of course exploring a people's different take on crowds and the location of culture. I am claiming that whereas 19th and 20th century Europe treated crowds and the people contemptuously as a consequence of the arrogance of modernism and the avant-garde, and exported those condescending attitudes to Empire, Africa responded by insisting on a different location and ownership of culture.
In essence, while European crowds and masses were being treated like bacteria and written out of culture by an uppity European intelligentsia, the Yoruba would deck that crowd in aso ebi and send them to the streets of Yorubaland as the owners and carriers of culture, colour, and aesthetics. In owambe and aso ebi, the people, and not the intelligentsia, are the arbiters of taste. To surrender agency to the people in the areas of pleasure and jouissance as the Yoruba do with owambe and aso ebi is to be in fundamental consonance with the idea of democracy as the will of the people...