Yale Art Exhibit Spotlights Celebrated…

Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè

Ẹnìkan Ìí Pèrò or Ẹnìkan Kìí Pa Èrò (Two heads are better than one).

The work of the famous Nigerian sculptor Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè shows two mothers with two twins. The style is steeped in tradition, but the sculptor has also found his own voice within this tradition and in turn has given his motifs a voice of their own. Look closely, into the abstraction, and you can see the characters’ individual expressions, the things that make them unique, perhaps a mixture of dignity and concern in the adults, a sense of determination and mischievousness in the children. Look even closer and you’ll understand more about the relationships between the characters. The two mothers are twins themselves and support each other; Her outer arms, meanwhile, are there to protect and guide all her children. They are a small society unto themselves, even if they are connected to everyone around them.

Two heads are better than one is one of many captivating and captivating pieces in Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition, which is on view at the Yale University Art Gallery now through January 8. An in-depth retrospective of a true master of his craft, the exhibition – organized by James Green, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Associate Curator of African Art – provides rich artistic and historical context alongside Bámigbóyè’s most impressive works, while raising uncomfortable and important questions about them on how we understand African art.

Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè was a legendary figure in 20th-century Nigerian art, described as … the Carver who inspires awe in the elders,” explains one of the many helpful tips in the exhibition. He was born in 1885 and was about seven years old when his parents realized that his destiny should be a sculptor, not a farmer like his father. He apprenticed to an unknown local master and set up a workshop in 1920… where he worked according to the conventions of the Yorùbá woodcarving tradition while perfecting his own unique style.”

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EH Duckworth

Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè holds a portrait bust.

He received commissions from royal, religious, and colonial patrons, but the highlight of his achievement was a series of masks he made for an annual festival called Ẹpa. By the time Nigeria gained independence in 1960, he had achieved national and international recognition,” the accompanying note said. He was also a leading herbalist, priest and ruler of his region until his death in 1975. He not only broadened the definition of Yorùbá woodcarving, but also actively contributed to the well-being and peaceful functioning of his society.”

The Yale exhibition is the first to include all of his major sculptures and contextualize them with other examples of Yorùbá artwork, both sculpture and textiles. It also provides much context for Bámigbóyè himself – the artistic traditions spanning unbroken centuries in which he was involved, as well as the tumultuous history of 20th-century Nigeria that he lived through. More than just background information, it helps the viewer understand how Bámigbóyè both exemplified his art and was an innovator in it. Imbued with the knowledge and skill of the past, he was also a thoroughly contemporary artist, observing the society around him and reflecting it back on himself in a way that reached wide audiences inside and outside Nigeria.

The exhibition includes a number of smaller pieces by Bámigbóyè, from his carving knives (themselves small works of art), to smaller wooden figures, to a board and game pieces. Along with these anecdotes about Bámigbóyè which, quite true or not, reinforce the feeling of him as a legend in his own time. After his hymn of praise,” says one note, Bámigbóyè was so talented that he could … play an intricate counting game in which tokens are moved from one end of a game board to the other within twelve bowls, using one hand while carving with the other.” In the note, his carving knives attached, we will find out Bámigbóyè used his whole arm in one fluid motion, and he never made any preparatory drawings… according to legend, when Bámigbóyè’s right hand got tired from carving, Bámigbóyè simply used his left.”

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Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè

Atófòjọẃò (You can watch it for a whole day).

Even if some of the language seems a bit exaggerated, the centerpieces of the exhibition – as in, they are literally at the center of the large gallery dedicated to the exhibition – suggest that it is well deserved. The festival masks are huge, imposing pieces, and when a note reveals that they were all carved from individual pieces of wood, the detail and depth of them becomes quite startling. The masks were made for specific people. One was made for the mothers of twins. Another was made for a war general. Another shows a sobering slave trader. A final mask, perhaps the most impressive of a series of impressive pieces, was made for a ruler. The title of the piece means translated you can watch it all day,” and there’s some truth to that. Like the others – but especially in this piece – the mask contains a multitude of people, mothers with children” who are the ruler’s wives, Messengers, praise singers, courtiers, musicians and warriors – a whole city in miniature.” Used at the festival (a helpful film shows what this looks like), it would be a mirror for viewers to see themselves, their neighbours, their society within theirs could see connections to the past and its movement through the present.

Fascinating, insightful, moving and educational – the exhibition on Bámigbóyè and his art makes a very strong case for hosting a series of similar future exhibitions of individual black and brown artists working in non-Western European artistic traditions rather than just showing the pinnacle of their achievements , but the deeper context from which they arose.

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The need for such exhibitions is somewhat illustrated by the pieces in the art gallery’s permanent collection of African art, located three floors below the Bámigbóyè exhibition. The pieces in this gallery, hailing from a much larger part of the African continent, are similarly impressive in their artistic merit, but the vast majority of the accompanying panels cannot identify the individual artists who created them. The reasons for this are probably quite complicated, as the pieces, which are sometimes hundreds of years old, were passed from hand to hand, transaction to transaction, before arriving here in New Haven. But the problem is simple: at some point the individual artists were deleted. And that’s still better treatment than much African art still gets in the United States; Think how often such pieces end up alongside dinosaur bones and primate fossils in natural history museums, where—despite the best intentions of modern curators—they are still viewed as anthropological artifacts rather than artistic achievements.

Just as Bámigbóyè reflected his own society, the exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery reflects back to us our society and its relation to the art of black and brown cultures. The work of the last few decades, and especially the last few years, has done much to shed light on the problems and create space for people to start working on solutions. We still have a very long way to go. But the Bámigbóyè exhibition shows that doing this work and presenting this art to others in a way that makes them appreciate it more deeply has its own kind of beauty.

Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition runs until January 8 at the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St. Admission is free. Visit the art gallery’s website for hours and more information.

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