Internationally acclaimed dramatist, social critic, and Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka is an avid collector of African artworks including those from his home country, Nigeria. The Cooper Gallery featured several of these works in an exhibition curated by New York University professor, Awam Amkpa.
About the Curator
Awam Amkpa is a curator of visual and performing arts. He recently curated Lines, Motions and Rituals in New York, Significaciones in Havana, Cuba, ReSignifications in Florence, Italy and the international traveling exhibition Africa: See You, See Me. Trained as a dramatist, documentary filmmaker and scholar of theatre and film, he teaches Drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Africana Studies and Social and Cultural Analysis in NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Amkpa is co-founder and co-curator of ‘Real Life Pan-African Documentary Film Festival’ in Accra, Ghana. His documentary films include the Winds Against Ours Souls, It’s All About Downtown, The Other Day We Went to the Movies, and A Very Very Short Story of Nollywood. Amkpa has written and directed plays for stages in Africa and Europe, and author of Theatre and Postcolonial Desires and several articles on the African and African Diasporic arts, theatre and film.
What does it mean when artists collect other arts, especially those outside their own practices? Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka avidly collects sculptural and other visual art forms from Africa as references that are significant, not only for their spatial and temporal denotations but arguably to his dramaturgy and literature. Diverse in their media and textual tones – stone, clay, bronze, wood and shell, Soyinka’s collection is deliberately eclectic and reflects a persistent practice of adding to his archives. His choices are not meant to be encyclopedic or historical digests on these art forms. Rather, they constitute referential visual texts, archives and methods of signifying cosmic and material times and place. Paying attention to their lines, motions and emotions enmeshed in spiritual (particularly Ifa) and cross-cultural references to the environments they come from, his collection also highlights these art forms as inter-disciplinary fonts from which visual and performing arts are imagined and produced.
WOLE SOYINKA: Antiquities Across Times and Place underscores his choices and how they signify the multiple temporal spaces with which Africans imagine and engage their world. From Yoruba Ifa divination trays to caryatids and other devotional and decorative forms, their significance as aesthetic foundations, which the dramatist, theatre director and scholar finds useful, are equally and exuberantly extended by other artists whose subjects and style are in conversation with his collection. Sculptor, Olu Amoda, illustrates characters in Wole Soyinka’s classic play Death and the King’s Horseman; painter, Moyo Okediji, equally references the play as well as Ifa divination codes and Egungun masquerades; Peju Alatise uses the creative methods from these artforms to evoke a sculptural political critique of her country, Nigeria; Bruce Onobrakpeya pays homage to the shrines of Ogun; Chris Abani uses the poetry of Ifa as a method for his own; Osaretin Ighile offers a provocative incarnation of Oba Ovoramwen of Benin; Peter Badejo uses dance to highlight the place of some of the works; while Tunde Kelani’s film provides a context that boldly places the art works in culture and history.
Together, these works, placed in conversation, boldly invent antiquity and assert the multi-temporal spaces and historical places to which spectators are invited. They also refuse the binary of ‘tradition’ and ‘modern’ to stress artistic foundations that are not only archival but also inform contemporary methods of making art.
About the Soyinka Collection:
Comprising nearly 50 pieces, including antiquities made from wood, bronze, cloth, pigment and other materials, the exhibition prominently features pieces made and used by the Yoruba people. Works from the Congo, bronzes from Benin, and some of Igbo origin also are included. Items in the exhibition range from religious iconography to ritual pieces, to ornamental artworks, weaponry, vessels and more. The curated collection of antiquities are placed in conversation with works by five contemporary African artists themselves inspired by Soyinka’s plays and writings.
Contemporary artists featured in this exhibition are sculptors and painters Peju Alatise, Olu Amoda, Osaretin Ighile, Moyo Okediji, and Bruce Onobrakpeya. Choregrapher Peter Badejo and filmmaker Tunde Kelani also feature in the exhibition – along with the poetry of Chris Abani. Their works are placed in conversation with the Soyinka Collection.
About the Collector:
Wole Soyinka, writer, playwright, and Nobel Prize for Literature winner, whose peerless work and activism is exemplary for various generations of artists, scholars and human right activists. After over six decades of working, his tireless advocacy for African art and literature is modelled in his art collection.
- The Metrowest Daily News: "What inspires an artist? Playwright Wole Soyinka’s collection on exhibit at Harvard"
- The Harvard Crimson: "Cooper Gallery Imbues Collecting With Storytelling"
- The Boston Globe: "At Harvard, Wole Soyinka’s collection of African traditional art"
- Big Red & Shiny: "Feeling Continuity’s Embrace In: Wole Soyinka, Antiquities Across Times and Place"
- Artslant Magazine: "Mint Tea, Gossip, and Celebration"
- Bay State Banner: "An archive of their own"
Moyo Okediji is an artist, art historian, and curator. His work, combining deep knowledge of Yoruba spirituality and contemporary art, suggests the complex symbolisms as subjects and methods in his art.
Chris Abani is a novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter and playwright. The concerns of his writing, writ large, is the human condition, its vulnerabilities, and the possibilities of shared empathy. Reflecting on his heritage and his spiritual practice, he brings to his writing an in-depth appraisal of ever-shifting identity.
Peju Alatise is an award winning artist, whose recent work “Flying Girls,” was exhibited at the Nigerian Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale, in which she creates a dream-world where little girls, who work as domestic workers in Nigeria, can fly. Her other works critically question gender and other social inequities.
Bruce Onabrakpeya is a Nigerian painter, printmaker, and sculptor. His enormous influence on Nigerian art can be traced to his involvement with the Zaria Art Society, which aimed for a natural synthesis between traditional and modern art forms.
Olu Amoda is a sculptor and mixed media artist. He is perhaps best recognised for his metal sculptural works culled from industrial detritus, that depict hybrid creatures and entities comprising animals, humans, and flora.
Osaretin Ighile is a Nigerian-born sculptor. His work, which showcases a deep awareness of texture, color, and tactility is balanced with an ability to situate the viewer in space, and informed by the aesthetic and cultural characters of the African continent.
Peter Badejo is a dancer, choreographer and teacher. One of Nigeria’s foremost performance artists, his research and educational programmes has contributed significantly to the field, both in Britain, where he moved to in 1990 and in Nigeria. Over the years he has been annotating Bata and other Yoruba ritual dances.
Emmanuel Iduma is the author of the novel The Sound of Things to Come and a forthcoming travelogue A Stranger’s Pose. He is editor of Saraba Magazine, and was associate curator of the Nigerian Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale.