Rowland Abiodun is John C. Newton Professor of Art, the History of Art, and Black Studies at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. He is the author of Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art (2014), What Follows Six Is More than Seven: Understanding African Art (1995); co-author of Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (1989), Yoruba Art and Aesthetics (1991), and Cloth Only Wears to Shreds: Yoruba Textiles and Photographs from the Beier Collection (2004); and co-editor of Ifá Divination: Knowledge, Power and Performance, 2016 and The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts (1994). Abiodun is Advisory Board member, the National Museum of African Art; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; and was a consultant for, and participant in, the Smithsonian World Film, Kindred Spirits: Contemporary Nigerian Art. A former member and chair of the Herskovits Book Award Committee of the African Studies Association, Abiodun has also served on the Board of Directors of the African Studies Association and as the President of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association. He chaired the Executive Board of the Five College African Scholars Program, Amherst, Massachusetts, and has been interviewed by the BBC World Service on the Art of Africa. In 2011, he received the Leadership Award of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association in recognition of his excellence, innovative contributions, and vision in the fields of African and Diasporic Arts.
Research Interests | Degrees | Employment | Professional Memberships and Offices | Awards, Distinctions, and Fellowships (selected) | Publications (selected) | Teaching Interests | Courses Taught | Scholarly and Professional Activities | Exhibitions | Selected Lectures
Growing up in Yorubaland with parents, grandparents and extended family members steeped in oral tradition, my early exposure to traditional education in Yoruba art and culture helped to shape direction of my research. Yoruba language, artistic concepts, and belief systems enabled me to understand the philosophical notions at the heart of the Yoruba worldview. My priority has always been to study and understand African art without inadvertently silencing or leaving out altogether, the voices of their creators and users.
As a Yoruba culture bearer and an art historian, I have long believed that the Yoruba language and culture should be critical components of my methodological tools for the study and deeper understanding of Yoruba art. Starting with my earliest publications such as "Naturalism in Primitive Art: A Survey of Attitudes” (1975), and "Ifa Art Objects: An Interpretation Based on Oral Traditions" (1975), my search for the interrelationship between the verbal and visual arts has continued up to my most recent publication, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, (2014).
Claude Levi-Strauss’s very important observation about the Yoruba that “as theories go, the Yoruba seem to have been able to throw more light than ethnologists on the spirits of institutions and rules which in their society, as in many others, are of an intellectual and deliberate character” (1966), agrees with what I had long thought was possible for the study of Yoruba art. Unfortunately, no such sentiments were expressed in the discipline of art history. Art scholars rarely ventured outside of dominant Western paradigms, even when they analyzed works from non-Western cultures. This proclivity has led to a weakness in the study of African art because it ignored the discovery, recognition, and analysis of African-derived paradigms. To sustain my research interest in the Yoruba language and culture vis-à-vis the study of Yoruba art, I have had to look beyond the traditional discipline of art history.
In 1994, a prominent Yoruba language scholar, Olabiyi Yai argued persuasively that “When approaching Yoruba art, an intellectual orientation … consonant with Yoruba traditions of scholarship would be to consider each individual Yoruba art work and the entire corpus as oriki.” While oríkì has been generally translated as “praise poetry” or “citation poetry,” broadly speaking, all verbal and visual invocations qualify as oríkì in Yoruba culture. Oríkì affirm the identity of almost everything in existence. Oríkì extends beyond our traditional categories of two- and three-dimensional arts and color. Oríkì includes architectural space, dress, music, dance, the performed word, mime, ritual, and food, engaging all the senses.
Oríkì energize, prepare, and summon their subject into action. Yoruba art, like most African art forms, is more like an active “verb” than a static “noun.” Irrespective of whether they are sculpture, shrine paintings, poetry, or performance, Yoruba art forms are affective – they cause things to happen; they influence and transform natural phenomena. This is because they embody àṣẹ, the power to make something come to pass. Quite often, they are also mnemonic devices, transformer-carriers intended to facilitate free communication between this world and the otherworld thereby providing valuable insights into Yoruba metaphysical systems, myths, lore, and thought patterns.
The definition of Yoruba art suggests an interdependence of the verbal and visual arts through the concept of oríkì – evidence of the well-acclaimed richness of their oral culture. It is not unlike what scholars do in Western art history when they seek to deepen their understanding and appreciation of their subject. They look at its intimate connections with, and relationship to language, canonical literature and culture. It is expected that a scholar of French Impressionism be proficient in the French language, read relevant literature in French, and have a good knowledge of French culture. The same language requirements apply to scholars of Japanese or Chinese art in order to make their work credible and noteworthy.
Because proficiency in African languages generally has not been considered a prerequisite to do research in African Art history, their critical place has never really been discussed in the methodology, conceptual frameworks, and analysis of most Africanist art scholarship. It is also possible that the origins of the low priority given to African language in African art studies lie in the attitude of colonialists who often regarded African languages as inferior in status to languages in the West, and therefore unfit for use in serious academic discourse.
This attitude influenced the decision of early Africanist art scholars and even many colleagues who, today, still conduct their research entirely in Western languages or through translators who might not possess the requisite linguistic training to perform the task expected of them. It was predictable that with time, many would drift more towards studying African art solely through the colonizer’s language and not through the language of the makers and users of African art. Though using a foreign language seems to guarantee a kind of temporary space for African art in the art historical marketplace, there is a real danger that Africa’s intellectual contributions through their languages to the study of art in the world might be lost forever. My work explores new, holistic perspectives for the critical interpretation of African art as exemplified by the interrelationship of the visual and verbal arts among the Yorùbá of West Africa. My life’s work is to lay bare cultural meanings and themes that have been overlooked and even forgotten.
My work continues to demonstrate that Yoruba verbal and visual art forms, though separate, have been interdependent, supporting each other through mutual references and allusions. This interdependence dates back to ancient works from Ilé-Ifẹ̀. The Yoruba language and relatable cultural superstructures and practices may be perceived as a continuum, characterized by referential congruity and mutual reflection. They evolve within the notion of àṣà – a dynamic concept of style and creativity that incorporates tradition and innovation in Yoruba art and culture.
Equivalents of the Yoruba oríkì in their visual and verbal forms abound among many African peoples and their descendants in the diaspora even if they do not use the same term. The fact that among the Yorùbá oríkì is immediately important as an efficient means of capturing moments or nuggets of history that provide an indispensable body of research material for reconstructing artistic values makes oríkì and oríkì-type phenomena not an option but a necessity in art historical methodology. It is well known that the Zulu, Ewe, Akan, Edo, Igbo, Bamana, Mande, Kikongo, and Kimbundu, to name only a few, possess rich oral traditions that have served not only as a means of preserving culture but also for interpreting art forms.
It would be immensely beneficial to the cause of sound African art research and scholarship if the proper indigenous names were employed in the identification of art works instead of the current practice of putting them in parentheses or omitting them altogether. In the same vein, many indigenous terms that embody important artistic and aesthetic concepts should be given prominence in African art studies. To leave these terms out for whatever reasons is to make future research in Yoruba art difficult, if not impossible. But perhaps a much worse repercussion would be the creation of an African art field in which African thought and languages are not considered relevant in the understanding of African art. The end result would be tantamount to removing the “African” from “African art.”
M.A., Art History, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1969. Thesis: “The Origin of Ife Naturalism”.
B.A. Fine Arts, First Class Honors, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, 1965
A.M. (honorary), Amherst College (1992)
John C. Newton Professor of Art and the History of Art, and of Black Studies, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, 1997 - present.
Professor of Fine Arts and Black Studies, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, 1991 – 1996.
Visiting Professor of Fine Arts and Black Studies, Amherst, MA, 1989 - 1991.
Visiting Professor of Art History, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH, 1988
Professor of Fine Arts, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1982-1989
Senior Lecturer in Fine Arts, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1977-1982
Research Fellow I in Art and Art History, Institute of African Studies, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1974-1977
Research Fellow II in Art and Art History, Institute of African Studies, University of Ife, Nigeria, 1970-1974.
Education Officer (Fine Arts), Western Nigeria Ministry of Education, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1969-1970.
Advisory Board Member, The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2015-
Coordinator, the Rapaport Lectureship in Contemporary Art, 2009-
Member, Adjudication Committee, Amherst College, 2007-2009
Chair, African Scholars Program, Five College African Studies Council, 2002-2009
Member, Advisory Committee on Affirmative Action and Personnel Policies, 2001-2006
Member, Mead Art Museum Acquisitions Committee, 2000-2005
Co-Chair, Black Steering Committee, Amherst College, 2000-2005
Member, Committee on Discipline, Amherst College, 1996-1998
Member, President’s Capital Campaign Planning Group, Amherst College, 1995
Member, Little Three Faculty Colloquium Committee, Amherst College, 1992-1995
Member, Five College Black Studies Executive Committee, 1991- 1995
Member, Five College African Studies Council, 1991-present
Member, Editorial Board, African Arts, African Studies Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, 1989-present
Member, Working Group on the African Humanities of the Joint Committee on African Studies, Board of Directors of the Social Science Research Council in consultation with the American Council of Learned Societies, 1988-1991
Member, Editorial Board, Second Order, West African Journal of Philosophy, 1988-1992
Member, Nsukka Journal of the Humanities, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria, 1988-1990
Member, Faculty of Arts Research Committee, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, 1980-1987
Member, Editorial Board, ISALA, Ife Studies in African Literatures and the Arts, 1981-1990
Member, Art Acquisitions Committee, University of Ife, 1975-1980
Member, Post-Graduate Studies Committee, Faculty of Arts, University of Ife, 1977-1979
Member, Sub-Committee on the Assessment of Creative Work for Promotion, 1977-1978
Member, Advisory Board for Arts and Architecture, The Polytechnic Institute, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1977
Member, Board of Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1976-1978
Member, Sub-Committee for the Selection and Exhibition of Arts in Oyo State for FESTAC ’77, 1976
Member, Research Committee, Institute of African Studies, University of Ife, Nigeria, 1974-1975
Member, Panel of Judges for the Nigerian National Collegiate Art Competition, 1974
Member, National Art Education Advisory Committee on the Role of the Arts at all Levels of Nigeria’s Educational System, 1972
Keynote Address at the William Fagg and the Study of African Art Conference, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London, UK. 2015.
Eighth Annual African Art Recognition Award by the Detroit Institute of Arts, The Friends of African and African American Art to honor my scholarly research, distinguished teaching record, and broad influence on the field of African Art, 2012
Leadership Award of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association in Recognition of the Recipient’s Excellence, Innovative Contributions, and Vision in the Fields of African and Diasporic Arts, 2011
Appointed Faculty Marshal, Amherst College, 2007
Interviewed on BBC World Service for “The History of Africa” series focusing on the arts, 2000
Interviewed on PBS for the “Religion and Ethics” with particular reference to the “Art and Oracle” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2000
Interviewed on BBC World Service for the “Art of Africa” series focusing on the theme, “For Our Mothers and Gods across the World”, 1998
Appointed John C. Newton Professor of Art and the History of Art, and of Black Studies, Amherst College, 1997
Benjamin West Lecturer, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, 1996
Chair, Herskovits Book Award Committee, African Studies Association, 1996
Visiting Resident Scholar, Institute for Encounter with the Cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, IWALEWA HAUS, University of Bayreuth, Germany, 1996
Appointed Member, Honorary Advisory Committee, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1995
Appointed Member, Board of Directors, African Studies Association, 1995
Delivered the Inaugural William B. Fagg Memorial Lecture at the British Museum, London, 1994
President, Arts Council of the African Studies Association, 1993
Fellow, Timothy Dwight College, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1993
Getty Senior Research Grant Recipient for project titled “The \Shock of Re-Cognition: Artistic Representation and Cultural Politics in Africa, 1992.
Appointed Professor of Art History and African and African-American Studies, State University of New York, Albany, 1992
Received A. M. Honoris Causa, Trustees of Amherst College, MA, 1991
Received Distinguished Persons Award given by the Nigerian-American Forum to Eminent Nigerians who have performed beyond the ordinary in their professional endeavor, 1990
Appointed Consultant to the Smithsonian World Film, Kindred Spirits: Contemporary Nigerian Art, which was nominated for the National Emmy Award in Prime Time Informational Film Series, 1989-1990
Appointed to deliver address at the Symposium on “African Art Studies: State of the Discipline” to mark the opening of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institutions, Washington, DC, 1987
Delivered Georges Lurcy Lecture, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, 1987
Awarded Senior Fulbright Fellowship for African Art, 1981-1982
Appointed Scholar-in-Residence, National Museum of African Art, the Smithsonian Institutions, Washington, DC, 1981-1982
Visiting Scholar under the International Visitor’s Program of the United States International Communication Agency, 1980
Awarded British Council Travel Grant to participate in the Seminar on “Art as Social Commentary” at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1980
Awarded University of Ife Research Grant to study “Naturalism in Yoruba Art”, 1972-1980
Awarded Commonwealth Post-Graduate Fellowship to study Art History at the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1966-1969
Ifá Divination: Knowledge, Power and Performance. Co-edited with Jacob Olupona, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016
Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
“Yoruba in Nigeria and Diaspora,” in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, eds. Joanne B. Eicher and Doran H. Ross, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Cloth Only Wears to Shreds: Yoruba Textiles and Photographs from the Beier Collection, Co-authored with Ulli Beier and John Pemberton III, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, 2004.
“African Aesthetics” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 35, 4, winter 2002, pp. 15-24.
Fifteen Years of Iwalewa Haus: Its Philosophy, Directions and Accomplishments, Bayreuth: Iwalewa Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany, 1996.
'What Follows Six is More Than Seven': Understanding African Art, London: British Museum Press, 1995.
The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts, Co-edited with H.J. Drewal and J. Pemberton 3rd, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
"Let Us Admit That We Have Seen An Elephant": Asiru Olatunde: Retrospective 1961 - 1992. Bayreuth: Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany, 1992
Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, Co-authored with H.J. Drewal, and J. Pemberton III, Zurich: Rietberg Museum, 1991.
Conversations on Yoruba Culture, "A Young Man Can Have the Embroidered Gown of an Elder, but He Can't Have the Rags of an Elder," With Ulli Beier, Bayreuth: Iwalewa Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany, 1991.
Creating Her Own Universe: Georgina Beier's Drawings, Altes Schloss, Bayreuth: Iwalewa Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany, 1991.
Yoruba: Nine Centuries of Art and Thought, Co-authored with H.J. Drewal and J. Pemberton III, New York: Center for African Art and Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1989.
“Who Was the First to Speak?: Insights from Ifa Orature and Sculptural Repertoire,” in Orisa Devotion as World Religion, eds. Jacob K. Olupona and Terry Rey, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 51-69, 2008.
“Muraina Oyelami: Simplicity and Sophistication” pp. 124-135; “Rufus Ogundele: A Painter with the strength of a blacksmith” pp.136-141; “Bisi Fabunmi’s Graphic Work” pp. 142-151; and “Georgina Beier: Black and White Threads Never Quarrel” pp.106-111, in New Art from Africa in the collection of Heinz and Gerlinde Greiffenberger, ed. Ulli Beier, Druck: Druckerei zu Allenburg, 2005.
Foreword, in Yoruba Religious Textiles, eds. Elisha P. Renne and Babatunde Agbaje-Williams, eds. Ibadan: BookBuilders, 2005.
“Hidden Power: Osun, the Seventeenth Odu," in Osun across the Waters, eds. J. M. Murphy and M. Sanford, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 10-33, 2001.
“African Aesthetics,” in The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 35, 4, pp. 5-23, 2001.
"Riding the Horse of Praise: The Mounted Motif Figure in Ifa Divination Sculpture," in Insight and Artistry in African Divination, Washington, DC & London, John Pemberton III, editor, pp. 182-92, 2000.
Preface, A History of Art in Africa, New York: Prentice Hall, Inc. and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2000
"The Dichotomy of Theory and Practice in Blocker's The Aesthetics of Primitive Art," in The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 29, 3 Fall 1995, pp. 38-44,1995.
"Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics: The Concept of Ase," African Arts, 3, XXVII, 1994; pp. 68-78, 102-03, 1994
Creating Her Own Universe: Georgina Beier's Drawings, Altes Schloss, Bayreuth: Iwalewa Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany, 1991
(i) "Owo et le mythe de la <Benin-isation'" and (ii) "La signification et les artefacts d'Ifa dans la culture Yoruba" in Les Arts du Nigeria. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1991.
"The Future of African Art Studies: An African Perspective," African Art Studies, The State of the Discipline. Paper presented at a Symposium organized by the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, September 16, 1987, pp. 63-89, 1990
(With H.J. Drewal and J. Pemberton) "Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought," (Exhibition Preview), African Arts, XXIII, 1, pp. 68-77, 1989.
"Woman in Yoruba Religious Images," African Languages and Cultures, 2, 1, pp. 1-18, 1989.
"Verbal and Visual Metaphors: Mythical Allusions in Yoruba Ritualistic Art of Ori," Word &Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, Vol. 3, No. 3, July-Sept., pp. 252-70, 1987.
"Der Begriff des Iwa in der Yoruba-Aesthetik," Tendenzen, 1984, NR 146, pp. 62-68, 1984.
"Identity and the Artistic Process in Yoruba Aesthetic Concept of Iwa", Journal of Cultures andIdeas, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 13-30, 1983.
"Concept of Woman in Traditional Yoruba Art and Religion," Nigerian Women and Development, University of Ibadan Press, A. Ogunseye, et al., eds., pp. 950-68, 1982.
"Ori Divinity: Its Worship, Symbolism and Artistic Manifestation," in Proceedings of the World Conference on Orisa Tradition, Ife: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, pp. 484-515, 1981.
"A Reconsideration of the Function of Ako, Second Burial Effigy in Owo," Africa, Journal of theInternational African Institute, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 4-20, 1976.
"Ifa Art Objects: An Interpretation Based on Oral Traditions," Yoruba Oral Tradition, ed. Wande Abimbola. Ife: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, pp. 421-69, 1975.
"Naturalism in Primitive Art: A Survey of Attitudes," Odu, Journal of West African Studies, No. 10, pp. 129-36, 1975.
I graduated in studio majoring in painting before I went to study art history. I have taught both studio and art history. In the classroom, I take precise aim at the problem of fairly and accurately revealing the artistic impulse of the traditionally non-writing people of Africa. I use oral recitations of living proverbs, idioms and chants to retain that contact with the complex human source of art that other approaches often lose.
I alert my students to the new possibilities of re-animating the artistic impulse of many works whose immediate origins have disappeared from view. I make efforts to piece together the very fabric, in all its constituent parts, of works of art for which there are no written records or theory. To convey a total sense and meaning of art in Africa, I supplement slides and assigned readings with audio-visual materials and regular visits to museums, artists’ workshops and demonstrations- all of which in varying degrees, prepare students to situate art in the context of life itself. My goal is to empower students to read major scholarly works on African art critically, and question, if need be, artistic concepts and even theoretical frameworks.
- Verbal and Visual Metaphors in Africa
- Myth, Ritual and Iconography in West Africa
- African Art and the Diaspora
- Survey of African Art
- Seminar on Art and Artists in Africa
- Contemporary African Art
- Methodology of Art Historical Research
- African Art and the West
- Studies in Art Criticism and Aesthetics
- Seminar in Painting
- Painting and Drawing
- Form and Meaning in African Art
- Art History and Appreciation
Reviewer, Africa and African Diaspora Cross-Disciplinary Program, St Mary’s College of Maryland, Mary’s City, Maryland. 2006
External Academic/Team Leader for the Quality Assurance Review of the Center of Creative and Festival Arts, University of West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad. 2005
Roundtable discussion: Who Owns African Art” in Idol Becomes Art! Prince Street Pictures, Inc. 2002.
Interviewed on BBC World Service on “The History of Africa” focusing on the arts. 2000.
Interviewed on BBC World Service on the “Art of Africa” for the project, “Mothers and Gods Across the World”. 1998.
Interviewed on PBS “Religion and Ethics” Series on the “Art and Oracle” Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1998.
Advisory Committee for Africa: Art of the Continent. Tom Phillips, ed. Munich and New York: 1995
Visiting Lecturer, Department of the History of Art, Yale University, New Haven, CT. 1993
Editorial Board, African Arts, African Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA. 1989 to present.
Chair, Executive Board, Five-College African Scholars Program. 2003 to present.
Member, Working Group on African Humanities, Social Science Research Council, in consultation with the American Council of Learned Societies, New York.1989.
Co-Curator, Cloth Only Wears to Shreds: Yoruba Textiles and Photographs from the Beier Collection, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, MA 2004
Co-Curator, Artist as Explorer in Africa, National Geographic Society, Washington, DC. 2001
Co-Curator, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought. New York: Center for African Art, 1989.
University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia
Museum for African Art, New York
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Cultural Center of the Fundacio “La Caixa”, Barcelona, Spain
Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, GA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Yale University, New Haven, CT
Iwalewa Haus, University of Bayreuth, Bayreuth, W.Germany
Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ.
Duke University, Durham, NC
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Bellagio, Italy
Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art (2014)
Updated: August 28, 2017