Exhibit Opening Kicks Off Semester of Learning Through African Art at Yale

Sculpture of three figures carved by Moshood Olúsomo Bámigbóyè
2023-01-09 11:32:00

On September 15, an enthusiastic crowd of Yale students, faculty, and New Haven community members gathered in front of the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) to the exhilarating sound of Yorùbá drumming. They followed the rhythmic beat of master drummer Stephen Ayantoye Aniyikaiye into the opening reception for Bámigbóyè: A Master Sculptor of the Yorùbá Tradition, curated by Dr. James Green, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Associate Curator of African Art. The reception, which was sponsored by the Council on African Studies at the MacMillan Center, launched not only the exhibit, but also several months of learning and engagement across the African Studies community at Yale.

The idea for this project began in 2019, when Green made the first of several trips to Nigeria to work with the National Museum in Lagos and to visit the family of artist Moshood Olúṣọmọ Bámigbóyè (ca. 1885-1975) in Kájọlà, Kwara State, Nigeria. His approach to this exhibit bridged both archival research and oral history to create a nuanced view of this celebrated sculptor, whose monumental carved wooden masks, Green noted, “are considered some of the most spectacular and complex works of Yorùbá art ever created.”

The exhibit presents a unique opportunity in African Art to focus on a particular artist from a particular community. “Seldom do we have the gift of an artist’s name,” Green said, noting that the majority of African art on display in the United States, and throughout the world, does not credit a specific artist. Yet Bámigbóyè brings firmly into focus the life, work, and historical context of this artist whose career spanned five decades – from around 1920 through to his death in 1975. The exhibit also emphasizes the local rootedness of Bámigbóyè’s world, which centered on his hometown of Kájọlà. Photographs of Bámigbóyè and other Nigerian works of art, such as exceptional textiles and metalwork, help to frame the larger exhibit. Exhibitions like this can help to expand and improve existing collections, Green explained, because “objects attract other objects”; indeed, many of the textiles and beadwork items on view are recent acquisitions.  

The Yale University Art Gallery serves as a teaching collection for the university and the wider public. Yale students, both undergraduate and graduate, can interact directly with these objects as part of their coursework, and this term, several classes made use of the exhibit to explore larger topics in the History of Art and African Studies. Art History professor Cécile Fromont taught from the exhibition in both her undergraduate and graduate courses, as did faculty teaching courses in the School of Art, the School of Management, and the departments of English and Spanish and Portuguese. During reading period, Professor Kate Baldwin even brought students registered for her upcoming spring Political Science class for a tour of the exhibition as an enrichment session.

The wider New Haven community has received many opportunities to engage with the exhibit as well. Gallery Teachers have integrated the exhibition into many of the K-12 school visits, teacher workshops, and adult visits to the Gallery; the Gallery’s family program “Stories and Art” also took place in the exhibition. 

In addition to loaning pieces from its collection to the exhibit, the National Museum in Lagos sent its Head of the Library and Archives Unit, Austin Taye Pedro, to Yale this fall, where he was the Henry Hart Rice Fellow at the MacMillan Center. During his time at Yale, Pedro co-lectured in several classes on the topic of Nigerian art and oral poetry, including for Professor Cajetan Iheka and Olúṣẹ̀yẹ Adéṣọlá, Senior Lecturer in Yorùbá and African Studies. He also co-lectured with Professor Stephanie Newell and Professor Veronica Waweru on the topic of Nigerian archaeological materials in museums, and he received extensive training on digitization practices at the Yale Center for British Art.

Pedro also led groups of community members through the exhibit, providing insight into the Nigerian collection more broadly. For example, Pedro explained, twins are very common in Yorùbá culture and feature prominently in Bámigbóyè’s work. A twin himself, Pedro would often sing a Yorùbá song honoring twins as part of his tour.

The exhibit path ends with a special video installation commissioned by the YUAG showing a scene from an Ẹpa festival hosted by the artist’s family in honor of the exhibition which shows

how masks appear when danced as part of a ceremony. This footage, featuring the living relatives of the artist and a mask attributed to him, is designed to bring the viewer closer to the lived experience of this world. The vibrancy of the footage served as the inspiration for a new dance performance by Lacina Coulibaly, Lecturer in Theater, Dance and Performance Studies which was presented at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, a project first initiated by Professor Stephanie Newell.

The momentum generated by this work will continue even after the exhibit closes on January 8. As part of Yale’s Africa Initiative, Nigerian conservators will come to New Haven for training, and new relationships forged between YUAG and the National Museum in Lagos will seed continued collaboration with a conservation workshop in Nigeria overseen by YUAG conservators Anne Gunnison and Cathy Silverman planned for 2023. Continued engagement with colleagues on campus and on the continent will advance the future of African Studies at Yale.