How I Spend It: Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka on Yoruba antiquities
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I was born and grew up in Nigeria, and my collection of antiquities is largely west African Yoruba works of art – ancestral masks and sculptures. I’ve gathered them over the past 60 years, roughly.
I have pieces that are reputed to go all the way back, especially in the bronze section of my collection, to the 17th century. But basically, I don’t worry too much about the age. I now live in the town where I was born, but travel and have a home in America. If I could, I would have all of them around me all the time. I’m a family man and they are part of my extended family.
Contemplating them, I feel, occasionally, totally detached from my surroundings and they become kind of mediums of introspection; some of the deities represented – like the god Ogun, for instance – value their isolation. Ogun retreats into the hills and just steals away from humanity. And this is a trait I discovered in myself very early.
Ogun is my muse, my protective deity. On the one hand he is a lyricist, the deity of poetry. At the same time he’s a smith, so he’s the protective deity of blacksmiths, goldsmiths. He is at the same time a lover of solitude, yet he is constantly combative in society. My grandfather confirmed that I was a child of Ogun. I sometimes ask myself, “What would Ogun have done in a situation like this?” Also, of course, I like wine. Ogun is the equivalent of Bacchus. He is the god of palm wine and there’s no ceremony of his that’s complete or sacred without some of that.
One sculpture, I run my food by before I eat. There’s just something curious about the eyes. A particular look. The eyes ask questions. At the same time in a rather protective way. It’s that combination that made me elevate it to the status of my food taster.
There’s another piece which I generally call “old man serenity” or “old avatar with the enigmatic smile”. Sometimes I say, “Oh, that’s my grandfather sitting there.” And what is remarkable about this piece is that from the moment I set eyes on it, I said to myself, “This has to be part of my existence.” And it goes with me everywhere, when possible. The interesting thing about this piece is that it’s the one that I find affects other people as well. For instance, one of my house helps would never move near that. She would touch everything else. That also applies to one of my children, who just doesn’t want to go near it. I enjoy that enormously. Not that I like seeing people being frightened. But I just enjoy something that is so familiar to me and the strange effect it has on other people.
Two pieces I particularly loved were stolen. These were a monkey, with an unbelievable phallus, and the other a female caryatid, which I used to place on either side of the front door, like gods of the house. People would pass through the field of force, as I used to call it, and I think some Christian fundamentalists stole these pieces and destroyed them. This was many years ago. They were very sizeable pieces and there is no trace of them. I think some people were just sufficiently offended by those pieces as to steal them and destroy them. When I was at the university of Ife in Nigeria, it was under siege by some Muslim and Christian fundamentalists. They despised representations of African spirituality and these sculptures vanished.
I’ve spent time in prison in Nigeria, as a guest of the state, for my political beliefs, and been cut off from my sculptures. I’d written poems about them, so they were with me in a sense. But, of course, there’s nothing to beat the palpable presence of them, when you can actually walk from one to one. You can touch them, rearrange them, and the process of rearranging the pieces constitutes a part of the aesthetic pleasure.
I’m still very much into the Yoruba Orisha religion. I consider deities to be expansions of the human imagination. And I do consider myself a spiritual person. Within the various spiritualities that I have encountered, Orisha obviously appeals to my sensibilities. But I want to make it quite clear that ultimately I’m not a worshipper of any one deity.
I’m haggling for one particular piece at the moment. It’s an unusual wooden Yoruba caryatid. It’s a kind of procreative piece. Very beautiful. Finely sculpted. But the price is beyond my means for the moment. But who knows? I’m looking around for literary prizes to win. Maybe I’ll sneak in under a pseudonym.
Wole Soyinka will show and share stories about 20 of his antiquities at the online Aké Arts & Book Festival from 22 to 25 October (akefestival.org).