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Communicating With the Gods

A UCLA exhibit translates the spiritual language of Yoruban beadwork.

January 18, 1998|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

The word "Yoruban" is an expansive term that refers to a language, an indigenous religious practice, a cultural identity and an art tradition. The belief system that drives all these forms of expression, however, is encapsulated in a single Yoruban saying: "The world is a marketplace, the other world is home."

The Yoruban other world is a realm at once treacherous and divine that is populated by a complex family of deities, and all Yoruban art and religious practice is designed to facilitate communication with these deities.

For specifics as to precisely how that is done, see "Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe," an exhibition opening next Sunday at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History. A survey of beading practices of the past century among the Yoruba in Nigeria, the Caribbean and the Americas, the show includes 150 beaded objects that open a window onto a reality vastly different from the one most of us occupy here in Los Angeles.

Assembled by African art scholars Henry John Drewal and John Mason, the body of work pivots on Yoruban color theory, which is seen as a key means of communication with Yoruban deities, known collectively as orisas. Any Yoruban bead worker knows the meaning of funfun, the "cool" colors of white, silver and gray, which represent wisdom; pupa, the "hot" colors--red, yellow, orange--evoking passion and impulsiveness; and dudu, black and the dark colors, which signify restraint and mystery.

"Beaded pieces are exclusively the province of priestly and royal ranks, so you wouldn't find one of these pieces in a typical Nigerian home, nor could you go into a store and buy one," explains Doran H. Ross, director of the Fowler. "This work is almost all made on commission, and the only exceptions are the pieces created and artificially aged for sale on the international art market.

"As soon as any traditional African art form becomes popular with collectors, items are manufactured purely for sales. However, this is not a debased tradition, because bead workers regard items made for the Western market as completely separate from those made for use within Yoruban culture.

"These traditions were seen as threatening to various colonial presences in Africa and attempts were made to suppress traditional chieftaincy," he adds. "And, needless to say, when Christianity and Islam came to Africa, it had an impact on the orisa worshipers. But once you have a large family of deities, adding a few more isn't difficult, and Christian and Islamic iconography were often simply integrated with indigenous traditions. In other words, beading practices survived."

Yoruban culture dates back to 800 to 1,000, when numerous complex city-states were established in southwestern Nigeria by indigenous tribes. The collapse of key kingdoms in the Yoruban Empire, which began in the late 18th century, coincided with the rise of the Euro-American slave trade. Thus, millions of Yorubans were sold into slavery and taken from Africa against their will.

"As many as two of every five slaves taken out of Africa were of Yoruban descent," says Ross. "Forty percent went to Brazil, 40% to the Caribbean, 8% to Mexico, Europe, Peru and Ecuador, and only 4% to the U.S. Consequently, you don't see the continuity in beading traditions in the U.S. that you see in Brazil or Cuba--it's a matter of sheer numbers. The beadwork you see in New Orleans, for instance, has nothing to do with Yoruban culture."

The bulk of the work in "Beads, Body and Soul" is drawn from the permanent collection of the Fowler, which opened in 1963 as the Museum of Cultural History with holdings that include 600,000 archeological objects and 100,000 objects of non-Western art. The Fowler's central strength is its African works--it boasts one of the largest collections of Yoruban art in the world--and this study of beading traditions has been fleshed out with loans from collectors and contemporary artists included in the show.

Beading is one of many art forms practiced by Yorubans, who are also proficient woodcarvers, ceramists and brass casters. Beading is done throughout Africa, but because part of the impetus behind the activity is to distinguish yourself from your neighbors, the way it's done from one kingdom to the next is recognizably different.

"You can't make generalizations about this body of work," Ross explains. "Some pieces have mostly to do with aesthetic impulses and operate in a secular realm, while others have great spiritual power. Priests, for instance, focus on a specific family of objects relating to the deities they're primarily concerned with. On the other hand, a chief regards the crown as the most spiritually charged and aesthetically elaborate object.

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