Vigilant Things: On Thieves, Yoruba Anti-Aesthetics, and the Fates of Ordinary Objects in Nigeria

Article excerpt

DAVID T. DORIS Vigilant Things: On Thieves, Yoruba Anti-Aesthetics, and the Fates of Ordinary Objects in Nigeria Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011. 420 pp., 78 color ills., 12 b/w. $60.00

What began for David Doris as a graduate student "in a darkened lecture hall" in the autumn of 1995 has today culminated in one of the most rigorous and compelling studies on aale, that ubiquitous yet enigmatic object in the Yoruba visual and social landscape and the theoretical discourses that frame, define, and engage its critical articulation. Through this study, Doris has produced a very lucid and robust account, written in a refreshing first-person narrative. Succinctly put, "Aale makes permeable the boundaries of easy dichotomies: display and power, the visible and the invisible" (p. 16), and operates coverüy as "allegorical emblems of what must not be done" (p. 358). Aale are cautious reminders and warnings as well as signposts intended to alert people to the devastating consequences of transgression of societal and ethical norms and values. Aale is the proverbial elephant in the room we cannot ignore. To place aale on a piece of property, space, or object is to draw attention to its symbolic import as signification of ownership, on the one hand, and "as a site for the deployment of power," on the other (p. 115).

The book is divided into three parts. The first focuses on the processes of creating aale, the second on what the author categorizes as a call and response, underpinning the aesthetic notion of looking and remembering, the concept of the eye, and the meaning and symbolism of color. Part three presents aale as "portraits and punishments" and, by extension, as embodiment and paradigmatic representation of sufferings and uselessness, which are portrayed in combs and rags, tattered shoes and snail shells, corncobs and brooms, rusted iron and red peppers. In the conclusion, the author attempts to situate aale within an invented historical past that is mediated by grafting its meaning, use, and proliferation on the twelfth-century potsherd pavement from Ife, showing how these are of immediate relevance to modern military dictatorship and political adventurism during the draconian rule of the late General Sanni Abacha in the closing decades of twentieth-century Nigeria.

Although Doris makes a compelling argument throughout the book for classifying aale as an image of artistic contemplation, or aworan, I will insist that aale does not qualify and cannot be regarded as awman. It is much more complex than that. Used generally with regard to two-dimensional images in drawing or photography, aworan can be broken into its constituent morphemes: a-wo, the act of looking, seeing, encountering, or simply to behold, with iran, a spectacle, an apparition, a vision that elicits some level or degree of admiration, puzzlement, amusement, and fantasy in the beholder. Simply put, a-wo-iran literally implies: wesaw-a-spectacle. In the nominalization process, the i in iran has been dropped, and the word ran means "to send, to sew, to weave into, to spread or creep."1 This is why awo-iran is different from aworan. One would have preferred that Doris had used the term aworanti in defining aale. In that respect, the operational word would have implied weaving together memories and visions of the past. It should be stated right away that aworanti in essence is very different from aworan. What could be remembered may not necessarily stimulate instant delight or admiration. Because Yoruba is a tonal language, another inflection and modulation of the tones in the operational word aworan transforms it into an adjectival noun becoming the spectator, or one who is watching some spectacle.2 It is for this reason that aale are not aworan, although they could be construed as aworanti, which triggers memory. For practical purposes, aworan pertains only to two-dimensional images on paper, be it photography, line drawing, or any other form of artistic representation. …