Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Missing Heads, Mermaids, and Masquerades: Visual Culture in Urban Nigeria
Tuesday, Thursday: 2:00-3:30pm
When the new public sculpture honoring legendary musician and activist Fela Kuti was unveiled in Lagos, some were dismayed by the artist’s choices. Abolore Sobayo fashioned the figure in a pose reminiscent of iconic photographs of Fela on stage. In the photos, he stands with taut, raised arms capped by clenched fists, and his defiant visage is decorated with white paint. Given the power of Fela’s face and fists in those images, it came as a shock that Sobayo chose to make the statue headless and handless. Fela’s apparent decapitation takes on particular significance when one considers the importance of the head in Yoruba philosophical and artistic traditions. Indeed, in representations of notable people, the head is usually exaggerated, as it is considered to be the seat of the self and the locus of divine power in the individual. In his response to critics, Sobayo said the work had been misunderstood: the sculpture is not a representation of Fela himself, but of his garment. The artist wanted viewers to consider donning Fela’s empty garment and renewing his struggle against oppression today – to see the Fela in themselves.
This course explores how contemporary visual culture in Lagos, Nigeria’s coastal megacity, both draws from and radically reconfigures artistic traditions in order to intervene in the politics of the present. In addition to looking at contemporary artists’ interpretations of the Yoruba head, we will examine performance art that creatively reimagines masquerade traditions, and sci-fi literature that engages with Mami Wata (mermaid deity/marine witch) representations. Through these case studies, you will be exposed to and practice increasingly complex methods of visual analysis, and you will learn how to conduct research that can productively inform your interpretations of African artworks. We will visit the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibition on Afrofuturism to consider how the Nigerian works on display speak to life worlds in the Bay Area and beyond. During the second half of the semester, you will develop a research project culminating in a 10-12 page paper on a topic related to the course.