Embracing the Baobab Tree: A Curatorial Introduction
“Knowledge is like a baobab tree; no one can embrace it with both arms”—Ewe Proverb
Resistance to Western hegemony in the sphere of knowledge production has been around for quite a while and continues to be an issue in contemporary cultural studies. In theory and artistic representations, one continues to witness the struggle against assumptions built upon the supremacy of Western ideas, identity, expressions, etc. There has also been a robust counter-critique of the resistance rhetoric from non-Western scholars who try to show that anti-Western oppositional practices are not totally free from the same posture they want to dismantle. Benita Parry writes in “Resistance Theory/Theorizing Resistance or Two Cheers for Nativism” that contemporary discourse on nativism “condenses many of the current censures of cultural nationalism for its complicity with the terms of colonialism’s discourse, with its claims to ancestral purity and inscriptions of monolithic notions of identity cited as evidence of the failure to divest itself of the specific institutional dominations of the West” (p.275). Yet the troubling issue which these counter-critiques foreground is reconfigured as the colonizer being “the dynamic donor” and the colonized a “docile recipient” or “where the west initiates and the native imitates” (p.275). This construction of the relationship between the West and the Other is already being rejected in the West, with Western scholars themselves exploring non-Western contexts for ideas, in the same way Western culture workers invest in the promotion of other cultures, languages, etc. The posture of epistemological hegemony is thus being replaced with a global conversation of ideas.
Tom Savage understands and speaks about this “conversation” in a very engaging way in his poem “In Front of Kato Nobukijo’s Ten Arhants Examining a Painting of White-Robed Compassion.” As he notes in a gloss, Arhants are “a Buddha or a Bodhisattva’s helpmates and are considered to be fully enlightened.” Tom Savage’s poem already represents the crossing of boundaries in the production and use of knowledge, working across the cultural and generic boundaries of art (Western/Oriental; Poetry/Painting). Quite typical of Savage, art works with art works with life across boundaries.
Adam Katz, who also works across cultural boundaries in his literary, exploring the applicability of vipassana meditation and yoga to the craft of poetry, provides us with lines that seem to articulate the current temper of free trading in the marketplace of ideas: in his “Tanha – Blinding Thirst,” he states,
“Never is the moment other than
Itself. It is always
What’s at stake; which
Feeling is happening”
The practice of “aversion” or “desire” for a certain mode of experiencing or knowing the world presents us with the politics of knowledge, not with the freedom to decide to use what we consider contingent. Many scholars and artists would, as part of the exercise of their freedom, use ideas no matter where such ideas have originated, not minding whether such ideas are “home-grown” or cultivated and harvested elsewhere. To have an aversion for Western frameworks of knowledge or any other frameworks, without even trying to understand what they are saying, of course, does not represent an intellectual attitude, or rather makes the academic subordinate to the political attitude.
A common practice among African scholars is to apply theories formulated in the West in exploring African issues or analyzing African situations, a practice that tends to put Africa at the receiving end in the knowledge market and which typifies the Initiator-Imitator model. Such a practice seems to give the impression that either Africa has not got much to offer in terms of original ideas, or has got ideas that are not powerful enough to lead us into some understanding of Western data. Toyin Adepoju impressively corrects this impression by developing an Ifa-based theoretical framework from the myth of Orisanla fragmentation-reintegration cycle and applying this framework in a study of Vincent van Gogh’s life and art.
Tunde Awosanmi on the other hand sensitively takes us through constructs of knowledge in indigenous Yoruba cult performance as well as in Wole Soyinka’s drama to prove that, contrary to feminist assumptions, a very significant recognition is accorded to female origins and animations of knowledge. He argues that Gelede, a masking tradition of the Yoruba, “presents a femino-masculine world, a society where matricentricism has been able to assert itself through its power relations with the phallic element.” Wole Soyinka, he argues, “demonstrates a flexible engagement of gender as a constructive reality of the elasticity of the African human existence” and as such feminists that read his works are in need of “ a deeper understanding of his existentialist philosophy, which respects the male-female balanced instinct as symbolized in the Edan Ogboni’s male-female interface”. Awosanmi thus advises African scholars to be cautious in working within the framework of “vogue-scholarship” (a term that seems to suggest a negative attitude to what Adam Katz in his poem presents as “It is always/What’s at stake: which/Feeling is happening.”), recommending that “Being truthful to the continent’s metaphysical reality is recommended as the most potent antidote to the raging Afro-modernist intellectual dilemma and its latching-on to the apron of orthodox feminist legislation.” Such a position advocated Awosanmi, especially in terms of “being truthful” (or one would say “authentic”) in representing Africa, is exactly one of the brands of Afro-Nativism that Kwame Anthony Appiah is opposed to in his “Out of Africa: Typologies of Nativism.”
Awosanmi’s invitation of scholars to the metaphysics rather than the political in the representation of gender roles in Wole Soyinka’s literary works has some relationship with the nativist orientations of Negritude. Indeed, Negritude is at the forefront of opposition to the assumed universalist application of Western frameworks of knowledge and aesthetics. Jen Westmoreland Bouchard explores this significance of Negritude through a study of surrealism and natural imagery in the essays of Suzanne Cesaire, demonstrating how the essays have been strongly influenced by the Negritude ideas of Aime Cesaire, Suzanne Cesaire’s husband. Bouchard contends however that Suzanne Cesaire “based her Négritude on a hybridized state, an adaptation of the theory that could still survive within the essentializing theoretical parameters of Négritude thought" and that: “Since hybridity is inherent in the Surrealist state (somewhere between waking and sleeping), Surrealism was essential to the theoretical formation of her Négritude perspective.”
Obiwu's article on Ndebele's exploration of the issue of sociopolitical liberation through such modes as music, painting, and magic addresses the artistic expressions and negotiations of identity. Njabulo Ndebele's Inter-arts configurations could also be viewed as showing the complex cultural response to subjectivity.
Quite exceptional in its approach is M.Neelika Jayawardane's narrativization of her journey through cultural hybridity and resistance to racialized identification. Her storied theorization of her struggle with both American and Afrikaner processes of assimilating yet distancing the subject powerfully presents the journey to awareness as being complex and long. It is also a journey that one understands better when it is manifested in close encounters and ideational conflicts that are beyond mere academic disputations at conferences and seminars, in journal articles and books. She shows that such struggles are both personal and public, the personal that becomes the public.
And, couldn't this journey of identity that is made through portals manned by cultural sentries be read In relation to the meeting and interaction of diversities as seen in Peter Ciccariello's visual poem, "Metta-narrative," where steel meets wood, where image meets language becomes language? If we put all the competing ideas from various cultures and worlds in a room of imagination as Ciccariello does in "words-in-a-room scene VI," could an exciting "image" of knowledge not result?
The articles, poems, and works of visual art featured in this special issue of Reconfigurations thus employ interesting modes of responding to the politics of knowledge in the relationship between the West (or the Westernized) and the non-West.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2008) “Out of Africa: Typologies of Nativism,” in Olaniyan and Quayson, Pp 242 – 250.
Parry, Benita (2008) “Resistance Theory / Theorizing Resistance or Two Cheers for Nativism,” in Olaniyan, Tejumola and Quayson, Ato, African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, Pp 274 – 278.
Obododimma Oha, Senior Lecturer, Department of English, University of Ibadan
http://www.uiartsfaculty.net/cv/showcv.php?id=199; and Associate Editor, Reconfigurations: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture.
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence