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Galleries | Cate McQuaid

At Harvard, Wole Soyinka’s collection of African traditional art

Top: Osaretin Ighile’s “Oba Ovonramwen.”
Melissa Blackall
Osaretin Ighile’s “Oba Ovonramwen.”

CAMBRIDGE — Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s collection of African traditional art includes bold, expressive masks, vessels, and figures — carved in wood, cast in bronze, sometimes adorned with beads or feathers. We don’t know who made them. We do know how they were made.

They are the starting point for “Wole Soyinka: Antiquities Across Times and Place” at Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, a crisp, commanding, heartfelt show that breaches a conceptual gulf. 

For centuries, objects like these have been crafted for ritual purposes — to access sacred time, hence the plural “times” in the title. In the last 150 years, such works have been appropriated by Western artists and collected by tourists; many are now made for the market.

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As traditional practices dwindle and First World values engulf the planet, we are increasingly bereft of ritual and sacred time. Contemporary art is partly defined by who made it and its economic value. But it can do the same job as ritual objects. Curator Awam Amkpa surrounds Soyinka’s collection with pieces by contemporary African artists such as Peju Alatise and Moyo Okediji, who use traditional techniques to echo their ancestors.

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Nigerian sculptor Osaretin Ighile’s “Oba Ovonramwen,” for instance, has at its center a wood carving of a Benin king dethroned by the British. It is larger than any of Soyinka’s carved masks or figures, but springs from the same eloquent, muscular DNA. Plastic trash spills around it, an embodiment of disrespect, yet the king retains his noble posture. 

Alatise carved granite to craft figures desperately trapped in wire webbing in “Abracadabra — Government magic,” a critique of Nigerian leadership. It follows in the footsteps of Soyinka, a vocal activist. 

There is much to see here, some of it searing, but the show’s underlying message is heartening: Objects and artists may come and go, but, in Africa, techniques abide and are a conduit to the sacred. 

Peju Alatise’s “Abracadabra — Government magic.”
Melissa Blackall
Peju Alatise’s “Abracadabra — Government magic.”

WOLE SOYINKA: Antiquities Across Times and Place

At Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, Harvard University, 102 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, through Dec. 21. 617-496-5777, www.coopergalleryhc.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.