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BHM - Celebrating Yoruba Culture and Black History in Leeds

Leeds prides itself as a welcoming city and is rapidly growing in diversity, home to thriving Caribbean and African communities hosting an annual West Indian Carnival.

Leeds prides itself as a welcoming city and is rapidly growing in diversity, home to thriving Caribbean and African communities hosting an annual West Indian Carnival. The rich cultural heritage has birthed a wealth of cultural expressions, some of which appear to be influenced by the Yoruba culture of West African origin. Dr Arthur France MBE (Co-founder, Leeds Carnival) has often said in conversations, that the West Indian Carnival has its roots in the Yoruba culture. Traces of Yoruba culture survived despite the forced migration of Africans during the 400-year Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 2017, the Caribbean Carnival Cultures (CCC) network (founded by Dr Emily Zobel Marshall) hosted a conference at the Centre for Culture and the Arts, Leeds Beckett University and established the need for continuous Caribbean Carnival research in the UK. I am filling in the gap with my research in how Yoruba culture influences carnival arts and art practices in Leeds. I also believe Yoruba culture remains understated within popular culture and indeed I have drawn from it and have been inspired by it.

In Joyous emancipation celebrations, Yoruba Egungun Masquerades evolved to Caribbean Carnival Characters in the Caribbean and on to Leeds. MV Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury on 22 June 1948, with what will be known as the Windrush Generation whom by invitation to the UK willingly migrated, some settling in Leeds.

 

Fig 1. Windrush Treasure Chest Installation - Leeds City Museum (BHM 2018)
 

AFROPOLITAN IDENTITY, CARNIVAL CULTURE & INOVATION

The historical Windrush Generation, and British born Africans of Yoruba heritage seem to carry within their DNA the innate Yoruba blueprint, allowing hybrid cultures to form and grow. I have remained fascinated by this dual heritage and choose to seek opportunities to express this in my art practice. It puzzles me that even though I have very little Yoruba influence, elements of Yoruba culture manifest in my work. It is like our DNA is programmed and it can't be helped but to show up in our Art and music.

The dual diasporic British and African (Yoruba) cultural heritages lead to the new popularised ‘Afropolitan’ identity, (coined from Afro and cosmopolitan, meaning an African of the world, Selasi, 2005). This may be used as a tool to encourage dialogue, curb race relations anxieties, and offer educational opportunities (especially contributing to current BLM discourse - when coupling Yoruba with British or diasporic culture, one may sometimes be ridiculed and called "coconut", “bounty bar”, “creo or oreo cookie” etc).

The hybrid Afropolitan identity also allows for new artistic expressions and creative innovations including Carnival, Music (eg. Soca, Afrobeats, Reggae, etc), Steel Pan, Sculpture and Musical theatre.
 

CARNIVAL MESSIAH, ANCIENT YORUBA SPIRITUALITY ANXIETY & HONOURING ANCESTORS

Dr Geraldine Conner's (RIP) Carnival Messiah is a musical extravaganza that I had the privilege to be a part of, which reworks Handel's Messiah in parts. It marries Yoruba culture right from the onset with the libation offering call and response song.

Yeye yeye o, Osun Osun o, Osun o…

The offering to Osun is called and sung in Yoruba by Trinidadian Yoruba Elder, Mama Ella Andall and response from the choir and entire cast. Conner’s aim was to create a new cultural space where cultures collapse and evolve (...the Third Space) for artistic expression, “As an aesthetic ephemeral experience...”.

I was inspired greatly by Carnival Messiah and intrigued by Conner’s use of Yoruba in some of the scenes, and portrayal of Yoruba Gods and Goddesses, especially as Yoruba speaking was sometimes prohibited in Yoruba households and schools. Coupled with this, there seems to be a latent, unconscious, self-regulatory, in-built repulsion, anxiety, and fear of imbibing in Yoruba culture amongst some diasporic people due to the negative fetish narratives about Yoruba spirituality. However Yoruba spiritual practices and Orishas were syncretised into Christianity sustaining the practices in the Caribbean and is growing in popularity again. Reappropriating Orishas as synonymous with Christian saints, elders and ancestors who have been venerated or honoured in Yoruba land, greater understanding has been attained.
 

YORUBA PROLIFIC SCULPTURE IMPORTANCE TODAY

The Yoruba Kingdoms produced prolific and exquisite art forms. Yoruba sculptures and masks are on display in museums and galleries worldwide. For example, 14th century bronze ‘Oni Head’ and ‘Ori Olokun’ sculptures are exhibited at the British Museum. Yoruba sculptures, indeed, were the inspiration and influence, on the recent, controversial, appropriated, replicated and renamed, gold sculpture head by Damien Hirst at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Leeds City Museum also houses some Yoruba artefacts.

Some European writers expressed disbelief and the idea persisted in colonial times, that exquisite art and creativity could not have possibly been produced by Africans whom they saw as, ‘backward’. William R. Bascom (1938) wrote,

“How can in a comparatively obscure corner of this vast and backward continent, could an art and technique have flowered that take their stand, by the best ever evolved by the elaborate civilizations of Europe and Asia?”

in his article about Ife bronzes, in the ‘Illustrated London News’, entitled, ‘Mysterious Ife Bronze Heads: African Art worthy to Rank with the finest work of Italy and Greece’.

Fig 2. Ife Bronze Head 
 

Nevertheless, the interruption and consequent fall of Yoruba civilizations did not deter innovation of new art productions and new aesthetics, including using the aesthetic of bronze sculptures found amongst ruins. In contemporary art today, a remnant of Yoruba culture and artistic heritage remains, and full body, bust and sculpture production persists. Post-colonial and current Yoruba sculpture production in Yorubaland are still done for masks and head dresses for example Egungun & Gelede masquerades. This carries on the Yoruba ancient tradition of honouring elders, notable people, women, and ancestors etc. They are of varying aesthetics, ranging from wood, metals, or assemblages of materials available to the sculptor.

Fig 3. Ancestor Troupe based on Yoruba Masquerade Motif 


However, in the diaspora and in this case in Leeds the sculpture practice is limited but somewhat expressed in carnival costumes. To redress the balance, British Yoruba artist Yinka Shonibare MBE, has been commissioned to create a memorial sculpture of police brutality victim David Oluwale in Leeds. In addition, a Geraldine Connor Sculpture model to honour her legacy and mark the 10-year anniversary of her passing is to be unveiled this Black History Month

In conclusion, Prof Sophie Bosede Oluwole (RIP) a professor of African philosophy emphasized the importance of protecting and preserving our culture. Oluwole said, “the way things are done in the schools today, that it is not right, because young people are warned not to speak their mother tongue (Oro Isiti): referring to it as vernacular”. Oluwole reminisced in the 2016 interview (Kelani 2016) on how she had to pay fines at school for speaking her local dialect. She urged individuals to stop seeing their mother tongue as primitive and underdeveloped.

Black History Month is only the beginning. It is hoped that in the future Yoruba culture and the collective black history will be celebrated not just on one month of the year but all year round!! Yoruba culture, a pragmatic, vibrant spiritually uplifting culture; a gift to all humankind!!!

Fig 4. Ojo Lehin (Day after carnival) installation – Civic Hall  
 


By Lara Rose (PhD Candidate, BAME Student Convenor)

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