Monday, 29 June 2009

29.6.09 Email from Professor John Picton in reference to 'African Arts' submission

Dear Kate,
Many thanks for your letter and CD.

I can see some necessary copy-editing. Skip Cole is not an anthropologist but an art historian; and you write 'practises', where you mean 'practices' [practice = noun; practise = verb]. I hope it gets published: no-one else has this documentation. It will be peer-reviewed, perhaps by people such as Sylvetser Ogbechie, Cole's successor at UC Santa Barbara, or Chika Okeke (I forget where he is). It will be interesting to see the comments you get back.

Also, re copy-editing, is it correct to describe Igbo farmers as nomadic? It's true that for much of the region there were no towns until the colonial development thereof, and in the 1960s one drove through the Igbo are and you could see a compound here, another over there, rather like the farms distributed across the English and Welsh countryside; but no towns. Igbo village groups, established via the kinship networks of individual households, were constrained by relationships of potential (if not actual) feuding relationships with neighbouring village groups. One could not move around that much. Obviously, the techniques of 'slash-and-burn' (or swidden) agriculture, in which farm plots were created by burning the existing foliage to fertilise the land before planting crops, meant that in the next season the land had to be left fallow, and a new plot was prepared, meant that there was some movement; but it was no more than within the tract of land that was established as the property of the village group, and this was not even transhumant, let alone nomadic. It so happens that the success of the yam and oil palm agriculture led to population growth, such that once colonial and missionary activity began to offer schooling together with new work opportunities throughout Nigeria, Igbo people were enthusiastic in taking up these opportunities. Otherwise Igbo culture would have collapsed under the weight of a local overpopulation.

This in turn led to an Igbo diaspora throughout Nigeria composed of clerks, schoolteachers, railway workers. Anglican and especially Catholic Christianity also swept through these diasporic Igbo communities enabling them to discern which aspects of their home-village cultural inheritance were compatible with the new religion and which were not. Cultural festivals were preserved, and indeed people from different village groups began to see that there was a common ground: back at home you would not dare to venture to another group's festivities: that was asking for trouble! As a result you get the emergence of an educated elite, with local and diasporic experiences, who began to formulate a sense of Igbo identity; and this was enhanced by missionary work in translating Biblical and catechetical texts and the emergence of an Igbo literacy inevitably grounded in Christianity. Already by the time of Cole's research the Catholic Bishop of Owerri was Igbo, there is the Igbo Cardinal, Arinze, whose PhD was on sacrifice in Igbo religion.

Regarding the present condition of mbari houses, I understood from Cole that preservation was always beside the point given that the construction was a sacrifice, and that once the elders had approved the finished work the sacrifice was complete. In that case, conservation and preservation was necessarily culturally inappropriate; but I can't remember what he says about the novel fashion for building them in concrete. When built of earthe there was no need for Christians to demolish them as they were destined to self-demolition as it were.
Anglican and Catholic Christianities have been around for more than a hundred years, and one cannot possible regard them as somehow not really Igbo. Indeed, historically the presence of those Christianities is, as I've suggested, in fact earlier than the emergence of an Igbo cultural identity. Moreover, there may well be a Christian element in the very emergence of that identity (as there was in Yoruba: Yoruba cultural nationalism/identity was in truth initiated by two CofE clergymen!). One has to beware of putting together a simple set of oppositional contrasts:
divination, sacrifice and the local gods/Christianity;
authentically Igbo/inauthentic,
This is at best a gross oversimplification; and as you discovered some of the finest scholars of the pre-Christian religious tradition have been Catholic priests, especially since Pope Paul's recommendation of the necessity of inculturation. Rejection of the past was always foolish; but it would be equally foolish to assert that everything about the past was good. The rejection of twins was a case in point: if a woman gave birth to twins the babies were abandoned in the forest to starve to death and/or be eaten by wild animals. Or the sacrifice of slaves or disabled people in specific cult circumstances (whether this still goes on is debatable; but the knowledge that it once happened fuels the paranoid fear that it might still). Moreover, no-one would reject school-university education on the basis that it was of colonial/missionary origin, just as local textile and dress traditions are, equally, parts of local modernities. Of course, there are Igbo intellectuals who have rejected Christianity for various reasons; and yet there has also been the (in my view pernicious) growth of local charismatic/Pentecostal churches mostly of southern USA inspiration. So the picture is one of huge complexity, with an equally complex set of adjustments, compromises, etc. Of course, because I am a Catholic, you might predict that I would write in this way; but the historical evidence is there, and people were quick to discern the differences between the stupidities predicated upon colonial and early missionary ignorance of local culture and the value of all the new forms of education, technology and religion.

Some of all this is explored in a thesis that should be in soas library by Elizabeth Willis (or Peri-Willis) entitled something like 'Uli painting and Igbo Identity'
Not least amongst the surprises of contemporary Igbo culture is the resilience of masquerade. During the civil war in the 1960s I was forever seeing Nigerian military vehicles festooned with masks ripped off from Igbo villages, and I remember trying to get the permanent secretary of my ministry to persude the army to stop doing this; just as a few years previously I had made representations to the head of the Vatican diplomatic office in Lagos to stop Irish missionaries making bonfires out of Igbo masks and figure sculpture. At any rate, during the civil war huge quantities of local sculpture were vandalised, a lot of it escaping through Cameroun and thence into the European and American art market. One might have expected that traditions were destroyed; and yet, within a few years, everything was reinvented. There has also been a more recent process of transferring masquerade into carnival, and this has been an entirely local movement that would serve to remove masked performance from a cult/sacrificial environment and thus render it acceptable within a local modernity in large part determined by education, literacy and Christianity. And yet, as your paper shows, there remain contexts within which local cult and divination practices retain their relevance.

These comments, which I realise go far beyond anything in your paper, come from a very quick glance through. I hope it gets published: no-one else has the documentary material that you have. Do let me know what the response from African Arts is. Sorry if I'm repeating myself!

Love from us both, John

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