Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju
Within the context of approaches to engaging Toyin Falola’s polymathic vastness of scholarship and writing, this essay explores aesthetics as conceptual reflection on the nature of art and beauty, in relation to aesthetics as a study of the history of artistic developments, as these approaches are unified, with an emphasis on the latter, in the chapter on aesthetics in Toyin Falola’s Decolonizing African Studies: Knowledge Production, Agency and Voice, 2022.
The essay builds on my first discussion of the book, “A Masterly Overview : Toyin Falola’s Decolonizing African Studies: Knowledge Production, Agency, and Voice: A Thumbnail Review” ( Studying Toyin Falola blog, LinkedIn, academia.edu and various Nigerian news media)
Great thanks to the reviewer who wishes to remain anonymous but whose reading of successive drafts of the essay was vital to refining the piece and to expanding my confidence in the direction the work was going, indirectly motivating further developments in the writing beyond its earlier drafts, even though the reviewer did not get to see those additions, having boosted my confidence sufficiently for my individualistic orientation to take over again, but, it can be quite fulfilling to go beyond the limitations of working on one’s own, as the reviewer’s kind efforts helped me better appreciate.
The Hunger for Totalistic Knowledge
The hunger for totalistic knowledge is one of humanity’s enduring aspirations. It involves the need to know as much as possible about as many things as possible. It is motivated by the need to gain a synoptic awareness of existence from as comprehensive a perspective as may be reached.
This aspiration underlies the structuring of forms of knowledge in their distinctiveness and interrelationships as these configurations have been developed at the mature stages of origins of systems of thought in various cultures. These range from the Platonic and Aristotelian synthesis of ancient Greek thought and its shaping of Western scholarship to such paradigmatic African systems as the Yoruba origin Ifa which harmonizes the visual and verbal arts, spirituality, philosophy, mathematics and medicine. This is a synthesis resonating with other African systems similar to Ifa, from the Igbo Afa to the Dahomean Fa and to others less similar, such as the Ghanaian symbol system Adinkra, which uses visual forms as a template for philosophy. Beyond Africa and the West is the example of Indian Yantra hermeneutics, correlating the visual arts, mathematics, spirituality and philosophy in their literary and performative dimensions.
The Unification of Human Cultures
Individual creatives, from artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci to medical researcher and philosopher Ibn Sina to poet and international public servant, second United Nations Secretary General Darg Hammarskjöld, who demonstrate efforts at creating multidisciplinary competencies and syntheses, are appreciated as achieving what a writer describes of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as demonstrating “how our divided culture might be reunited in a new ideal of wholeness.’’
In adapting this observation, I take “our’’ culture to mean, not the European culture that writer may have been referencing, even though Goethe was also a student and emulator of aspects of Islamic culture, but human culture in general. Humanity is understood in this context as demonstrating foundational, widespread similarities within differences. Human culture is seen as constituted by distinctive expressions, which, in their similarities, constitute unifying orientations emerging from the structuring of human awareness at the intersection of human biology and environment. The similarities in difference between individual cultures are perceived as coming together to generate a holistic orientation on existence defining the human race.
Forms of Multidisciplinarity
A polymath, as such figures as Goethe are known, may demonstrate varied competencies within diverse arms of a particular discipline. A discipline is perceived in this context as an approach to studying an aspect of reality in terms of a particular network of methods of investigation and of conceptions of that aspect of reality, in relation to existence as a whole. This epistemic and metaphysical particularity, however, overlaps with others within the broader network constituted by the epistemic and metaphysical frame in which it is embedded, such as the currently globally dominant Western origin system of knowledge. The polymath may also operate across disciplines, creating a variegated web, distinctive but conjoined windows of perception, through which the universe may be engaged with.
Toyin Falola’s Multidisciplinarity Within African Studies
One such interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary polymath is Toyin Falola, whose recently published book Decolonizing African Studies (2022) creates an opportunity to map his writing and scholarly career in relation to his field of engagement, the cluster of disciplines known as African Studies. One may also explore the instantiation of these interests in relation to one chapter in that book, the chapter on aesthetics, so chosen because of my fascination with its subject as well as its provocation of approaches to adapting Falola’s multidisciplinary scholarship in alignment or disalignment with his methods.
Intrinsic, Extrinsic and Structural Approaches to the Study of Toyin Falola’s Work as a Matrix in Exploring African Studies and Beyond
Falola’s Decolonizing African Studies demonstrates an admirably extensive coverage of ground, enabling its use as a matrix for exploring African Studies, in relation to the process of rethinking the foundations and directions of the field, in alignment or disalignment with the author’s approaches in this and other texts.
Falola’s total body of work is also strategic for such an exploration because it constitutes a very rich library of engagement with the various disciplines constituting African Studies, the scope of his work being unique in the field. This wealth of expression, sustained across decades, may inspire a range of exploratory approaches, perceptible in intrinsic and extrinsic terms.
The intrinsic relates to the internal structure and progression of his writing and scholarly project. The extrinsic involves its relationship with other bodies of knowledge beyond itself. This intrinsic study could include diachronic exploration – of its historical progression. It may involve synchronic analysis – of its character at a point in time. The convergence of the intrinsic and the extrinsic could be demonstrated by structural studies. These examine correlations between the total structure of ideas and investigative and expressive approaches developed within the network constituted by Falola’s body of work and its intersections with other bodies of knowledge.
Rhizomatic and Architectural Metaphors
Within this structural analysis and synthesis, the total body of Falola’s work may be understood in terms of various unifying metaphors. His productivity may be seen as rhizomatic, demonstrating a restless proliferation of possibilities across disciplines, without any effort at systematizing the cognitive network thus developed, an image adapting the development of this biological metaphor in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri’s A Thousand Plateaus (1980). It could be understood in architectural terms, as constituting a series of rooms, organized around a centre, an image adapted from Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle (1577).
The various rooms in this architectural metaphor may represent different disciplines or the relationships between disciplines demonstrated by various texts. Their order could be circular, arranged in a circle around a centre. Their organization could also be sequential, suggesting some disciplines or disciplinary conjunctions or particular texts as fundamental, points of entry into this proliferative cognitive universe, gestative zones enabling the myriad expressions demonstrated by this body of work, without this ordering suggesting superiority of value.
Motivational and Summative, Disciplinary and Textual Centres
That centre could be understood in terms of the ultimate motivation of his work, the originating and sustaining inspiration and rationale running through or emerging from the various expressions that constitute that work. Such a centre could also be seen in terms of the ultimate vision actualized by his creativity, the constellation of understanding reached through this diversity of expressions. Both approaches overlap and may be combined.
Along those lines, Falola’s originating discipline of history may be appreciated as a primary point of entry into his oeuvre, history understood as the exploration of the complete range of implications of the development of a phenomenon, Falola branching out from this superordinate study to engage its divisions across the humanities and social sciences within African Studies.
Perhaps one could focus on a text instead as such a foundational point of entry, understanding his In Praise of Greatness (2019), for example, as unifying the various expressive forms in terms of which he works, ranging over historical and synchronic humanistic and sociological studies, poetic and autobiographical writing and philosophical reflection. These structurations could also be organized in terms of ideas developed by the investigator, distilled from studying Falola’s work rather than directly applied from his own ideas and texts.
Between Work, Self, Society and Cosmos
The adaptation of Teresa of Avila’s architectural image from her The Interior Castle in interpreting Falola’s work suggests significant potential for such distillation of ideas and expansion of their evocative power. The Interior Castle is a mystical text, describing an approach to relationship with the essence of the self. This essence is understood as God, the identity in the central room of the castle. The castle represents the self, with the various rooms symbolizing aspects of the self. The self is depicted, in this context, as the expression of an ultimate reality constituting the core of the individual.
In adapting this image to Falola’s body of work, questions of correlations between self and work may be thereby evoked. What is the full range of relationships between the scholar and author and his creativity? How may his perennial, multidisciplinary creativity be understood, for example, in terms of ideas of access to performative powers dramatizing the self as an interface between the instrumentality of the mental, biological and social construction of the self and human embodiment of a life force that underlies existence, a summation distilling ideas of the self at the intersection of human creativity and creativity in nature represented by the Yoruba origin concepts àṣẹ, universal life force, and orí, the self, as this conjunction is particularly forcefully outlined in Henry John Drewal et al’s Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought (1989), a distinctive expression of ideas recurring in various ways in other cultures, such as the Indian Shakti and the Chinese ch’i ?
History and its implications within the construction of knowledge as storytelling and interpretation of stories, is one way of depicting the various rooms, the varied idea complexes constituting Falola’s work as represented by each text and the relationships between these texts. This is a summation adapting the hermeneutics of the Yoruba origin Ifa knowledge system. This interpretation of his work is convergent with Falola’s intellectual origins in historical studies and his explicit identification with Yoruba culture and thought, from which Ifa emerges. At the intersection of self and expression represented by this unfolding creative matrix, what may be understood of the ultimate direction of this exploratory journey at the convergence of human creativity and the creativity represented by the universe?
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Falola’s forthcoming Decolonizing African Knowledge: Autoethnography and African Epistemologies (2022) suggests an approach to related questions at the convergence of the self, its creativity and the embedding of this unity within larger socio-cognitive complexes, the social contexts that shape and are shaped by the development of knowledge. The book is described as applying ”autoethnography to the understanding of African knowledge systems [considering] the ‘Self ‘ and Yoruba Being (the individual and the collective) in the context of the African decolonial project [using] diverse and novel methods to access an African way of knowing [exploring] the different ways that a society understands and presents itself…”
”Memoir And Memory,” Falola’s Fall 2017 course at the University of Texas, demonstrates his efforts at translating into pedagogy these intersections of orality, memory, writing and the development of individual meaning and its social resonance, as evident from this representation of the course description, using its sentences but reorganizing them for the purpose of this essay:
Memoirs are reflections of events as filtered through the author’s emotions and cognitive frameworks. We will attempt to transform memory and reported experience into personal essays [developing] the craft of converting memories into compelling narratives. The class is an exercise in both developing writing skills and appreciating the importance of memory and oral tradition as history.
Exposing and converting truth to art requires courage and a refining of the artistic skills that allow memoirs to effectively communicate the deep layers of truth and humanness that are usually absent from conventional discourses.
Since the ascendancy of print, memory has been relegated to the background and substituted by texts. Scripts are privileged over oral accounts. Yet, these verbal accounts play important roles in writing history, and share the same weaknesses as archival sources. For historians and researchers, therefore, the course highlights the importance of memory and how it counterbalances texts.
The Centralization of African Agency as Motivating Vision of Falola’s Work
In terms of motivation and summative vision, Falola’s work may be understood as centralizing African agency, African creative powers, through the medium of multidisciplinary scholarship, complemented by autobiography and poetry.
Addressing the challenge of African empowerment and the revitalizing of African Studies everywhere through generating a greater degree of independent thinking as the field rises from constriction within templates created by its entry into global scholarship through the colonial encounter, is the vision of Decolonizing African Studies.
This and similar forthcoming texts may be described as Falola’s crowning projects at this point in his career, in a career demonstrating perhaps varied climaxes as the scholar ascends new peaks, generating new vistas of possibility in relation to the subjects he studies and within the topography of his work in general, a creative unfolding suggesting unpredictable future developments.
These current developments, bolder projections of orientations also evident in some earlier works, are often sole authored texts developing summative engagements with almost the entire field of African Studies and at times trying to rework its epistemic and metaphysical centres and modes of operation- ”Pluriversalism,” ”Ritual Archives” ( both in The Toyin Falola Reader on African Culture, Nationalism, Development and Epistemology, 2018 ) and Decolonizing African Studies-or centring on summative aspects of it- Sacred Words and Holy Realms (2022) and with Nicole Griffin, Religious Beliefs and Knowledge Systems in Africa (2021) – or surveying the field from a view both personalised and sweeping- In Praise of Greatness: The Poetics of African Adulation (2019) and perhaps the forthcoming Decolonizing African Knowledge: Autoethnography and African Epistemologies.
Questions of Scope in Falola’s Rethinking of Modes of Knowing and Structures of Existence as Understood Within African Studies
After reading his “Ritual Archives” where he projects ideas about metaphysical orientations outside the secularist paradigm shaping the globally dominant Western knowledge system, I wonder “to what degree is Falola ready to go beyond making assertive statements on these ideas to clearly mapping how factual he thinks they are and why he thinks so?”
In ”Synthesis and Storytelling:An Interview With Dr. Toyin Falola” ((E.D.Watson, Front Porch Journal), Falola mentions how an ”Indian guru…gave me a religious symbol and walked me through some spiritual dialogue so that I could recover” from the trauma of losing a number of his own unpublished manuscripts while travelling.
Will his first-hand experience with such cognitive systems, which are outside the dominant strains in Western academia, inform his work on pluralistic epistemologies, expanding theory and going beyond theory into practice?
He presents an expansive account of the power of words in Sacred Words and Holy Realms, but does he explain why he thinks those views are valid beyond being accounts of classical African and some other cultures’ ideas about language?
In stating ”Words, as stand-alone and in combination with objects, are translatable into various forms of power. Words can produce spells and trance, prophecy, commands, death, and flights into the holy realms,” in a talk presaging the April 2022 publication of the book, will he go beyond this assertion, a description of the metaphysics of language in terms that capture classical African, classical Asian and Western esoteric and Christian perspectives, to explain why he thinks that assertion is an accurate description of the power of words?
In sum, to what degree is Falola a describer and analyst of non-secular systems of thought and to what degree is he a person who identifies with these systems as an accurate description of reality?
In asserting the latter, as he seems to be doing, how far is he ready to go in validating his case? In other words, to what degree is he ready to move from dipping his toe in the water to diving into the river? We need critical thinkers who will dive into the river and tell us what they see, while keeping their critical intelligence alert.
Falola moves in that direction through his superb meditation on the Yoruba deity Eshu in ”Ritual Archives” but it would help if he were also to describe the ontological frame of such a meditation.
In what way does Eshu exist in that context, as Falola understands that spiritual figure, independent of the human mind or created by the mind or both? A cosmic identity as claimed by some?
In moving into these kinds of waters in his escalated efforts to centre African thought in scholarship, Falola rethinks the epistemic and metaphysical paradigms in terms of which he had conducted scholarship for decades, paradigms in terms of which the globally dominant Western academia is constructed.
Even then, however, Western academia is often so creatively elastic the longer it develops, challenges to its dominant paradigms do thrive within it, as represented by the growth of non-secularist yet non-religious orientations such as those of environmentalist David Abram and Chicano, feminist and sexual rights thinker Gloria Anzaldua.
Navigating the terrain between the ratiocinative thought dominant in the Western academy and the more intuitive, imaginative and multi-cognitive modes Falola is pointing towards is a delicate task. Falola seems to be boldly declaring his commitment to this navigational process. The expectations generated are great. One will need to read those texts to see how he pursues this task.
Falola’s Scholarship as Exemplifying the Paradox of Enablement and Disempowerment in Relation to the Work of the Diaspora African Scholar: The Migratory Context
Falola, as Jacob & Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, titles implying extraordinary achievement within and beyond the concept of the professorship, is one of the Nigerian scholars who moved from Nigerian universities to the West, when Nigerian academia entered into decline after the glorious years that ran from the 60s to perhaps the 80s. Like many who made that move, he has thrived in what is the world’s most highly developed economic system. The development of knowledge represented by scholarship is here understood as an aspect of an economy. The structure demonstrated by the Western economy represented by Europe and North America is depicted as the most highly developed and most inclusive of diversity, in spite of challenges that may exist to such inclusions.
One aspect of this migratory condition is reflection on what is, what has been and what may be, in terms of the tensions between the distinctive though entwined characters of where the migrant is coming from and where they are. A particularly poignant demonstration of this orientation is Abiola Irele’s ”The African Scholar,” (1991) in which, from his professorship at Ohio State University, Irele looks back over the glorious decades of academic scholarship-centered in higher institutions-in which he played a central role across Nigeria and Ghana. He laments the decline that motivated himself and others to move to the West. He describes these migrants as entering into a paradoxical situation, in which the scholarship to which they had devoted their lives as they built a new cultural structure shaping a distinctive African identity as the continent slowly emerged from its transformation by colonialism did not enjoy the centrality it had in their home countries.
Irele’s younger contemporary and later Harvard colleague, Biodun Jeyifo, told his own view of the story in ”One Year in the First Instance,” (2000) describing how one year exploratory visits were used by African scholars in testing Western academic waters for the possibility of migration. Other books and essays, such as Falola and Niyi Afolabi’s The Human Cost of African Migrations (2007), Falola’s The African Diaspora: Slavery, Modernity, and Globalization (2013) and other sole authored, co-written or sole edited and co-edited texts by Falola, as well as Nkiru Nzegwu and Isidore Okpewho’s The New African Diaspora (2009), amidst both broad ranging discussions of the subject and more fucused studies, such as Tejumola Olaniyan’s The African Diaspora and the Disciplines (2010), explore the experience of the migrant African scholar as well as the centripetal pull of the West for scholars from different parts of the world. These stories are correlative with migrations from various parts of the world in different fields of endeavour, such as technology, with the massively influential first generation Indian presence in US technology companies being one of the most prominent examples.
Falola’s Creation of a Research and Publishing Network Spanning the West and Africa Within and Beyond Academic Contexts
Falola has been particularly successful in this migratory framework. Working outside any academic position beyond his professorship, and, to the best of my knowledge, often without any access to institutional funding outside resources generated by himself and his collaborators-most likely except for the annual University of Texas Africa conference and the recent conference of Nigerian university administrators he was central to organizing, and possible institutional contributions to the Toyin Falola conferences and other conferences in his honour- he has built a research and publication network spanning Africa and the West.
This is represented by articles and books by himself and with others, sole authored, co-authored, sole edited and co-edited, and various book series with different Western publishers, along with editorships of a number of academic journals and memberships of editorial boards of academic journals in different parts of the world.
These initiatives involve such particularly prestigious brands as Cambridge, the world’s oldest academic press, and such resonant names in academic publishing as Routledge and Palgrave. It integrates such staples of Africana academic publishing as Indiana UP and Africa World Press and his edited series with University of Rochester Press, among other publishers, as well as publishing a number of books with Bloomsbury, famous as the publishers of J.K. Rowling, the most economically successful writer in the history of publishing and who also have a rich academic publishing arm.
The Challenge of Access to Comprehensive Information on Falola’s Work
The website of the Toyin Falola Network is a useful guide to mapping Falola’s productivity, even though its account of his creativity is incomplete. It gives a very rich presentation of his books but only up to 2019, even though Falola’s book publication has expanded in volume and variety after that year. The completeness of its records of his published books even up to 2019 is uncertain beceause, as far as I can see, it does not include The Toyin Falola Reader, published in 2018.
The site’s records do not include his articles, and do not indicate his general editorship of various book series. Another entry on the University of Texas site lists his editorship of a number of book series but seems to be an old entry, with a biography by Sam Saverance from 2005 and a valuable picture of a much younger Falola, and does not include his general editorship, with Carina Ray, of the Cambridge University Press series ”African Identities: Past and Present,” to which Decolonizing African Knowledge : Autoethnography and African Epistemologies is a contribution. His various CVs online are also incomplete. The one on his page at the website of the Department of History at the University of Texas tracks his books up to 2010. Another from the same university stops at 2011.
Questions of Scope of Audience Emerging from Falola’s Scholarship
These achievements emerge from a culture of yearly multi-book publication he embarked upon after his 1981 PhD at the then University of Ife in Nigeria, having undergone all his education in that home country. Having practically reached the heights of visibility in African Studies, radiating from his originating centre in history to practically all fields in African Studies except the sciences, certain questions remain.
”Whose interests am I serving through this relentless activity? Yes, any comprehensive bibliography on almost any field in African Studies will include a book written or edited by me, with my essays being imaginatively comparable to grains of sand at the ocean shore, but who does my work affect most?” Falola may be imagined as asking himself in quiet moments, in company in which free expression of intimate thoughts is welcome or in public contexts in which such questioning finds a place.
In terms of motivation and summative vision, Falola’s work may be understood in terms of the centralization of African agency, African creative powers, through the medium of multidisciplinary scholarship, complemented by autobiography and poetry.
This task is made paradoxical by Falola’s operating largely through Western publishers, whose books are often priced beyond the reach of the currencies of African countries which are often much weaker than those of the nations in which the publishers are based, and whose distribution presence in Falola’s native Nigeria, for example, is minimal, when it exists in the first place.
Faloa’s situation exemplifies that of the African scholar, particularly migrant African scholars, in the Western academy in its Western location. He is an African scholar, formed in Africa and active in the African academy well before migrating to the US. Yet he operates in the West within an academic system in which publishing with Western publishers is a non-negotiable imperative for career growth, the reach and prestige of these publishers eventually becoming central to Falola’s international esteem in the field. Yet, the work coming out of these publishing houses is often beyond the ready access of people in Africa. The paradoxes of this situation add extra urgency to Falola’s efforts to face the question ”whom does African Studies represent and whose interests does it serve?” the central question shaping his Decolonizing African Studies.
The economic questions invoked here are issues of socio-economic structure which Falola and his collaborators address as far as they can through providing limited ease of access to his work, as represented by book donations, the constant provision of publishing opportunities to any who cares to participate in his numerous book projects, as well as eagerness to help scholars publish their own works, regular conferences in Africa and Falola’s consistent writing in Nigerian news media, dramatizing his belief in the concept of ”brain circulation,” a term I might have heard him use, African diaspora scholars interacting with the continent in a cycle of renewal that ideally involves similar input from Africa based scholars.
This knowledge exchange, however, is often seen, in various contexts beyond the initiatives of Falola and his collaborators, as asymmetrical, with the Western based scholars perceived as those who primarily have something to give while those in Africa, and certainly in Falola’s home country, Nigeria, are understood as primarily recipients from their more advantaged colleagues abroad. Can this dynamic be changed to something more equitable, as Africa-based scholars generate new cognitive schemes, perhaps using the resources of classical African knowledge systems, an aspiration Falola projects with particular force in ”Ritual Archives?”
How may scholarship in Africa and about Africa be empowered, developing its own identity in the marketplace of ideas of how to construct knowledge? That question is the vision of Decolonizing African Studies.
Approaches to Discussing African Aesthetics
As the author acknowledges in Decolonizing African Studies, in a manner suggestive of the myriad possibilities engendered by the fertility of his work as a whole:
The book is particularly informed by the recognition that there will never be one approach to decolonizing knowledge. The book presents decolonization in many ways over various disciplines. There will be the usual contestations, as this book will form the basis of multiple debates, including critical objections to some of my statements. Thought patterns and knowledge systems are, by nature, multiplex and multiplural.
In this essay, my second encounter with Decolonizing African Studies, I have jumped to the chapter ”Decolonizing African Aesthetics” because of my particular interest in aesthetics, generally, and to some degree, African aesthetics. I hereby outline a point of alignment and disalignment with the chapter. Through such a process, one may move towards Falola’s example of integrative analysis over almost the entire field of African Studies as represented by this book, but perhaps approach it in a manner different from himself.
Falola’s attention in this chapter is on varieties of approaches to creativity in the various post-classical arts in African music, fashion and film. ”Post-classical” is a term I’m using in order to avoid the term ”post-colonial,” thereby suggesting the agency of Africans as originating before and going beyond the colonial experience and its consequences.
While Falola focuses on history, he also engages, minimally, in a correlative discussion of aesthetics in terms of ideas that inform or are inspired by art. These are ideas which may be created by the artists themselves or inspired by their work.
In addressing historical developments in music, fashion and film, the chapter complements the one titled ”Decolonizing African Literature.” In creating a mapping of the field inspired by points of agreement and disagreement with Falola’s own mapping, one could group the two chapters together as ”Decolonizing African Arts,” akin to the way more recent editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica classify all African imaginative forms under ”African Arts.”
Along with the arts studied by Falola, we could add the visual arts, which would include sculpture, painting, drawing and architecture, and perhaps others. These additions would be critical, because these are some of the forms in which the artistic decolonization process has been vigorously pursued in Africa and its Diaspora. In architecture, examples such as that of Demas Nwoko need to be examined, correlating Nwoko’s development of ideas of African aesthetics as philosophy, as in the journal New Culture, and his practicalization of his rethinking of African aesthetics through his architectural work. Discussing these arts together would facilitate demonstrating their points of convergence of action and of informing ideas and orientations. Such a correlation would complement the expansive range of arts engaged in Decolonizing African Studies, an expansiveness which is not often demonstrated in discussing African arts.
One could either enlarge the correlative discussion of aesthetics as philosophy, the minimally developed section of the chapter, in relation to aesthetics as artistic progression, the approach Falola centralises, or retain the chapter ”Decolonizing African Aesthetics” as a separate chapter. The second choice facilitates using the chapter as a means of discussing aesthetics, not as first order discourse, as Falola focuses on, a focus on aesthetics as artistic creativity, that being one understanding of aesthetics, but as second order discourse, a reflection on ideas and principles centred in the practice of art and the experience of beauty, as this field may be defined, the subsidiary aspect of aesthetics minimally discussed by Falola.
Aesthetics as second order discourse, as a philosophical discipline, needs to be so closely studied in this context because it’s a central arena in which the struggle for decolonizing African thought is taking place. The field involves both the philosophical positions taken by African and pro-African writers and other artists, to ideas developed by African and non-African scholars in these fields, positions spanning classical and post-classical African arts.
The power of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline is particularly obvious with reference to Western and Asian aesthetics, as developed by artists and scholars. These run from the Indian concept of rasa, to the wabi-sabi concept in Japanese aesthetics, to the Western idea of the Sublime, among others. I am interpreting aesthetics, in this context, as centred in ideas, deliberately constructed concepts, directly or indirectly related to art and the sense of beauty.
African contributions to aesthetics as philosophy include Uche Okeke’s idea of Natural Synthesis in his efforts, as a central ideologue of the 1960s Zaria Art School and his later fundamental influence on the Nsukka Art School, to develop an original direction for post-classical African art. They also involve Rowland Abiodun, Babatunde Lawal, Henry Drewal and others, engaging Yoruba concepts in studying classical Yoruba art as an aspect of reshaping art scholarship on Africa.
These investigations would be later adapted to post-classical Nigerian art, such as employing the idea of oju inu or inward vision from Yoruba philosophy as a category of universalistic artistic analysis. Related to but different from these efforts at demonstrating classical Yoruba aesthetic thought and its contemporary significance is Drewal’s distillation of his theory of Sensiotics from his practical experience as a sculptor in the Yoruba context and his scholarship on this artistic and reflective human environment.
One may choose, though, to subsume such a chapter on decolonizing African aesthetics within the chapter ”Decolonizing African Philosophy,” since aesthetics is a branch of philosophy. Doing that, however, would mean expanding that chapter to also include sub-sections on other branches of philosophy, such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and perhaps even the philosophy of law. This would be critical as a means of integrating developments in these branches in terms of the theme of decolonization.
In metaphysics, one could discuss work like that of Kwasi Wiredu, on Akan ideas of the nature of being, Pantaleon Iruegbu’s development of ”kpim,’‘ meaning ”core or essence of phenomena, from Igbo, Jonathan Chimakonam’s recent book, with Uchenna Ogbonnaya, on metaphysics in an African context, African Metaphysics, Epistemology and a New Logic: A Decolonial Approach to Philosophy (2021), among others. Helpful developments may also be discerned in the philosophy of law, in the relationship between classical African and Western legal systems, such as in the work of Taslim Elias.
In including a section on history and philosophy of science as suggested in my first essay on this book, one could also consider the philosophical orientations of efforts to decolonize African health systems in their adaptation of Western medicine, as in the work of Adeoye Lambo at Aro Psychiatric Hospital and his justifications of his approach with reference to the value of classical African medical systems.
Such studies of Lambo as Mathew Heaton’s “Thomas Adeoye Lambo and the Decolonization of Psychiatry in Nigeria” (in B.M. Bennett and J.M. Hodge (eds) Science and Empire: Britain and the World, 2011), focus on this subject, Heaton doing this in terms of a wealth of intertextual references to studies of science at the nexus of Western and non-Western systems of thought in relation to colonialism and its consequences.
Lambo’s own publications, such as African Traditional Beliefs: Concepts of Health and Medical Practice, 1963, help clarify his vision as a person deeply exposed to both classical African medicine and its philosophical foundations and Western medicine and its philosophical contexts, bringing these into a synthesis.
In sum, an understanding of the subject of decolonizing African Studies which Falola has so broadly covered may be developed through points of identification with or disagreement with his approach. Such a guide to thinking and creation is a central function of scholarly creativity as represented by Falola’s effort to unify the expansive subject of decolonizing African Studies within a summative text.
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Kenyatta University Holds Toyin Falola At 70 Conference
The Department of History, Archeology and Political Science of the Kenyatta University is set to hold a Toyin Falola at 70 Conference.
The conference with the theme “Post-Colonial Africa: Historical and Contemporary Realities” is scheduled to take place between May 10 and 12, 2023 at the Kenyatta University.
Modern African economic, socio-cultural, and political realities have been considerably influenced and defined by colonialism. Colonialism created the foundation of the post-colonial. Since the start of the post-colonial and (especially) the post-cold war era, there has been increased academic interest in colonialism– both in the classic and the neo-colonial forms. There have also been considerable academic and non-academic efforts at decoloniality and decolonizing Africa. These efforts have led to studying and documenting African pre-colonial history, literature, and cultural intricacies to achieve self-determination and re-establish the African identity. It is, therefore, necessary and logically consistent with the above to study Africa’s past in relation to its present. Essentially, it is important that aside from examining the print of colonial pedagogy, methods, and philosophies, Africa is studied in the light of its actions, attempts at self-governance, and realities defined by its stakeholders.
A considerable effort has been directed at researching, documenting, and analyzing Post-colonial Africa across different fields of the Arts and the Humanities. Through such efforts concepts such as neo-colonialism, political hegemony, economic instability, societal disillusionment, administrative lapses among others that touch on the African post-colonial condition have been explored by several researchers and academicians. However, the very basis of the evolution of knowledge and the foundation of the academic world is the consistent evaluation of knowledge, theories, and philosophies. As much as there has been enhanced scholarship around the aforementioned issues, there are still thematically important aspects of Post-Colonial Africa that are relatively unexplored or under-explored. New concepts, skepticism, and relatively new subject matters have developed with the continent’s evolution – particularly concerning socio-culture, administration, globalization, conflicts, diplomacy, and ideological paradigms. For instance, it may be important to define the extent to which pre-colonial Africa influences the post-colonial realities of its nation-states, regions, and Sub-regions, as it applies across respective fields.
Other relevant aspects of the post-colonial African reality like identity dynamics and minority politics, institutions and sub-institutions in Africa, diaspora dynamic, administrative evolution in Africa, Post-colonial gender dynamics in Africa, intercultural realities of distinct nation-states in Africa, cultural awareness, and preservation in Africa, decolonial legal education and practice, ideological politics in post-colonial African, among others. The COVID-19 pandemic presented new dynamics to interpret and understand the place of post-colonial Africa in the world in light of global power politics and diplomatic spate over the causes of COVID-19, vaccine politics, and international travel restrictions. COVID-19 highlighted the need to rethink post-colonial Africa’s readiness to respond to global challenges independently.
The Department of History, Archeology and Political Studies through the Research and Innovation Committee (DRIC) plans to host a conference that is directed at answering the conceptual questions that underline some key aspects of post-colonial Africa – as defined by the necessary contextual factors and underlining theories. The conference is expected to feature different themes and introduce concepts, arguments, and theories that are well-adjusted to current African realities.
The department also wishes to use the occasion to celebrate the 70-year life journey of Professor Toyin Falola, a world renowned Distinguished Professor of History and the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Falola has dedicated his entire academic life, with over 150 titles under his name, reflecting on the African condition both in historical and contemporary terms. In March 2022, the Department hosted Professor Falola, who gave thought provoking lectures on “Decolonization of Africa Studies”. As a department, we are keen to use the conference to continue enriching our conversations around this and related themes, enhance our scholarly connections and collaborations, establish new research and publication partnerships as well as strengthen existing ones.
The conference sub-themes will include but are not limited to the following:
- Decoloniality, and decolonization, as it intertwines with post-colonial studies
- Internationalization in the African region – key factors for consideration should include Pan-Africanism as examined through the lens of its basis, the status quo, and possible ways forward.
- Post-colonial economy and the role of the nation-state in establishing independent regional control
- Resource control as it affects neo-colonialistic affiliations and European hegemonic influence in Post-colonial Africa
- Liberal ideological predispositions and the socio-philosophical future of the African Nation states – with considerations to the influence of the youth demography
- Developmental politics in Post-colonial Africa
- Gender dynamics and politics in Post-colonial Africa
- Post-colonial Literature and the future of the arts in Africa
- Migration, conflicts, and peace actions in post-colonial Africa
- Regional collaboration and diplomatic politics in Post-Colonial Africa
The conference is expected to attract participation from academicians, researchers, experts and practitioners in the area of African history and other related humanities and social science disciplines. These shall be drawn from mainly Kenyan and other African institutions as well as from outside the Africa continent. The conference will allow for a blended mode where some participants will be present on-site at Kenyatta university while others will present online.
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Prospective participants are encouraged to send abstracts of between 250 and 500 words, including their full contact details (title, name, address, email address and telephone number) as well as their institutional affiliation by 30th February, 2023 to: email@example.com
Authors of accepted abstracts will be notified by 5th March 2023 and asked to prepare full papers to be presented during the conference. The official language of the conference will be English. Papers presented at the conference will be peer reviewed and published in an edited volume.
27th January, 2023: Call for Papers/Abstracts
30th February, 2023: Deadline for Receipt of Abstracts
5th March 2023: Notification of Acceptance of Abstracts/Papers
15th April 2023: Deadline for receipt of Full papers
20th April, 2023: Registration begins
1st May, 2023: End of Registration
10th to 12 May 2023: Conference Dates
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Falola, Yacob-Haliso Release New Book, African Refugees
Foremost African historian Professor Toyin Falola has released a new book in collaboration with Professor Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso.
The 590-page book titled African Refugees was published by Bloomington: Indiana University Press in 2023.
African Refugees is a comprehensive overview of the context, causes, and consequences of refugee lives, discussing issues, policies, and solutions for African refugees around the world. It covers overarching topics such as human rights, policy frameworks, refugee protection, and durable solutions, as well as less-studied topics such as refugee youths, refugee camps, LGBTQ refugees, urban refugees, and refugee women. It also takes on rare but emergent topics such as citizenship and the creativity of African refugees.
African Refugees recognizes African agency and contributions in pursuit of solutions for African refugees over time but avoids the pitfalls of the colonial gaze—where refugees are perpetually pathologized and Africa is always the sole cause of its own problems—seeking to complicate these narratives by recognizing African refugee issues within exploitative global, colonial, and neo-colonial systems of power.
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REVIEW: Musikilu Mojeed’s The Letterman
From Presidents To Soldiers To Nations (2)
By Toyin Falola
The second part of the review of The Letterman focuses on the series of letters written by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to presidents, regional leaders, nations, and even military men. These letters are more critical and were either Obasanjo’s responses or observations on the nation’s affairs. Mojeed has effectively packed these letters in chapters three to twelve, focusing on military professionalism, democratic leadership affairs, and attacks on the politics under military rule in Nigeria. After this, the book has letters on the political games in Nigeria, focusing on tactical players, and in the last three chapters, the book pays attention to the letters Obasanjo wrote to the international community on Nigeria and African affairs. It is important to note that the letters in this part of the review reveal that Obasanjo’s letters are prominent and will be situated appropriately in the archives on Nigeria’s political history.
Reading these letters curated by Mojeed provides an insight into the mind of Obasanjo as a global leader who has educated and admonished international and local political leaders. As a result, the foundation of this review will be on the consistent and recurring nature of the difficulties of governance in Nigeria and Africa, historically and presently. Through his presidential letters, Obasanjo pushed the frontiers of individuals seeking to observe and build a working and new Nigerian nation and a truly prosperous African continent.
Chapters three to eight of The Letterman aptly and adequately present Obasanjo’s courage, patriotic commitment, and concept of discipline during the war years as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Third Marine Commando. He was ardent in ending despondency amongst soldiers, which he appropriately covered in his book, My Command. The letters in these chapters were written to soldiers concerning their welfare and mismanagement. Through the letters, the readers can perceive different shades of the commanding officer. In the war-front letters, Mojeed captures Obasanjo’s letters written to Lt. Col. Ariyo and Lt. Col. Aliyu, in which he referred to the latter’s letter as childish and baseless: “Your assertion of other brigades being better supported is childish. I have no favourite among the brigades and neither has any of my staff officers.”
Also, Obasanjo’s letters surveyed and demanded no nonsense from his officers. In one of his letters dated June 26, 1969, he fired a memo to Lt. Col. Alani Akinrinade, querying him for travelling out of his sector without permission. Interestingly, he titled it “Discipline Officers.” Obasanjo was detailed, and he wrote with so much assertion. The letter’s last paragraph aptly captures the tone: “Nothing short of this will I take. I regard your visit to Port Harcourt on 25 June ’69 without my permission or being informed as grossly improper. Neither was any of my staff officers informed.”
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In contrast, the letters in Chapter 4 of The Letterman are more centred on the well-being and welfare of the soldiers, particularly during the war. The letters in this chapter are longer than those on discipline for the soldiers. They are more spontaneous, empathetic, and a general call for action across all regions of the country during the war. For instance, there is a different version of the Commander trying to look after the soldiers’ health and monitoring their ability to perform their duty. Mojeed titled this chapter “The Piercing Letters to Gowon.” It is important to point out that the word “piercing” suggests the letter’s depth of emotions, tone, and sympathy. In one of the paragraphs in his letter, Obasanjo wrote: “I would like to hint that the present high morale of both officers and men in the field is only being maintained and can only be sustained by the expectation of a dramatic move to end the war soonest.” Despite setting up disciplinary actions for the soldiers when they erred, Obasanjo maintained and ensured the general well-being of the soldiers so they could duly perform their duties for the nation.
Based on these, we see Obasanjo as a Commanding Officer who upholds the concept of discipline. Through his letters, he implied complete triumph, and despite the unlimited control over the soldiers, he still acted right and in an unbiased manner. The objective of the discipline was to effectively present an organized society that would enhance the nation’s orderliness, harmony, and progress. The portraiture of the character presented in the letters helps readers to accurately compare the notion of indiscipline and dedication, which are aspects of the discipline.
From his letters, it can be deduced that Obasanjo exemplifies dedication and demonstrates what should be preached and sold to people in service and governance to help properly promote work and present a dutiful image of the country. He is portrayed as having the will to work for others as eagerly as he was willing to work for himself and put out more efforts, which earned him self-respect and contentment at work. This attribute made him look at matters objectively, particularly during the war, as he was concerned about the inadequate funds to see out the war.
Obasanjo expressed his thoughts in the letter he angrily wrote to General Yakubu Gowon, the Commander-in-Chief, in July 1969. The tone of the letter was harsh and showed some level of disappointment, and he also gave his impression and thoughts about the situation, which proved his allegiance to the notion of citizenship, patriotism, and nationhood. This part will be densely quoted to capture this view: “It is rather disheartening that all of us in uniform seem not to be able to understand the implications and ramifications of the present civil war. I wrote to you in all seriousness and conscious of my duties and loyalty to you and to the country…It will be disastrous to save the economy and lose the war…We seemed to be confused in our mission and our aim. We give the impression of groping in the dark and wandering about aimlessly and purposelessly. I am sure we can do it with a sense of mission and a sense of direction. The country needs to be woken up from her slumber and apparent complacency.”
As part of embracing the idea of openness and being unbiased, Obasanjo allowed criticism even from junior soldiers. Mojeed captures this well in the letters Obasanjo wrote and received from General Abisoye, which helps the readers to understand the concept of duty and responsibility. On November 28, 1969, General Abisoye wrote to his Commander, fiercely objecting to the plan, which the author of the book quoted as thus: “You will recall that you did confirm to me that you were unaware that an almanack is being arranged for the Division.” It is understood that Obasanjo accepted the complaint without taking offence at the audacity of his junior. In his response, he even made a joke about his facial attractiveness.
Additionally, Obasanjo’s ability to differentiate between duty and responsibility and make oneself accountable, even in the face of confrontation from a junior colleague, is noteworthy, as he promotes the idea of self-respect amongst workers, which should also be a quality in public service. Therefore, the attribute of respect for the rights of others goes along with responsibility, and the demands of individuals or groups should be accommodated to ensure a common goal is attained.
However, not all soldiers were on the same page with Obasanjo. He had conflicting issues with some of them, like Colonel Godwin Alabi-Isama and General Oyeleye, which Mojeed describes as a faceoff. It is even important to state that these soldiers wrote books as a sort of response to the subject. In The Letterman, the author notes that the relationship between Obasanjo and Alabi-Isama (then in charge of Sector 3 of the Division) was initially cordial, but it quickly deteriorated about a month after the new GOC’s arrival. This was because the Commander had received a complaint accusing the officer of improperly acquiring a Mercedes Benz car from the war front. Obasanjo’s words were a mixture of harshness and understanding in the letter responding to the Colonel. He wrote: “I will loathe to imagine the cost to all of us on this side of our inability to make the rebels accept our terms or be defeated. Their success is our death, no matter our hopes, wishes, aspirations and ambitions. I take your mood of last night as a temporary fatigue and with little relaxation, recreation and rest, you will be fighting-fit again.”
Similarly, he had hot shots with Major James Oluleye because he set aside Oluleye’s operational instruction in favour of his plan, which ultimately damaged the once cordial relationship between the two men and created additional challenges to the war effort. The letters exchanged between both men were hot, short, and filled with assertive diction. The second paragraph draws from Obasanjo’s reply: “Naturally, in the course of duty, we have had disagreements on plans and methods. But now that I seem to have been vindicated on my plans and methods, you will understand why I felt as I felt at times in those grim days.”
In his post-military letters, Obasanjo wrote to regional leaders, military rulers, and later to the heads of political parties in the country. The letters to this set of Nigerian leaders were a call to action, and the tone was critical. Starting with the letters to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he wrote more like an elder statesman and used more warning language mixed with advice for the veteran politician. In a letter dated December 13, 1979, the recently retired General took issue with Awolowo’s political address to his party’s congress. Obasanjo responded to the letter and accused Awolowo of a lack of ethical rules in his dealings. The introduction of the letter was direct and confronting: “Your address to your party’s congress yesterday and the allegations contained therein against the federal military government which I had the honour to lead and against me personally impelled me, in the interest of Nigeria, to write this letter to you.”
Chief Awolowo’s responded to Obasanjo’s long letter and went straight to the point: “Your letter of 12 December 1979 was delivered to me by your courier at about 6.00 p.m. yesterday. Whilst thanking you for the letter, I have a few comments to make in reply.” In another one of Awolowo’s letters, he wrote to Obasanjo thus: “Finally, I send you herewith four bags of Gari. There are two kinds; the very fine and the not-too fine. Both are very good as you and your family will discover. They are both produced in one and the same process with different sieves.” In response, Obasanjo sent a congratulatory birthday letter to him. However, although they exchanged long and confronting letters, they both had the nation’s interest at heart.
Obasanjo’s letters to Shehu Shagari, Ibrahim Babangida, and Abacha were more aggressive as he attacked their administrative dealings and local government policies. In his letters, as analyzed in The Letterman, readers have an idea of how instability has been the reason for the nature of political change in Nigeria, where stability is supposed to surface, as well as the realignment of forces to bring the nation together. This reignited Nigerians’ hope that they would enjoy the dividends of independence promised by civilian political leaders. However, this was not adequately espoused in the Shagari government. The letter, presented by Mojeed, shows that Obasanjo had a very low opinion of the Shagari-led administration. This is reflected in a September 28, 1983, letter by Vida Musa, Obasanjo’s secretary at the time, to Martin Iroabuchi, then editor of the Daily Times newspaper. In the letter, the secretary wrote, echoing Obasanjo’s sentiments: “At the federal level there is a chief executive or president who has shown tremendous political tolerance and NOT much political sagacity. At the state level the performances of chief executives have been variable but in totality short of expectation. The legislatures could have performed better than they did.”
The letters in Chapter 11 and Chapter 12 focus on the rulings of the military men – General Sani Abacha and General Ibrahim Babangida. According to Mojeed, Abacha “enjoys the deserved reputation of being the most brutal and corrupt of all soldiers who forced their way into Nigeria’s ruling house.” In a letter to Babangida, Obasanjo wrote: “This letter is now formally to request you to explore and conclude, with the greatest speed and effectiveness, new interventions in the international financial system in support of our general external debt reduction programme.” The letter revealed that the local government policy was “decapitating the local government administrative structure and warned that this would “amount to elimination of a vital instrument of development closest to the people.” In the letter, which was more of a warning, Obasanjo wrote, “It will be a grievous mistake of immense implications and consequences for all of us. I therefore urge that the complaints of the Union be looked into and what appears as the fatal incursion into and slow but steady decapitation of the local government be halted.”
In Nigeria, the trends of political instability amounted to belief in a social revolution by the people and a new set of power grid men that believed that the radical transformation of Nigerian society and government was paramount and inevitable. This birthed the incursion of the military government in Nigeria from the 1960s to the 70s. In as much as this new form of government was the norm at that time, political leaders, including Obasanjo, had seen the idea of the political order in a new light or perspective, which was why he sent most of the letters as a sincere call to action for the military leaders in power.
Furthermore, the substantial parts of the letters were those he wrote to the international community, from the apartheid crossfires to Jimmy Carter and the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. In these sets of letters during that period, General Obasanjo combined the attributes of a courageous leader from Africa and Africans who sought more urgency in the dealings of the South African regime to welcome a new South Africa. From these letters, Obasanjo demonstrated that he was interested in the Nigerian agenda and how Africa is portrayed in global affairs. Africa is facing the problem of cultural dependency and liberation of power from international systems. Obasanjo saw the brewing hypocrisy from the international community, angrily broke protocol, and had an altercation with Thatcher. Afterwards, a frustrated and angry Obasanjo wrote her a letter condemning the Prime Minister unreservedly.
The letter, dated August 1986, where Obasanjo referred to her as “Dear Margaret,” shows readers how complex and astute he is. He introduced the letter thus: “After our meeting on Sunday, I write as one committed democrat to another. Yours is an old country with a lengthy democratic tradition; mine a new country undergoing a process of nation-building. But as democrats, we can be frank with each other.”
From the above, it is obvious that Mojeed’s book chronicles the various sets of letters that Obasanjo wrote to the most senior officers who served in his time, the democratic and military leaders, international leaders, as well as celebrities and notable persons in Nigeria and abroad. This set of letters curated by Mojeed in the book shows a man with different shades of characters with his flaws while simultaneously putting the interest of the nation and the African continent at heart. We can agree that President General Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has a place in Nigerian history, and his series of letters have helped the readers to see him from newer perspectives.
By cataloguing the letters of a complex man to help readers have a thorough understanding of his values, attributes, and belief systems in public service, leadership, and human relations in The Letterman, Mojeed has established his craftsmanship and professionalism as one of the most erudite editors in modern Nigerian journalism, especially with its journalistic reporting and blend of the biographical genre. As a historian, I celebrate his decision and efforts to produce this landmark book. Many will surely put it to good use in writing the history of Nigeria.
Mojeed is committed to building a strong Nigeria, and his unstated intentions are to search for the Gospels. This may be his Mark, the first gospel, as he journeys through to reach the Gospel of John. Perhaps, this is the beginning of his surahs, as The Letter Man is divided into ayats, with the Al-Kawthar and the Al-Bagara. The Meccan speaks to the people, and the Medinan to political leaders. I can feel the anguish of Mojeed in locating Al-Fathia, still missing from his fascinating book, in which the salah leads us not unto mercy. The preface, which should have been a Bismillah, falls short of a Rakat. Mojeed is careful not to convert Obasanjo into an Alhamudullah, as he owns neither the world nor heaven. In avoiding equating Obasanjo as Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim, Mojeed has kept fate to the ultimate injunction of man as no more than the vicegerent of Allah (Quran 29:11).
Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.
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