Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Art and Ashe in the Yoruba Tradition/ Second Half

By Brian George

Ashe means literally “it is so, or may it be so.” It is sometimes defined as “power, authority, command, scepter” (Abraham),6 “a coming to pass…effect; imprecation” (Crowther).7  It is neither a moral nor an immoral force, but simply the force, by which all things are brought into manifest existence.8 Ulli Beier explains, “Yoruba believe strongly in the power of the word, or rather in a mysterious force called Ashe…that quality in a man's personality which makes his words—once uttered—come true”.9 Says Raymond Prince, “It would appear that their background conception is that to utter the name of something may draw that something into actual existence…not only within the mind and body of he who utters and he who hears the word, but also in the physical world as well.”10

Without ohun, voice, the verbalization or performance or the word, Ashe would not be able to operate.11 This formative action is the human being's contribution to the equilibrium of the worlds.12 The Yoruba do not distinguish between the efficacy of the different forms of art. Music, dance, invocation, story, sculpture, costume, and myth interact as a dynamic whole.

A person who has learned to harness and to work with the force is referred to as an Alaase.13 The sender aims his or her Ashe at the targeted object, and then, if he or she does not wish to incur unintended consequences, asks for permission to proceed.14 This is like the call part of a call and response chant. The initiator asks, “Is it right that you should exist? Am I doing what my soul, at this time and in this place, demands?” If the work of art is successful it will not just sit there on the ground, hang there on the lips, or project itself mechanically through space.

The living work is said to possess iluti, or good hearing.15 It does what it has been asked to do. It should not only inspire or satisfy the aesthetic appetite. It should be able to communicate with its creator(s) as an almost independent being, to answer, “je, “and to respond, “dahun.”16 The work of arts says, “Yes. It is right that I should exist. This is no doubt the beginning of a beautiful relationship, for both the upper and the lower worlds. Here I am. It will be so.”

Art allows the Ashe of the upper worlds to become available for use. It sweetens the ambivalence of the trickster. It focuses the attention, so that the viewer is better able to withstand the influx of other—dimensional force. Ashe, however indispensable for any form of action, is also volatile. It is both the rocket fuel and the chariot of the gods. Eshu wears a hat that is red on one side, black on the other. The force he guards operates in many ways, in many places, and its action never looks quite the same to any two humans. Safe access comes only at the price of calm attention, if the law of unintended consequences is to be avoided. The work of art should possess the dynamic symmetry inherent in the structure of the cosmos from the start. It should act as a landing pad where the mind can luxuriate in coolness. At the same time it should expand the mind by stealth, test it, and provoke it to jump beyond itself.

Lawal asserts, “To tame or pacify is to cool the face (tu l'oju). Thus, providing the non-figurative symbol of an Orisha with sculptured face facilitates the pacification of that Orisha, for what has a face is controllable.”17 Steve Quintana, a Cuban Santero and the godfather to my daughter, would laugh at the idea that an Orisha could be controlled. One might just as well talk of controlling the currents of the sea, associated with Yemaya, the flow of lava from a volcano, associated with Agayu, or the precise tilt of a tornado, associated with Oya. If the energy of the Orishas cannot be controlled it can, however, be invoked. A relationship can be established. Energy can be transduced, through the coils or ritual and art, from one state to another.

If the Orishas act on our behalf it is because, having first established a good rapport, having learned to speak a few words in the language of Ifa, having welcomed, fed and tended to them as beloved guests in our houses, we have then politely asked. A bow and the string of an instrument are brought together at cross purposes, as Heraclitus says.18 A human hand makes contact with the skin of the bata drum. The membrane of the interactive network vibrates like an ear. Feet stomp. Eyes pop open. Breathing swells. Some trauma from a past life bars full access to the hypersphere. Trespassers will be violated. The bald doctor who was old before the deluge pulls one’s hair. Our concept of what it is to breathe should then undergo an upheaval. Again, the mother drum breathes us. There is no self to fear death. The praise song can be heard at least as far as Saturn, beyond which interest in our baby steps becomes steadily more sporadic.

Our other-dimensional counterparts have business to take care of. Like us, they have worlds to make before they sleep. Thus, it is lucky that the influx of Ashe is not required to make sense. Polyrhythms open the ecstatic body like a book. Its pages are the strata of the worlds before our own. Each participant in the bembe should feel free to bend or modernize the laws of nature.

The bond between the human and the other, brought into the present, grows. Since the Yoruba idea of hierarchy does not involve a lesser or a greater, it will at the end be a relationship among equals.19 Each can offer the other what is needed for a more complete fulfillment of the work at hand.

We can offer to the past an alternate history of our species. A glass of rum should be left to wash it down. We can offer an experience in biology to the powers who have almost forgotten the great promise of Pangaea. We can add one piece to the puzzles left unassembled by many an alien civilization.

It is Ashe that weaves the threads of potential into the many colored fabric of existence. Clothes teleported from the upper worlds create a sensation on the Earth. Fashions lifted from the Earth provoke a corresponding stir above. The logarithmic spiral is in charge of a secret system of sizes; one superconscious dream fits all. Ashe connects. By fertilizing the separate, it creates both parts anew. Ashe builds a translucent bridge from the human to the Orishas, from the Earth to the ancestors, from the ego to the occluded parts of the soul.

A scent of sacrificial blood has returned across the ocean to lap the star hub of the 8-spoked city. It is Ashe that yokes the worlds in a constant wheel of communication, a reciprocal exchange of gifts.


Art and Ashe in the Yoruba Tradition
Illustration at top of essay: Eshu, Unknown Artist, 1880—1920, Museum of Science, London
1) James Hillman, The Soul's Code, Random House, Inc., New York, 1996, page 255
2) Migene Gonzales—Wippler, Santeria, The Religion, A Legacy of Faith, Rites, and Magic, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York/ 1989/ page 5
3) Reginaldo Prandi, Candomble and Time, Brazillian Review of Social Sciences, number 2, October 2002, pages 9—12
4) Mgene Gonzales—Wippler, Santeria; The Religion; A Legacy of Faith, Rites, and Magic, Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc, 225 Park Ave, NY, 1989, pages 96—97
5) Judith Illsley Gleason, Clever Eshu, Parabola (Fall), Crossroads Issue, 1993, Pages 41—42
6) R.C. Abraham, The Dictionary of Modern Yoruba, University of London press, 1958
7) Samuel Crowther, A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language, Seeleys, London, 1852
8) Henry John Drewel and Margaret Thompson Drewel, Gelede, Art and Female Power Among the Yoruba, Indiana University Press, 1990, page 5
9) H.U. Beier, Yoruba Poetry, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/ 1970, Page 49
10) R. Prince, Curse, Invocation and Mental Health Among the Yoruba, Canadian Psychiatric Journal 5, 1960, page 66
11) Richard Abiodun, Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, The Concept of Ase/ African Arts, July, 1994, page 73
12) George Brandon, Santeria, from Africa to the New World, The Dead Sell Memories, Indiana University Press, 1993, page 17
13) John Drewel, John Pemberton III, Rowland Boiodun, Yoruba; Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, The Center for African Art and Abrams, Inc., New York/ 1989, Page 16
14) Richard Abiodun, Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, The Concept of Ase, African Arts, July, 1994, page 74
15) Richard Abiodun, Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, The Concept of Ase, African Arts, July, 1994, page 73
16) Richard Abiodun, Understanding Yoruba Art and Aesthetics, The Concept of Ase, African Arts, July, 1994, page 73
17) Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, African and Afro—American Art and Philosophy, Random House, Inc., New York, 1984, page 12
18) Philip John Neimark, The Way of the Orisa, Harper, San Francisco, 1993, page 12
19) John Drewel, John Pemberton III, Rowland Boiodun, Yoruba; Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, The Center for African Art and Abrams, Inc., New York/ 1989, Page 18

(Illustrations: Yoruba sculptures of Eshu/ Elegua, artists unknown)