development of the permanent gallery (cont.)

Yoruba culture is one of the great cultures of the world, responsible for great religious, literary, musical and artistic traditions. The aim in the John Randle is to shine a light (Tan) on to these traditions. Yoruba tradition does not stand still. The Yoruba word for tradition, Aṣa, suggests a process of refining, discriminating and innovating. Yoruba tradition continuously evolves and informs the present and the future. The verb Pa means to create, to bring things together. To tell a story (Pa Itan) is to enter into those traditions. The John Randle Centre joins the traditions of the past with the present and looks to the future. 

The chief inspiration for the John Randle Centre was a book by Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba Art and Language. Abiodun’s reading of Yoruba culture was instrumental in the making of the exhibition, with invaluable contributions from exhibition co-curators Jacob Olupona, Henry Drewal and Will Rea. 

There is no – one – story that can encompass the whole of Yoruba. This is our version and you will have your own. We have not provided a precise linear history of Yoruba society and development. Rather the exhibition is designed to guide you on a path from a time of myth and legend into the modern world and on to an imagined future. In doing so we hope to illustrate traditions that are familiar and some that may surprise. The exhibition, because it is an exhibition, has had to make choices; it is our way of presenting a story. Most importantly, we hope it makes you think of your story and that you feel that you can tell us about it. We want to hear your story. 

The people who define themselves as Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. The Yoruba language is spoken by about 30 million people in Nigeria, and there are substantial groups of Yoruba speakers around the world. The history of the Yoruba is a complex weaving together of separate identities. Historically, Yoruba identity developed from a group of loosely aligned kingdoms (based on towns such as Ife and Oyo) that through war, invasion (including that of the British) and politics came to regard social and cultural similarity as a mark of common identity. The cultural heritage of the Yoruba is based on a shared myth of origin in which the world was created at the city of Ile Ife, which flourished between 1100 and 1700. The town remains at the centre of Yoruba religious belief, based on a group of gods known as the Orisha (although most Yoruba now identify as either Christian or Muslim). 

Most Yoruba towns make claim to foundation by the sons of the first king of Ile Ife – Oduduwa. Between the 17th and 19th centuries many of these towns found themselves incorporated into the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo. Oyo enjoyed a cultural dominance that was only destroyed in the 19th century by the northern Islamic empire of the Fulani. The 19th century was a time of turbulence; Oyo re-established its power base in the town of Ibadan and attempted to conquer much of south-western Nigeria. In 1898 the British occupation of Lagos forced a widespread peace across south-western Nigeria. The 20th century witnessed growing Yoruba unity as well as incorporation into the state of Nigeria.

For Abiodun and his colleagues, Yoruba culture continues to develop and grow, so the exhibition is open-ended. Young Yoruba visitors can go to a booth to give their own version of how Yoruba culture might develop. For the designers, the challenge is to express so much in the limited space. First of all, they need to create a space which expresses the traditions of a Yoruba town; incorporating the everyday, the popular and the creative arts. The second challenge is to bring these elements into relation with individual Yoruba achievements in the modern world and to look to how Yoruba culture and all those who identify as Yoruba will define the 21st century.

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