Sunday, 17 April 2016

Serge Clottey written by Keilah Wells


Talking Culture with Serge Attukwei Clottey 
written by Keilah Wells
photos by Regual Tschumi 
April 2016

 
Today begins an ongoing debate about life in Ghana, the first country on the Continent to gain Independence, back in 1957. Spearheaded by the artist, Serge Clottey, along with an entourage of fellow artists from Labadi, Nima and elsewhere in Accra, Gallery 1957 is opening its doors to the public at the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City. The aim of the project is to pioneer new ways of seeing Art and the purpose of culture to any society.  Unlike the previous generations of Post Colonial artists from Africa, those that were given scholarships and awards to educate themselves in various European art colleges like the Slade, the Royal Academy, the International Art College or Ecole Beaux Art Superiore in Paris, we are now beginning to see a change like never before. The artists are choosing to turn their backs on the more formal training from the West and preferring to exercise something far more organic, original and home-grown, pulling from every aspect found in their proud indigenous cultures and remaking what is considered art in West Africa as a stamp for the International Art Community to look toward. This is developing a certain shift in the global mindset towards the Continent. There is suddenly a need for a re-education and a greater understanding of the purpose and meaning of Art.  Through a series of unique and authentic installations, works of art and performances, the gallery is setting an impressive standard for others to follows.

Serge Attukwei Clottey has gained international recognition via the Internet and through his travels overseas with his works focusing on the yellow jerry cans, an iconic visual symbol that have become central to his work; these yellow gallon drums are used to bring water to homes of the underprivileged can be seen throughout the poorer neighbourhoods of Accra and becomes his optical metaphor for the underdevelopment of Ghana’s Capital.  Water is at a premium and although considered the most essential human right on earth, in the Accra, tap water in homes is strictly reserved for the wealthy and well-to-do. Good drainage and plumbing throughout the city has yet to be achieved for all. Serge is often regarded as one of the leading lights of his era and within the last few years has effectively developed a new generation of artists from Africa – Generation X but what would his father say to his son, dressing up in his Mother’s clothes and calling it Art?

The turning point in Serge’s artistic development was when he ventured over to Brazil and worked at Belo Horizonte in 2006.  This gave him an insight into what Art could be and he then began to challenge the narrow parameters of what was regarded as Contemporary African Art. Now we begin to see how he bravely took on the mantra from his father Mr Seth Clottey, whose formal, conventional more conservative artworks brought him fame in the years during Independence and beyond.  Although his father’s paintings are highly accomplished works of Art they do tend to favour a Colonial appetite. The idea of creating portraiture, figurative works or landscapes, stretched onto canvases and set in gilded frames seemed a little unadventurous for his fiercely competitive son. Those old-fashioned and outdated works seemed to somehow play into the hands of an oppressed past. They were created on demand and on the basis to be sold. To find a specific market for an invisible dominance that seems to have remained in Ghana since Independence. The young artist felt that his father’s generation were nothing more than Ghanaians copying the West. The culture in West Africa, just like elsewhere on the Continent, is to show your respect for your elders at all times and never to confrontation them. To do so is regarded as being utterly impertinent and rewarded with a handsome beating.  His father, Mr Seth Clottey simply couldn’t understand what on earth he was up to. This tormented father/son relationship was certainly not an easy one and the very idea of creating works out of discarded rubbish was difficult for the older generation to come to terms with and virtually impossible to comprehend. Mr. Seth Clottey was furious with his non-conforming off spring, thinking him rude and disrespectful. It was at this time when I first met Serge, at his poorest and his best. He was at war with himself and all those around him. The two artists young and old were at loggerheads. His father was completely baffled by his son’s antics, thinking he would never make anything of himself playing with the discarded scraps of the city. What kind of livelihood could he make from such efforts? He never for one instance considered what he was doing could possibly be taken seriously and Ghana would end up making fun of his son and ruin the family name, so began the agonizing early years and the beginning of Serge’s artistic endeavours. 

These were the tough days as the hardships Serge faced without financial or emotional support meant he was limited to the materials he could afford and the places he could sleep. Having such little money he found solace in his friends in the impoverished areas of Labadi and Nima, these are some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Accra, but it was here that the banished son found his support. He would assist in the pulling in of the nets for the fishermen in Labadi to earn a decent square meal. He lived in a simple room without running water or electricity, so painting in oil or acrylics was too much to ask, so these limitations became his greatest asset. During the day he became a beach comber looking for any washed up garbage he could use as artistic materials and bind together to create his artworks. The difficulty in the early days was to break that classic mindset of the past, that hangover from Colonialism that Art can only truly be art if it looks like the Art being produced in the West (Europe or America). It took enormous will-power and stubbornness from the young artist that was so determined to make his mark in the world of Art, but thankfully, with the introduction of the Internet and access to a wider world, all his intense thinking was echoed elsewhere. The artist’s true pathway was rising to meet him and the battle for true cultural independence was set.

At first Serge started using far more unconventional methods of creating and more in-line with artists of the past, before the time of the invaders. Using his own interpretation of modern African art Serge quickly showed his skills off by mixing motherboards and electronic innards with brightly coloured plastics with string and rope tied onto plants of wood, which made up his sculptural statements, forging his own unique creations and generating a comprehensive parable for modernity; the idea of technology taking centre stage in this newly shaping metropolitan environment of modern Accra.  At the time things were changing at lightning pace but only for the few and in reality the majority were still very much the same. In the years that followed things became increasingly exciting as Serge became more visible on Social Media where he could display his works, show-off his modelling fashion photographs, his team that were building up around him as he started to document the faces of Labadi and his journeys overseas to Vienna. Here is where his work really started to make more sense and the various international artists that he was introduced to where, by and large wonderfully encouraging and compassionate. His work started to flourish along with his confidence and his performance works became a delight to watch, of a homeless Ghanaian in a European Capital and his primal desire was a tongue-in-check empty television, mocking those from the West and the miserable Africans that seem to make no sense whilst inhabiting the foolish world of unrequited wealth.  Somehow, almost by magic he had found the portal to a world he knew was there but felt he could never reach. The door was beginning to open and through it he could express all his desires and beliefs in ways he knew to be, not only international but more importantly the origins of practices performed within indigenous West Africa. The secret to great Art lies in its honesty and its execution. It was a few years later and Serge was gaining fame by the day and it wasn’t long before an opportunity to tour America became available. This is like hitting the jackpot for any living artist but more-so for an African Artist. He traveled from New York on the East Coast and then moved in land to the Mid-West to Ohio and then onto the West Coast of Los Angeles and San Francisco. With all his new found American experiences Serge returned back to Ghana to a heroes welcome


This exhibition is a landmark show. A mid-career show. A coming of age, not just for this artist but for Africa too, his work speaks of loss, of sadness and his life that will never be the same again, it will seem a little emptier than before as the Artist’s mother has died.  He wears her clothes and asks others to do that same in a ritualistic manner, so West Africa in its birth, so unique and daring this event must be clearly marked in the History of African Art. It answers so many questions. Are the Artists from Africa to follow the West and be cloned into something they simply are not? Are they all to wait for opportunities abroad and only then can they make a difference internally? The world is overly aware of the way in which funerals are conducted in Ghana. They are huge events,  where everybody is invited and all share in the process of the burial but what about the grief, is their grief in Ghana? Of course they grieve like everybody else it is a human condition to feel loss and that sense of respectful emptiness of a life lost forever.





The symbol of Ghana is a yellow gallon plastic water carrier, used in a way to call out change of different kinds. Through this symbol we see the state of Ghana today, poor and enslaved by the rich who have drainage and silver taps with running water. They have gardens with sprinklers and swimming pools in the front and a second pool at the back too. They have huge water towels to service the house; large generators gently humming and running the electricity; satellite dishes can be seen in the garden, there to keep up to date with world news and fast speed internet. But all these mod-cons are not for everybody, purely for the elite. The greedy individuals that keep the country on its knees and favour this divided unfair society. When people talk of the economy growing what difference does it make for the poor....NONE.  They are kept poor in order for the economy to grow. This will surely breed resentment and anger in the majority and so we have a group of artists who can speak on their behalf. Through his International travels Serge has learned just how powerful Art can be.  Working collectively and with strict guidelines on certain messages Serge and his team are keen to highlight the struggles of those less fortunate. The artists have found a way in which to have a voice that can serve the people and make them proud to call themselves Ghanaians.
 



Friday, 25 March 2016

Ngugi wa Thiong'o - Jalada Africa

New Ngugi wa Thiong’o story translated into over 30 African languages in record-breaking issue of Jalada Africa

Ngugi wa Thiong'o
In the House of the InterpreterA Grain of WheatThe River BetweenWeep Not, ChildPetals of BloodDreams in a Time of WarWizard of the Crow

The latest edition of Jalada Africa contains a new short story by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o translated into over 30 African languages, making it the “single most translated short story in the history of African writing”.


The short story was originally written in Kikuyu as “Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ”, and was translated by Ngũgĩ himself into English as “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright”.

This is an impressive first foray into translation for Jalada Africa, a Pan-African writers’ collective based in Nairobi, Kenya. Translation Issue: Volume 1 is the culmination of a four-month project, and features collaborative work by professional and amateur translators as well as language enthusiasts from 14 African countries.

In his introduction to the issue, Jalada Africa managing editor Moses Kilolo says: “Professor Wa Thiong’o is uniquely placed to be the first distinguished author and intellectual featured in our periodical translations issue. He has, for many years, been the most vocal proponent in publishing in African languages.”

nullThe story is available in Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiZulu and Xitsonga, as well as the original Kikuyu, Ahmharic, Dholuo, Kikamba, Lwisukha-Lwidakho, Ikinyarwada, Arabic, Luganda, Kiswahili, Hausa, Meru, Lingala, Igbo, Ibibio, Somali, Nandi, Rukiga, Bamanankan, Lugbarati, Shona, Lubukusu, Kimaragoli, Giriama, Sheng, Ewe, Naija Languej, Marakwet and French.
Audio recordings of the story are also available in Kikuyu, English and Sheng. The anthology will soon be available in PDF and ebook formats.
  • Jalada Africa encourages writers and translators who do not find their African languages featured in this issue and who would like to volunteer to contribute a translation of this story and to future Translation Issues to get in touch with at jaladatranslations@gmail.com.
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The aim of the project was to renew interest in publishing in local languages and increase access to such stories.

Ngũgĩ says: “The cruel genius of colonialism was to turn normality into abnormality and then make the colonised accept the abnormality as the real norm … mother tongue first; then add to it, as necessary, that’s the way of progress and empowerment.

“So [Jalada's] actions will empower Africa by making Africans own their resources from languages – making dreams with our languages – to other natural resources – making things with them, consuming some, exchanging some.

“The moment we lost our languages was also the moment we lost our bodies, our gold, diamonds, copper, coffee, tea. The moment we accepted (or being made to accept) that we could not do things with our languages was the moment we accepted that we could not make things with our vast resources.”

Read a short excerpt from the English version:
A long time ago humans used to walk on legs and arms, just like all the other four limbed creatures. Humans were faster than hare, leopard or rhino. Legs and arms were closer than any other organs: they had similar corresponding joints: shoulders and hips; elbows and knees; ankles and wrists; feet and hands, each ending with five toes and fingers, with nails on each toe and finger. Hands and feet had similar arrangements of their five toes and finger from the big toe and thumb to the smallest toes and pinkies. In those days the thumb was close to the other fingers, the same as the big toe. Legs and arms called each other first cousins.
Jalada Africa is planning more editions of translation, featuring a previously unpublished story of no more than 3,000 words. Writers and translators across the continent will be invited to submit and edit translations in their African language of knowledge and/or study. The ultimate goal is to have each story translated into 2,000 African languages.

Jalada’s September 2015 anthology, The Language Issue, also celebrates Africa’s diversity in language, with fiction, poetry, spoken word, visual art and essays in 23 African languages as well as English, French, Polish and Mandarin.

“Despite long-running conversations on the need for publishing in indigenous languages on the African continent over the past five decades, writing and translations remain minimal and the little that exists continues to rapidly decline,” the publication says. “Since our Languages Issue, we’ve deliberated on the best ways of making writing in our languages a continuous activity.

“We were convinced the previous anthology did not capture all the facets of languages we were interested in. There are millions of speakers in African languages and not many writers in African languages. Why? Can this be changed?”

Related stories:
Image courtesy of What’s Good Africa
Book details


The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright

The Upright Revolution 4

English
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
A long time ago humans used to walk on legs and arms, just like all the other four limbed creatures. Humans were faster than hare, leopard or rhino. Legs and arms were closer than any other organs: they had similar corresponding joints: shoulders and hips; elbows and knees; ankles and wrists; feet and hands, each ending with five toes and fingers, with nails on each toe and finger. Hands and feet had similar arrangements of their five toes and finger from the big toe and thumb to the smallest toes and pinkies. In those days the thumb was close to the other fingers, the same as the big toe. Legs and arms called each other first cousins.

They helped each other carry the body wherever it wanted to go; the market, the shops, up and down trees and mountains, anywhere that called for movement. Even in the water, they worked well together to help the body float, swim or dive. They were democratic and egalitarian in their relationship. They could also borrow the uses of the product of other organs, say sound from mouth, hearing from the ear, smell from the nose, and even sight from the eyes.

Their rhythm and seamless coordination made the other parts green with envy. They resented having to lend their special genius to the cousins. Jealousy blinded them to the fact that legs and hands took them places. They started plotting against the two pairs.

Tongue borrowed a plan from Brain and put it to action immediately. It begun to wonder, loudly, about the relative powers of arms and legs. Who was stronger, it wondered. The two cousin limbs, who had never been bothered by what the other had and could do, now borrowed sound from mouth and begun to claim they were more important to the body than the other. This quickly changed into who was more elegant; arms bragged about the long slim fingers of its hands, at the same time making derisive comments about toes being short and thick. Not to be outdone, toes countered and talked derisively about thin fingers, starving cousins! This went on for days, at times affecting their ability to work together effectively. It finally boiled down to the question of power; they turned to other organs for arbitration.

It was Tongue who suggested a contest. A brilliant idea, all agreed. But what? Some suggested a wrestling match – leg and arm wrestling. Others came up with sword play, juggling, racing, or playing a game like chess or checkers but each was ruled out as hard to bring about or unfair to one or the other limb. It was Tongue once gain, after borrowing thought from Brain, who came with simple solution. Each set of organs would come up with a challenge, in turns. Arms and legs agreed.
The contest took place in a clearing in the forest, near a river. All organs were on maximum alert for danger or anything that might catch the body by surprise, now that its organs were engaged in internal struggle. Eyes scanned far and wide for the tiniest of dangers from whatever distance; ears primed themselves to hear the slightest sound from whatever distance; nose cleared its nostrils the better to detect scent of any danger that escaped the watchful eyes and the listening ears; and the tongue was ready to shout and scream, danger.

Wind spread news of the contest to the four corners of the forest, water and air. Four legged animals were among the first to gather, many of the big ones holding green branches to show they came in peace. It was a colorful crowd of Leopard, Cheetah, Lion, Rhino, Hyena, Elephant, Giraffe, Camel, long horned Cow and short-horned Buffalo, Antelope, Gazelle, Hare, Mole and Rat. Water-Dwellers, Hippo, Fish, Crocodile, spread their upper part on the banks, leaving the rest in the river. The two leggeds, Ostrich, Guinea-fowl, and Peacock flapped their wings in excitement; birds chirped from the trees; Cricket sang all the time. Spider, Worm, Centipede, Millipede crawled on the ground or trees. Chameleon walked stealthily, carefully, taking its time while Lizard ran about, never settling down on one spot. Monkey, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, jumped from branch to branch. Even the trees and the bush, swayed gently from side to side, bowed, and then stood still in turns.

Mouth opened the contest with a song:
    We do this to be happy
    We do this to be happy
    We do this to be happy
    Because we all
    Come from one nature.

Arm and Legs swore to accept the outcome gracefully; no tantrums, threats of boycott, strikes or go-slow.

Arms issued the first challenge: they threw a piece of wood on the ground. The leg, left or right, or in combination, was to pick up the piece of wood from the ground and throw it. The two legs could consult each other, at any time in the contest, and deploy their toes, individually or collectively, in any order to effect their mission. They tried to turn it over; push it; they tried all sorts of combinations but they could not pick it up properly: and as for moving it, the best they could do was kick it a few inches away. Seeing this, Fingers borrowed sounds from the mouth and laughed, and laughed. Arms, the challenger, paraded themselves, as in beauty contest, showing off their slim looks, and then in different combinations picked the piece of wood. They threw it far into the forest, eliciting a collective sigh of admiration from the contestants and spectators. They displayed other skills: they picked tiny pieces of sand from a bowl of rice; they threaded needles; they made little small pulleys for moving heavier wood; made some spears and threw them quite far, moves and acts that the toes could only dream about. Legs could only sit there and marvel at the display of dexterity and flexibility of their slim cousins. Arms of the spectators clapped thunder in admiration and solidarity with fellow arms, which upset the legs a great deal. But they were not about to concede: even as they sat there looking alittle bit glum, their big toes drooling little circles on the sand, they were trying to figure out a winning challenge.

At last, it was the turn of legs and toes to issue a challenge. Theirs, they said, was simple. Hands should carry the whole body from one part of the circle to the other. What a stupid challenge, thought the arrogant fingers. It was a sight to see. Everything about the body was upside down. Hands touched the ground; eyes were close to the ground, their angles of vision severely restricted by their proximity to the ground; dust entered the nose, causing it to sneeze; legs and toes floated in the air: nyayo juu, the spectators shouted, and sang playfully.

    Nyayo Nyayo juu
    Hakuna matata
    Fuata Nyayo
    Hakuna matata
    Turukeni angani

But their attention was fixed on the hands and arms. Organs that only a few minutes before were displaying an incredible array of skills, could hardly move a yard. A few steps, the hands cried out in pain, the arms staggered, wobbled, and let the body fall. They rested and then made another attempt. This time they tried to spread out the fingers the better to hold the ground but only the thumbs were able to stretch. They tried cartwheels but this move was disqualified because for its completion it involved the legs as well. It was the turn of the toes to laugh. They borrowed thick throatal tones from the mouth to contrast their laugh from the squeaky tones the fingers had used. Hearing the scorn, the arms were very angry and they made one desperate attempt to carry the body. They did not manage a step. Exhausted the hands and fingers gave up. The legs were happy to display their athletic prowess: they marked time, trotted, ran, made a few high jumps, long jumps, without once letting the body fall. All the feet of the spectators stamped the ground in approval and solidarity. Arms raised their hands to protest this unsportslimbship, conveniently forgetting that they had started the game.

But all of them, including the spectators, noted something strange about the arms: the thumbs which had stretched out when the hands were trying to carry the body, remained separated from the other fingers. The rival organs were about to resume their laughter when they noted something else; far from the separated thumb making the hands less efficient, it enhanced their crasping and grasping power. What’s this? Deformity transformed into the power of forming!

The debate among the organs to decide the winner went on for five days, the number of fingers and toes on each limb. But try as they could they were not able declare a clear winner; each set of limbs was best at what they did best; none could do without the other. There begun a session of philosophical speculation: what was the body anyway, they all asked, and they realized the body was them all together; they were into each other. Every organ had to function well for all to function well.
But to prevent such a contest in the future and to prevent their getting in each others way, it was decided by all the organs, that thenceforth the body would walk upright, feet firmly on the ground and arms up in the air. The body was happy with the decision but it would allow children to walk on all fours so as not to forget their origins. They divided tasks: the legs would carry the body but once they got to the destination, hands would do all the work that needed making or holding tools. While the legs and feet did the heavy duty of carrying, the hands reached out and used their skills to work the environment, and ensure that food reached the mouth. Mouth, or rather, its teeth, would chew it, and send it down the throat to the tummy. Tummy would squeeze all the goodness and then pour it into its system of canals through which the goodness would be distributed to all the nooks and crooks of the body. Then tummy would take the used material into its sewage system, from where the body would deposit it in the open fields or bury it under the soil to enrich it. Plants would grow bear fruit; hands would pluck pick some of it and put in the mouth. Oh, yes, the circle of life.

Even games and entertainments were divided accordingly: singing, laughing and talking were left to the mouth; running and soccer largely left to the legs; while baseball and basketball were reserved for the hands, except that the legs were to do the running. In athletics, the legs had all the field to themselves, largely. The clear division of labor made the human body a formidable bio machine, outwitting even the largest of animals in what it could achieve in quantity and quality.

However the organs of the body realized that the permanent arrangement they had arrived at could still bring conflict. The head being up there might make it feel that it was better than the feet that touched the ground or that it was the master and the organs below it, servants only. They stressed that in terms of power, the head and whatever was below it, were equal. To underline this, the organs made sure that pain and joy of any one of the organs was felt by all. They warned the mouth that when saying my this and that, it was talking as the whole body and not as the sole owner.

They sang:
    In our body
    There’s no servant
    In our body
    There’s no servant
    We serve one another
    Us for Us
    We serve one another
    Us for Us
    We serve one another
    The tongue our voice
    Hold me and I hold you
    We build healthy body
    Hold me and I hold you
    We build healthy body
    Beauty is unity
    Together we work
    For a healthy body
         Together we work
         For a healthy body
         Unity is our power

This became the All Body Anthem. The body sings is to this day and this is what tells the difference between humans and animals, or those that rejected the upright revolution.

Despite what they saw, the four-legged animals would have none of this revolution. The singing business was ridiculous. The mouth was made to eat and not to sing. They formed nature’s conservative party and stuck to their ways never changing their habits.

When humans learn from the net-work of organs, they do well; but when they see the body and the head as parties at war, one being atop of the other, they come close to their animal cousins who rejected the upright revolution.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, was born in Kenya, in 1938 into a large peasant family. He was educated at Kamandura, Manguu and Kinyogori primary schools; Alliance High School, all in Kenya; Makerere University College (then a campus of London University), Kampala, Uganda; and the University of Leeds, Britain. He is the recipient of ten Honorary Doctorates from universities in Denmark; Germany; Britain; New Zealand, America and Africa. He is also Honorary Member of American Academy of Arts and Letters and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A many-sided intellectual, he is novelist, essayist, playwright, journalist, editor, academic and social activist. His books include Devil on the Cross; Matigari; Wizard of the Cross, (English translations from the Gikuyu originals)
 

Thursday, 24 March 2016

A 40-Year Old West African Village in South Carolina by Molly McArdle



Against the Odds, A 40-Year Old West African Village in South Carolina Has Thrived

"This is very much an American story."




Oyotunji's front gate, which is decorative rather than practical. No walls surround the 25-acre village. (Photo: Molly McArdle)

The road to Oyotunji turns off State Highway 17, less than 10 minutes away from Interstate 95 and under an hour from Charleston and Hilton Head. Highway 17 unspools along the coastline from Savannah to Myrtle Beach and further up into North Carolina, but this stretch—a tall corridor of green even in winter—is unhurried. There is a convenience store with no ATM and, a bit down the road, a gas station with a broken one. (The next closest option is in Yemassee, a half hour drive away.) The drive through the woods is a short one, but it’s enough to feel transformative. The signage helps too, one side in Yoruba and the other in English:
NOTICE
You are leaving the U.S.
You are entering the Yoruba Kingdom.
“Kabo sile wa,” the sign says, decorated in flags and a crown. “Welcome to our land.”

Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II wearing a traditional crown. (Photo: Courtesy Oyotunji)
At its founding in 1970, Oyotunji African Village never promised its residents a perfect way of life. But it did offer them an idea equally radical: a world without Europe, a space outside white supremacy. A tiny village in South Carolina whose population has waxed and waned from as many as 200 to as few as 25 residents, it has since transformed from a bustling separatist community to a smaller and more-focused religious one.

Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II was born in Oyotunji. At 39, he’s been the leader of this small community for over 10 years. He is a handsome, charismatic man. Ritual marks, three lines, run parallel across each cheekbone and perpendicular down his forehead. The garment he wears, white and embroidered, is beautiful and billowing. One woman, Oyotunji resident Ofun Laiye Adesoji, brings him a glass of water covered by a napkin. Another woman, visitor Ase Jones, moves in and out of the courtyard where he sits, periodically stopping to listen to the Oba, or leader.


The entrance to Oyotunji African Village from South Carolina' State Highway 17.  (Photo: Molly McArdle)

“Oyotunji, this was built on old planation land,” he says. “The Tomotley plantation is right through the woods over there. You can go straight through the woods, less than 200, 300 feet away,” he says. “Africans worked all of this.”

Visitors enter Oyotunji through an imposing gate, painted red and khaki, with a crenelated top. It’s decorative rather than practical; no walls surround the 25-acre village. A child’s bike leans against a low-slung building, and behind that rise pines and oaks, strung with moss. The village is residential compounds, a café and marketplace, public spaces, and religious ones. There are small garden plots, ancestral altars, above-ground tombs, and at least eight temples dedicated to separate orishas—deities in the Yoruban pantheon that can be described as aspects of a single god, a conceptual framework not unfamiliar to Hinduism or Catholicism. The physical reality of this place is explicitly African. Its commanding entryway looks Hausa. Its flag takes its design partly from Ethiopia (the colors red, gold, green) and partly from Egypt (the ankh). Its afin, or palace, is modeled after Ile Ife’s, in Nigeria. The village’s name, referencing the Yoruban empire that dominated southwestern Nigeria between the 15th and the 19th centuries, means “Oyo rises again.”

The foreignness of the place has made for heated local gossip. “There are many rumors about what we do here,” says Adesoji, who gives me a tour of the grounds. “We cook people. We eat dogs. If you go in, you never come out.”


Both Yoruban and English are featured on Oyotunji's bilingual welcome sign. (Photo: Molly McArdle)

Coverage from predominantly white media outlets, too, has ranged from skeptical to lurid to mocking. In 2015, Oyotunji was included on a list called "Here Are the 13 Weirdest Places You Can Possibly Go in South Carolina." It’s similarly been included in books, 2008's Weird U.S. and 2007's Weird Carolinas. In 2009, British travel presenter Alan Whicker, though he selected a visit to the village as his “ultimate travel experience” for The Guardian, describes Oyotunji as “some ridiculous Disney fantasy.” Its leader, he says, dressed in “the exotic robes of some imagined” (and so fake) “tribal deity” and has the “penetrating eyes of an ambulance-chasing lawyer.” An Orlando Sentinel article from 1987, titled “S. Carolina 'Voudou' Colony Unsettles Local Whites,” vividly describes the ritual slaughter of a chicken. “King or Con Man, the Controversial Ruler of Yoruba, SC, Is Really Just Walter from Detroit,” from a 1981 issue of People speaks of sacrificial altars and bathing in blood.

Even farther back, a 1971 story from Charleston’s News & Courier reports with restrained glee, just one year after Oyotunji’s founding, that “the village shows that black man [sic] can function without the man around. Life without ‘the man’ does not, however, exclude his food stamps.”
Oyotunji’s rejoinder appeared shortly thereafter as a News & Courier editorial response by its founder, titled “Pay for Slavery":
“You could have reminded all Americans that having gotten something for nothing, it’s time to pay back,” he writes, “also that an honorable people, rather than hide behind guilty welfare programs, would be paying the blacks unconditional reparations in cash, land, technology, and material. For indeed, if true justice prevailed, some 15 million white Americans and their offspring in perpetuity should be committed to work free for blacks until the year 2221.”
Oyotunji is not a victim of bad press because it’s not a victim—the approval of white people is something Oyotunji was designed not to need. Oyotunji speaks for itself.

Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I, the current Oba’s father, founded Oyotunji in 1970. Adefunmi I’s parents, followers of Marcus Garvey, gave him the name Walter Eugene King in Detroit in 1928. He was raised a Baptist, but from a young age he questioned why the religious figures his family worshiped did not look like them. Adesoji repeats the story during the tour. “He asked, ‘Why is it that we don’t have any African gods?’ The pastor told him that’s because we have none. That kind of infuriated him.”

The young King went on to become a commercial artist and modern dancer. As a member of Katherine Dunham’s groundbreaking modern dance troupe (one that would help launch the careers of Alvin Ailey and Eartha Kitt), he traveled all over the world. “When he got to Haiti he saw Yoruba culture in its full glory,” Adesoji says. “He ate the food, he saw the clothes, he also saw the community come together for the orisha, something he never saw people do in America.”


Oyotunji's main thoroughfare. "When I came home, a lot of things needed to be rebuilt," the Oba says. "We had to jack stuff up and dig stuff down, it was like a historical preservation board." (Photo: Molly McArdle)

The experience changed him. In 1959, he went on to study Santería in Matanzas, Cuba, where he became the first American initiate to the priesthood of Obatala, the orisha responsible for creating humankind. He returned to Harlem and began organizing. He helped found first the Shango Temple and then, on his own, the Yoruba Temple. He took the name Nana Oseijeman, which later expanded to Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi. “The first Oba’s mission,” Adesoji says, was “to make sure that no one would ever have to go through what he went through as a child, trying to find where he came from.”

Adefunmi I stayed in New York through the end of the decade, continuing to expand and promote his interpretation of Yoruban culture and religion, which moved steadily away from the syncretic (a blend of religious and social cultures, including colonial) framework of Cuban Santería. “Lighter skinned deities had a higher place on the hierarchy,” says Kenja McCray, a history PhD candidate at Georgia State University who wrote her master’s thesis on Oyotunji.
King Adefunmi I sitting in state during festival. (Photo: Courtesy Oyotunji)
Adefunmi I was also moving in black nationalist circles, founding a political party that encouraged the creation of an independent African state on American soil, and (as Oyotunji’s website claims) popularizing the dashiki. University of Houston sociologist Mary Curry, in her 1997 book Making the Gods in New York, charts Adefunmi I’s widening influence during this period. “A number of black Americans received their African names from Adefunmi I,” she says, “and some of these began to wear African dress whether they converted to the Yoruba religion or not.” Amiri Baraka, though not a member of the Yoruba Temple, had Adefunmi I officiate his wedding ceremony. (Later on, he would go on to criticize Oyotunji in a condescending 1978 New Republic story.)
By 1969, Adefunmi I had begun to receive death threats. Mama Keke, an Osun priestess from Barbados and one of the founding members of Adefunmi I’s Yoruba Temple, offered him some advice. “Mama Keke had to let him know if you really want to do something for Africans that are living in America, you have to establish land.” Adesoji gestures to the woods around her. “This is our way of sticking it to the man, to be able to come back to the very land where our ancestors were bought and sold.”
And so Adefunmi I went south.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day; Oyotunji wasn’t either,” Adefunmi I reflected to Davidson professor Tracey Hucks at the end of his reign. Hucks spoke with him extensively for her 2012 book, Yoruba Traditions & African American Religious Nationalism, which is as much a biography of Oyotunji as it is a social, religious, and political history. “We never intended to go back to 16th century Nigeria,” he told her. “We began this way out of necessity and to learn how to survive.”
His son, the current Oba, acts and speaks with a mixture of formality and informality, sometimes even performing two different versions of the same action. When we first meet, he says something in Yoruban—a greeting—and waves his irukere, a handle with white horse’s tail hair and a traditional symbol of royalty, over me. Then he smiles and says in English, hello, and shakes my hand. He moves between goofy jokes, anecdotes animated by dramatic voices, stories of his father that mix criticism and respect, and rhetoric about Oyotunji’s national, global, historical importance. These aren’t necessarily contradictions.

All residents of Oyotunji must start and maintain their own ancestor shrine, which includes bringing the ancestors fresh water every morning. (Photo: Molly McArdle)
He tells the story of how Oyotunji came here, to the spot we sit on. “My father purchased this land from a local, Mr. Smalls,” he says. “That family obviously got this land from the Civil War allotment, the 40 acres. The mule was made up.” (General Sherman did in fact try to resettle slaves in this area.) He smiles, and the two women watch us laugh.

People who moved to Oyotunji opted into, for as long as they decided to remain, a profoundly different life. It wasn’t simply that they lived in an all-black community. After all, those had existed in America since the invention of race (think Eatonville, Florida; Nicodemus, Kansas; the Gullah/Geechee-dominated Sea Islands in South Carolina; the antebellum south’s many maroon communities). They lived in a place stripped, as much as possible, of European cultural artifacts and traditions.

Residents taught themselves Yoruban and wore African clothes. (Exceptions were made for rain and winter wear.) They also had adjust to life within a highly hierarchical structure: a kingdom, complete with a king. Daily life had to be newly organized around orisha and ancestor worship as well as dokpwe, required communal work such as building or gardening. Years and lives were measured with a Yoruban, rather than Christian, schedule of annual festivals and rites of passage. And moving to the village up until the ‘80s also meant moving to a place without electricity or running water.
King Adefunmi I dances before the village. (Photo: Courtesy Oyotunji)

“At the time of Oyotuji’s founding, it was a segregated community, so it reflected the segregation of contemporary America,” says M. Kamari Clarke, whose 2004 book, Mapping Yoruba Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities, makes a case study of Oyotunji. “It forced blacks to create a black movement, to create a black empire. It was a site for empowerment.”
So effective has Oyotunji been at this task that television shows (Roots) and movies (Glory) have tapped villagers to perform on screen as “real” Africans. The village also makes a cameo in gay poet and filmmaker Marlon Riggs’s 1995 documentary, Black Is…Black Ain’t, a masterpiece of collage and an incisive look at gender, sexuality, and blackness, made at the end of his life. (He would die of AIDS-related complications, just before the documentary’s completion, in 1994.) Halfway through the film Adefumni I appears accompanied by a wife, Iya Orite Olasowo, and a chief, unidentified in the transcript, to speak about Oyotunji.

“We realized that we could not really develop African civilization and culture to its fullest degree in an American city, so it became necessary then to leave the urban areas and found our own community,” Adefunmi says in the film.


Oyotunji's Temple of Shango, the orisha of thunder and leadership, among other qualities. "Boy Scouts, Girl Gcouts, fraternities in colleges, Skull and Bones, masons, the president of the United States, all go through Shango rituals," says resident Ofun Laiye Adesoji, "whether they know that that’s what they are doing or not." (Photo: Molly McArdle)
The current Oba presents a different, more malleable message than the one presented in Riggs’s movie. “We’re more tolerant as a community,” he says. “Many years ago Oyotunji was quite the Disciplineville.”
The population has changed along with its mission. In 1973, the Atlanta Journal Constitution tallied 24 residents, in 1977 art historian Mikelle Smith Omari counted around 100, in 1989 Omari found 35. Harry Lefever, a Spelman-based sociologist, estimated Oyotunji to have 30 residents when he visited in 1995 and again in 1997. When I asked Adesoji how many people were currently living in Oyotunji, she said about 24. The only minors present are her three grandchildren.
“In the 1970s it was like the thing to do, it was like going to a rave today,” she says. Nowadays, Oyotunji more like a monastery than a commune.
“The actual village’s population is really small, but the footprint it made is much larger,” Kenja McCray says, calling Oyotunji “the Vodu Vatican.” Hucks’s book records a priestess’s own nickname: “the Yoruba University.” The village has initiated over 300 priests into orisha worship in just the past four years.
“We are very thankful that now because of what the first Oba did,” says Adesoji. Today it’s more acceptable to be a Yoruba priest. “You don’t have to worry about people calling you a devil.” She pauses, thinking. “Well, a witch doctor is okay. ‘Cause that’s kind of like, you know, what we are. If you want to call it that.”

Marriage comes up early in Adesoji’s tour. This is no accident: one of the village’s most famous traits is also its most controversial. Some of its residents practice polygamy.

The village’s founder, Adefumni I, had throughout the course of his life a total of 17 wives. He also had 28 children, of whom the current Oba was number 14. Today, Adefunmi II has three wives and five children. This, when the mainstream media does cover Oyotunji, is where the camera most often zooms in.
 
In 1988, Adefunmi I appeared on an episode of Oprah, where the iconic host introduced him as “king of probably the most unusual community in the United States.”

The interview was fraught, from the start, as Oprah zeroed in on the village's sexual practices. “I find it interesting that this is going on in South Carolina of all places,” Oprah says. “I know your mamas are shocked,” she says, addressing the four women, who have not yet spoken.

“A king is expected to have in his palace all women who have no husbands, women who have been cast out, who are too unattractive to get husbands. The king is expected to marry all of those persons. He does not necessarily have nuptial relationships with them, but they are still called king's wives,” Adefunmi I explains.
 
“To marry them all? Everybody else?” Oprah looks genuinely surprised. “Everybody else who's single?”
 
Adefunmi I tries to makes the case that polygamy is a pragmatic, albeit different, way to organize society. “In the Yoruba culture the purpose of marriage essentially is based on economics,” he says, but it’s a tough sell. He’s in the wrong room.

Adesoji looks at the segment as a missed opportunity. “It kind of turned into some crazy thing,” Adesoji explains. She mimics the questions asked, “Well how do you take care of all the women? Do you have sex with all the women?” She is right that sex was at the heart of Oprah’s line of questioning. “That’s really not what the first Oba went on there to do. He really went there to explain that this is how the African culture sustains its nations. You don’t want to have any single women in the nation that cannot take care of themselves. The goal is for everyone to be married.”


Oyotunji's Temple of Osun. "We like to refer to her respectfully as the Patti LaBelle of all the orisha," explains Adesoji. (Photo: Molly McArdle)
 
Kenja McCray paraphrases the common arguments for polygamy, namely that cheating is so common in monogamous relationships that polygamy is the more honest option. Rather than hide an affair, additional relationships are openly acknowledged and so negotiable. But polygamy is also contested in Yoruban religious communities beyond Oyotunji. Those critiques ask if the practice is just, McCray explains, “being a player by another name.” In a polygamous relationship, “the central spouse is more privileged than the other spouses,” and it’s men who overwhelmingly have multiple wives, not the other way around. But McCray has also talked to women in polygynous relationships who defend it on feminist grounds as well. (Think of the childcare benefits to having multiple partners, for instance.)

“These relationships are really complicated, which is why I didn’t write them off. At what point do women use these relationships to leverage what they want out of life?” McCray asks, weighing the question. “I can’t tell whether some women are using it as a kind of transgressive sexuality,” McCray continues. “If you are being transgressive, why stop with heteronormativity?


Oyotunji's cafe and marketplace. The Oba estimates at least two to three thousand tourists pass through annually. (Photo: Molly McArdle)
 
Gender plays an enormous role in life at Oyotunji. It determines the rites of passage you undergo, it grants you membership in a gendered group, it governs whom you marry and the nature of that relationship. Still the community’s understanding of gender (and to a certain extent sexuality) is something that has been and will continue to be negotiated. Even as Adesoji described the different tasks assigned to young men and women as they come of age, she rails against the idea that it's fundamentally sexist. “There’s no such thing as a man’s job or a women’s job. Everyone’s out trying to make a living for the house, that’s how it’s always been," she says.
 
Academics have backed up that idea. Hucks, author of Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism, describes “a core group of capable and compelling women” she encountered when she first started her research in Oyotunji in the 1990s. “They served as chiefs, sat on governing boards, and participated in major decisions that shaped the direction of the village.”
 
The power they held was power they had fought for. Thanks to a concerted effort, in 1974, women got expanded rights (including the right to own property within the village) and compulsory polygyny was banned. In 1992, the village opened the Ifa priesthood to women, which gave them access to divinatory tools used in personal, communal, and transactional readings.


A look back at Oyotunji from the village vegetable gardens. "Our culture and religion is a nature religion," the Oba says. "If you want to understand this culture, you got to understand the trees, the woods, and that right there, the dirt.” (Photo: Molly McArdle)
 
Adesoji shows me the temple of Olokun, the orisha of the ocean’s deepest regions. “He is a hermaphrodite,” Adesoji says. “He’s both male and female. He represents the curves in an African woman’s body or the feeling you get when you hear the beat of the drum.”
“We thank him for allowing our ancestors to go all over the world so that we would have history,” she says of this deity who lives across genders (if not quite yet beyond gendered pronouns). “He is the orisha of the African people.”

King Adefunmi II sitting in state. (Photo: Courtesy Oyotunji)
 
Adefunmi II got the call his father had died while driving over the Seven Mile Bridge in Key West in 2005. He was not yet 30. “When I came home, a lot of things needed to be rebuilt,” he says. “We had to jack stuff up and dig stuff down, it was like a historical preservation board.”
Now more than a decade after the death of its charismatic founder, Oyotunji has evolved but not slowed down.
The new king has reframed Oyotunji’s rural existence as an eco-friendly alternative, seeking out grants for sustainable farming and building. “This is a nature religion,” he explains. “If you want to understand this culture, you got to understand the trees, the woods, and that right there, the dirt.”
As Adesoji and I ate the village’s miracle crop of spicy kale, she reflected on her own increased independence. “Why not learn how to grow your own food?” Adesoji asks. “Growing up in Miami, if a hurricane came—good god almighty—the grocery stories are empty, there is no electricity, so what do you do what do you eat? You pretty much got to drive maybe 100 miles before you can get to a grocery store that has food.” I take another bite: it tastes something like wasabi. I save a few leaves for the drive home.
 
Oyotunji also continues to welcome religious devotees, or aborisha, who come to stay or study every year. There is no official tally but the king estimates that 2,000-3,000 visit annually.


Oyotunji's Temple of Olokun, the orisha of the deepest water. "If it were not Olokun our ancestors would be at the bottom of the ocean with all those treasure ships," explains Adesoji. "He is where all life comes from." (Photo: Molly McArdle)

During my visit, I met one of these visitors, Ase Jones, who had been in Oyotunji for 10 days. A woman somewhere in her 20s, Jones was sweet and bashful, describing her home in Dallas and her community’s reaction to her religious beliefs in a low, quiet tone. She wasn’t sure how long she’d stay in Oyotunji. “I guess you’d call me an aborisha because I do practice the cultural traditions back at home. I wanted to embrace it. I’m supposed to be going to Nigeria in February so I wanted to come here and get a feel for it," she says.

“While she’s here we’ll finish up the adobe house,” the Oba says, motioning to a nearby building-in-progress, part sandbag, part cement, part chicken wire, part multi-colored glass bottles. The Oba has been experimenting with superadobe construction, a durable, cheap, and easy construction method that uses sandbags as its primary material. These structure’s thick walls should, like traditional adobe buildings, regulate the interior’s temperature without need for central air.
“She’ll become one of the people who will helped to put a stone in the castle,” the Oba says of Jones. “Oyotunji was not built by one or two people. It was built by a lot of people. It’s amazing.”
People also come to the village looking for spiritual or bodily help; these clients also help sustain the village. M. Kamari Clarke recalls the large number of people she saw come to Oyotunji in the ‘90s. “That was at the height of HIV/AIDs and during the rise of the prison industrial complex,” she says, “I saw people come in and out, people would bring a daughter or son, people who needed help. They would drop them off for a day to work with a given priest.” Services, which range from $150 to $300 on Oyotunji’s website, could include a traditional naming ceremony, gendered coming of age rituals, or divinatory readings, wherein a priest communicates with a client’s ancestors seeking specific instructions on what orisha to ask a favor of or honor and in what ways.
 
The income earned from these services form a major part of Oyotunji’s econo
my. This turn outwards, motivated in part by Oyotunji’s declining residential numbers, came from the need to be self-sustaining, says Clark. As soon as the funds were needed “things opened up very quickly.” But this fundamental shift, one that began in the 1980s, has also fostered Oyotunji’s bonds with the local community as well as Yoruban religious communities nationwide.
“This is very much an American story,” says Kenja McCray. She is talking about Oyotunji but she is also talking about a friend of hers. This friend was born in Oyotunji, has tribal markings and a Yoruban name, and a birth certificate that—because Orisha-Vodu naming ceremonies take place several days after birth—just read “girl” in the place where her name would be. McCray’s friend now lived outside the village and had just started a new job. “One of the people at Human Resources, when I turned in my paperwork, decided that I couldn’t be American,” her friend told her. Instead, this HR staffer, another black woman, called immigration.
 
This is the crux of McCray’s argument. While Oyotunji is an important part of America’s black nationalist history, the village also tells a story about who and what is American. It is difficult, if not impossible, to pry apart the systems of power governing the United States from the idea of America. America is slavery, it is genocide, it is internment and deportation and torture. McCray’s friend was punished for not complying with American, which is to say Eurocentric, standards, while remaining prototypically American. Not only does she have the conventional rights of a natural born citizen, but she also practices a cultural tradition that has been on these shores since about 1619, far longer than many American’s European ancestors. The Yoruban religion in America is older than the nation that now governs it. It is America. At least a part of it.

This is perhaps Oyotunji’s greatest achievement, its most radical and most threatening and most vital—a vision not of an African nation free of Eurocentric America, but an African America free of Europe. It’s work that began in 1970. It’s work that continues, whether or not we see it, today.