Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Wole Soyinka, SIU Carbondale: “Have Culture; Will Dialogue”—a dialogue with civilizations

1) Click here to read Obi Nwakanma's article "Nigeria: A Soyinka Symposium in Carbondale" published in the Vanguard (Lagos) WOLE Soyinka, one of Africa's leading modernist voices excites a following that is both cultic and diffuse.

2) Also, check out Eyinju Odumare's photos and commentary "All for Soyinka in Carbondale"

"Culture dialogues anyway," Soyinka opened, "it's only human beings that get in the way."

Wole Soyinka, Nobel literary laureate and so much more, spoke at the symposia in his honor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale this winter to an overflowing auditorium. Mr. Soyinka, however, was his composed self, attending to his first task of adjusting his glasses to suit the light as, on the other side of the stage the woman signing for the deaf began her work.

Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka

"Culture dialogues anyway," Soyinka opened, "it's only human beings that get in the way."

He spoke of the arts, meant to lead the way, yet often get in the way. Then, he led us to "that continent of infinite resources and infinite frustrations," speaking of the correspondences and differences among Hollywood (USA), Bollywood (India), and Nollywood [the "N" word] (Nigeria). "We can only imagine 'Jollywood' [Japan]."

Not only is the man erudite and brilliant, but he is also intricately informed on popular culture and killingly funny.

Diaglogue between cultures is not one-way. There is cross-pollination going on. He then launched into the main focus of his talk, "Big Brother Africa," an American TV program that was imported via the United Kingdom.

Soyinka recapped the methodology of "Big Brother Africa," one of the original reality programs, even before they were called that. "The image is a powerful vector of cultural exchange." This TV show is a huge advertisement for food, drink, and "the most tawdry, banal conversations one could ever hope to listen to". Cameras beamed on these prisoners including barely disguised love-making. In the promo for the show, it was touted as promoting dialogue of peace and harmony between cultures.

Yet, is this Africa at all? Exhibitionism runs counter to most African cultures. There's a ban on showing belly buttons on the street. There is a difference between nudity and nakedness. There is high art of nudity and stripping off before audiences, baring all in a state of insanity loose-ego....that is nakedness. Culture is far more elaborate than that being portrayed. "Shakespeare's royal sceptre finally ended in a madman's crotch, saying, 'I am every inch a king' as a way to prick an audience's attention."

(A digression within a digression...What a delicious digression that is.)
Vulgar feminism? The language of nudity? Nelson Mandela as the Minister of Culture? ("Hey, Buddy. I would gladly hand you the Reins of the World, but I would never make you Minister of Culture." His taste is rather special.)

"What is being given as the commodity of exchange that is being selected?" Once a Hollywood producer visited Soyinka asking him to adapt "Henderson the Rain King" which Jack Nicholson had an interest in. Soyinka could not imagine how the actor could enter the role. (He'd discovered that Nicholson was a big fan of the Lakers...and wondered if he, Soyinka, would have to re-culturalize himself to write the screenplay treatment.) What was it for Nicholson, he wondered: his own private quest? The ritual? The producer met Soyinka at his home where they discussed Soyinka's sense of the unconvincing ritual of the lion hunt...that it would have to be unleashed, not just plastered on. The producer appeared to listen attentively, until Soyinka noticed his eyes glazing over...and, he never heard from him again.

Soyinka ended with a successful case of cultural dialogue outside of performing arts. A French woman, now in her 80s: "She came. She saw. She was conquered."

--She adopted a deity and composed poetry in trance.
--She was an Eco-warrior for the grove she established for her deity.
--She painted and sculpted.
--She followed the mystic play of Shango. (Brazil, the other home of Yoruba.)
--Architecture, too, came about as a result of her interactions.

This was no dumbing down. This was true cultural exchange. This was procreative, generative dialogue, as she entered fully into the culture to let it speak to her soul.

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2 Responses »

  1. Rita, thanks so much. It is such a joy to discover your site. So rich and resourceful. I shall be a regular visitor henceforth. And let me know any material you need from here. I shall be very glad to supply them.
    Also, would you permit me you allow me to publish 'Wole Soyinka, SIU Carbondale: “Have Culture; Will Dialogue”—a dialogue with civilizations' in The Guardian newspaper ( where i work as the Sunday Editor? Regards.

  2. Thanks Janet. Sure will let you know when it is published.

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