Architectures of Hiding

David Doris

Power and Dissemblance in Yorùbá Earth Works

In Yorùbá landscapes of southwestern Nigeria, extraordinary power is deployed in the most common and unassuming object, a clump of earth scooped from the ground and set down to mark and protect property (see figure). In a gesture of thoughtful displacement, the Earth (ilè)—omnipresent but withdrawn from perception—is set forth as a perceptible object, a sign of itself, an image, translated in Yorùbá as àwòrán, “what we look at and remember.” Such a transformation establishes a moment of lawful order, inhabiting a place by locating it within a doubled temporality, historical and primordial. How does it do this? And what is the nature of the power represented there?

All inquiries lead back to Ògbóni, the ancient secret society of honored elders, said to claim the Earth as source and justification. Ògbóni power, we are told, is greater and older than that of kings, nations, gods, laws, even civilization itself, and the organization is widely feared. Yet the deeply conservative Ògbóni is largely hidden from the public eye and public participation. Its members have long met together in shrouded precincts called ilédi, windowless “houses of concealment” (Lawal) that were also, paradoxically, “public buildings on public lands” (Drewal) built at the centers of Yoruba towns.

Edan Ògbóni, paired figurative staffs made of brass and iron, are emblems of membership in the Ògbóni society. Regarded as one object, edan is “the only sacred object of the Ògbóni seen by the public” (Adepegba); it is also “the only thing that was secret in Ògbóni” (Fadipe). Another paradox, then: harboring secrets even in its visibility, edan is at once a staging and an occlusion, an apparent monument that not only withdraws from vision, but performs its own undoing. An etymology of the noun edan shows the constituent verb dan means “to forestall or frustrate someone’s efforts, particularly through supernatural means” (1985:38). Yet there’s no magic here, only material. In its materiality, how does edan forestall or frustrate efforts to comprehend what it signifies?

Theory here takes the form of a simple riddle: It’s right in front of you; you just can’t see it.

Keywords: dissemblance, secrecy, earth, africa

DR. DAVID T. DORIS (PhD Yale 2002) is Associate Professor of African Art and Visual Culture at the University of Michigan. He has been a Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria; an Ittleson Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study of the Visual Arts; a Smithsonian Post-Doctoral Fellow at the National Museum of African Art; a Residential Fellow at the Getty Research Institute. In 2012, his book, Vigilant Things: On Thieves, Yoruba Anti-Aesthetics, and the Strange Fates of Ordinary Objects in Nigeria (University of Washington Press, 2011), received the African Studies Association’s Melville J. Herskovits Award.