Titled Art and Culture among the Igbo of Nigeria and the Ainu of Japan in the Postcolonial Period: a critical survey, it was the recent OYASAF Lecture Series, held few days ago at the Lagos office of OYASAF.
The guest lecturer, Krydz Ikwuemesi is a painter, art critic and ethno-aesthetician, Associate Professor of Fine Art
at University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
This paper examines art and culture among the Igbo of Nigeria and the Ainu of Japan. It problematizes some supremacist views which hold that non-Western societies did not have art prior to colonization, in spite of the obvious bio-cultural nature of art. The presentation focuses on the transmogrification of the notion and practice of art in Igbo land and Ainu mosir in the colonial period and how this has impacted the collective identity and memory in postcolonial times. However, the purpose of the discussion is not to juggle theoretical constructs on postcolonialism, but to examine how the after-effects of colonialism, disguised as postcolonialism, continue to shape culture and the art enterprise. Since the postcolonial derives from the colonial and thrives on hybridity and contradictions as is reflected in the situations of previously colonised subjects, the central concern in my work on one hand is the ebbing of Igbo art enterprise and its systemic divorce from Igbo cultural heritage, and on the other hand, Ainu’s response to their cultural-political predicament through a commitment to their arts and cultural production in light of their history in Japan and the challenges posed by globalisation.
Igbo and Ainu: Historical Background
Igbo people are one of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria. The archaeology of the Igbo indicates that they are either an ancient people in Nigeria or the consequence of various migrations with a current population of over 30 million.1 Available artifacts attest to the long history of the Igbo in their present locus. When Igbo with other nationalities were jumbled in 1914 to form Nigeria, most traditional practices began to cower in the face of the imperial culture. Most were labeled fetishes in colonial times. Adiele Afigbo notes that “A study of the early history of Christianity in Igbo land reveals that it was marked by waves and waves of iconoclasm in which invaluable works of art and culture were destroyed…”2 The same sense of nihilism and iconoclasm has endured beyond independence in 1960 to the present.3 The sorry state of Igbo art in general is, perhaps, an index for the cultural self-hate that is prevalent among the Igbo today4
As for the Ainu, when scientists from Europe and the United States first met them in the late 1800s they could not place their origin because the Ainu had curly hair and pale skin and looked more like Europeans than Japanese or other Asians.5 The Nihon Shoki (日本書紀 [sometimes translated as The Chronicles of Japan]), the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, contains the first recorded mention of the Ainu, a society of hunter-gatherers, who settled Hokkaido and lived mainly off fish and plants. The Ainu saw themselves as distinct from plants and animals and kamuy (gods or divine beings), hence their choice of the name Ainu, literally “Human Beings.” They also proudly named their homeland Ainu Mosir, “the great, quiet land where human beings dwell.”6 Historically they spoke the Ainu language and related varieties and were also found in the Kurile Islands and much of Sakhalin. Like the Igbo, the Ainu were also thought to be one of the “lost tribes of Israel.” 7 Yugo Ono observes that
Ainu culture seems to have originated from the earlier Jomon and Epi-Jomon cultures whose peoples had developed special adaptations to the natural resources of the Hokkaido environment and persisted in this essentially nonagricultural tradition, with only limited growth garden farming, until the nineteenth century.8
Ainu culture dates from around 1200 CE and recent research suggests that it is a complex that originated in a merger of the Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures.9 Following years of contact through trade and socio-political commerce dating from around the 13th century, Ainu-Japanese relation tended to favour the Japanese much more than it did the Ainu. This imbalance continued in the years of colonisation, amplified by the subsequent repression of Ainu culture and discrimination against the people. Since the colonisation of the Ainu was from within, it is not easy to pinpoint the date of their independence. While 1997 could be considered in principle because of the passing of the Ainu Shimpo10 that year, the consummation of the freedom symbolised by that law may be found in the Japanese Diet’s declaration of the Ainu as indigenous people of Japan in 2008.11 Though they lost territories and suffered economic and social hardship during colonisation, they did not lose their culture. Because their struggles have been rewarded by survival, they remain a viable people with much to teach the world.12
It is difficult to agree with the postmodern view which inscribes culture as an imagined homeland. As globalization claims to melt down geo-political maps and boundaries, cultural traits and trends continue to define peoples, regions, and nations. Society and culture tend to shape and define each other and are both affected by temporal realities for better or for worse. This fact is vividly reflected in the continuity and transition of Igbo and Ainu cultures from colonial times through postcoloniality. Thus, we would agree with Edward Tylor’s 1871 definition of culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”13 Also noteworthy is the definition by G. Ferraro, W. Trevathan and J. Levy, describing culture as “what people have, think and do as members of society.”14 This is echoed in Marvin Harris description of culture as “the total socially acquired life-way or life-style of a group of people (consisting) of the patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are characteristic of the members of a particular society or segment of a society.”15 These definitions are in consonance with Peter-Jazzy Ezeh’s view that culture refers to “all the perennial strategies and practices devised by human groups for the organization and sustenance of their societies.”16 The word “organization” links Ezeh’s view to Ali Mazrui’s as he defines culture as “as system of inter-related values, active enough to influence and condition perception, judgment, communication and behaviour in a given society.”17 Culture, therefore, shapes society and its people and is in turn shaped by them. Usually transition and change in culture can be induced by internal factors or by culture contact described by Mazrui as “two systems of values being introduced to each other and beginning to be aware of each other’s peculiarities.”18 For the Igbo and the Ainu, colonial and other contacts have laced the autochthonous culture with extraneous values. For the Igbo, there are various outcomes ranging from what Simon Ottenberg calls “receptivity” to what Ali Mazrui identifies (for Africa generally) as “culture conflict.”19 With respect to the Ainu of Japan, we may speak more of resistance than of receptivity. A brief outline of Igbo and Ainu cultures is presented below based on their life cycle, education, religion and worldview, and social order and justice.
A. Igbo Life Cycle
Generally, Igbo life-cycle is marked and circumscribed by a series of rites beginning from birth and culminating in death. It must be mentioned here that stages or markers in the life cycle are often calibrated in consonance with the Igbo calendar as reflected in the vernacular week system: Afo, Nkwo, Eke and Oye (Orie).
For the Igbo, birth ushers the individual into the world and provides a basis on which he/she is admitted to the membership of mankind in general and a community in particular. Circumcision is very important for sexes.20 Naming gives meaning and essence to the child’s personality and thus anticipates his/her character and destiny through the significations of the given name. Next is puberty when boys are initiated into manhood and women attain the nubile age. This is followed by marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood and old age which are highly coveted. In old age, men can take certain titles such as the ozo or nze titles which add to their status and prestige. In some communities, influential women can also take the title of Iyom which is regarded as the female equivalent of the ozo title. Death brings material life to an end while providing a spin-off to otherworldly existence, including ancestrality. Thus, death is only calamitous, not necessarily final,21 as is affirmed in the anatomy of Igbo funeral.
B. Igbo Education, Religion and Worldview
Igbo people had education in the form of oral tradition. Indigenous knowledge and life skills were passed down from generation to generation. The Igbo cosmos is hinged on a dual perception of reality and phenomena. Things are considered to be in twos. Thus, “Ife kwulu, Ife akwudebie” (when something stands, another thing stands beside it) is not necessarily a proverb but a symbolic verbalization of the dual essence of being. In Igbo world, therefore, being is seen from the broad binary of “enu na ani” (sky and earth), with ani (ana/ala) believed to command more import, both as the physical prop on which humanity and the world subsists and as the centralizing spiritual force in the politics of personal and communal existence. For this reason, customs and traditions are known as “omenani” or “omenala” (literally: that which is obtainable on the ground) as against “nso ani” (literally: that forbidden by earth), that is, taboo or abomination.
According to Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor, the Igbo have a concept of Chukwu (supreme god) which is not necessarily the same as the Christian God. Although some Igbo scholars, including Donatus Nwoga, argue that the concept of Chukwu was derived from the ubiquity of the Arochukwu people, Ibiniukpabi (which the Aro had worked hard to establish before the British came), Chukwu (supreme god) is a contraction of Chi ukwu (great god) and is “a concept as well as a deity or proper name.”22 There is no Igbo equivalent or concept of devil as envisioned in the colonial faith of Christianity. Ekwensu, as the devil’s equivalent in Igbo Christian thought, is a misnomer and hence contrary to Igbo religious canons and cosmology.23 Nor does Chukwu or Chineke form a binary with Ekwensu.24
Beyond the established deities, personal and communal ancestral connections also define Igbo religion, spirituality, and social sphere. This is why death is seen as a steppingstone to ancestrality (that is, if the dead has died well),25 which ensures a continuation of life, albeit on transcendental terms. For the living and the dead, death is a connecting door, one that effectively opens from one side. The import attached to this connection is part of the overt and covert meanings of some Igbo names.26
Igbo concept of dualism can also be seen in Igbo vernacular medicine which perceives the human person and health from standpoints of biology and spirituality. To be healthy is to be physically and spiritually sound. Public/community health required a balance between the demands of this world and the otherworld. For instance, improper handling of a bad death, or the miscarriage of funeral rites can incite the dead against the living and thus affect communal health adversily.27
Communalism is an important factor in Igbo thought and community, as it is a defining factor in the extended family system as well as in the social sphere. Although individualism is highly cherished and commended, social network and networth count heavily. To this extent, polygyny, a feature of most African societies, thrives among the Igbo.28 A retinue of wives translates to a large number of children, and both contribute to the family industry and economy on one hand, while symbolizing a man’s sexuality on the social stage on the other hand.
C. Igbo Social Order and Justice
Igbo communalism was also reflected in the community arrangement and settlement patterns. Related families and kindred lived close together. Architecture (mainly mud and thatch before now) and living arrangement may differ from region to region, but basic similarities abound in their reflection of gender balance, the notion of dualism, and male domination. In other words, Igbo architecture, until recently, was a truly social art that reflected Igbo worldview.
Apart from Onitsha and Nri, Igbo communities had no king until some decades ago. Igbo society was a consensus society where opinions of elders were aggregated in search of patterns and principles upon which the affairs of society would depend. However, individual achievement is also encouraged as a counter-force to the possible excesses of ambitious elders who may usurp power and abuse the consensus principle.29 Igbo judicial system often relied on the consensus of a college of elders acting in consultation with medicine men, oracles, and deities, while relying on ofo the important “medicinal object in Igbo life.”30 Ofo is a symbol of maleness and paternity held by family heads to represent justice, the authority of the ancestors and the truth embodied by ani and Chukwu. They may be lumpy stalks of sacred trees or other materials fashioned “as anthropomorphic works of art.”31 The Igbo consensus system is also reflected in the social structures and politics. Social structuring begins with families, and then go up to the lineages, followed by clans, villages and towns. Owing to Igbo receptivity to change, their customs and traditions are threatened by the corrosive tendencies of neocolonialism.32
Ainu Life Cycle
Among the Ainu, the family was the basic unit for existence and social commerce. Marriage as well as procreation were valued. Like the Igbo, Ainu were polygamists. Ainu polygamy is hinged on the economics of biology. Although the Ainu were not originally an agriculture-oriented group, extra wives/mistresses and many children held added economic advantage.33 The Ainu name for this world is Uaremoshiri, “the multiplying world” where people are placed to “increase and multiply.”34 Childlessness was considered a divine punishment and men could divorce their wives for not bearing children. Birth and death are important landmarks in the life cycle as opposites in the trajectory of life; they also form a binary in the perception, meaning and cultural significations of health. A good life enhanced the individual’s smooth transition to otherwordly prestige through the logic of ancestrality, which was reckoned through both the male and female lines.35
Marriage offers the Ainu a means of procreation and a basis upon which children were valued. Names were determined by a person’s character traits or the circumstances of his/her birth. At times, they may be whimsical, as Batchelor suggests.36 A man could do as he pleased with his wives or children, but as a member of a village he, at times, has to consult with others.37 As in Igbo culture, Ainu marriage is a social contract that binds the concerned families and parties together. But unlike in the traditional Igbo setting where parents could have an upper hand in their children’s marriage, Ainu youth could have their way when parents disapproved.38 Betrothal, a common phenomenon among some Igbo communities, was also practiced by the Ainu, although marriage thereof was not binding on the parties.39 A married woman retained her maiden name and was simply identified by the name of her children, that is, by being called “mother of so and so.” Ainu did not have surnames. Like for the Igbo, Ainu surnames are a product of colonization.
Ainu Social Structure and Organisation
The Ainu lived in basic villages or communities commonly known as Kotan. Villages were mostly established close to rivers, by related families. Although one house could stand as a kotan, most villages consisted of a few or more houses.40 The traditional living house of the Ainu is called cise and is constructed entirely of thatch, with walls of about 30 centimetres. The house was kept almost always warm from a fire made to burn constantly from an open fireplace located at the centre. There is a pen for the bear cub used for the i-oman-te (spirit sending) ceremony as well as a place reserved for prayer. Near the house is also found a dock for the boat, a source of water, and a graveyard. A cluster of villages are described as poro kotan (big village) and each village was in charge of its own ioru, that is, the territory where it could fish, hunt or gather fruits, vegetables and other edibles.
A kotan usually had a leader called kotan-kor-kur. The kotankor-kur was chosen for his skills in hunting, fishing, or negotiation. As Wako, my informant, someone told me in Hokkaido in 2009, the Kotan-kor-kur must be a great warrior (rametokuru), an orator (payetokuru), and a wise man (wayash nup).41 Some of these qualities were also expected of all men if they must enjoy a good social standing within the community. The kotan kor-kur had no dictatorial powers but was expected to act as “a coordinator for the entire village.”42 He could act as a priest, resolve disputes, and much like the Igbo chief, represent the community in occasions, ceremonies, and negotiations. Above all, he was expected to take difficult decisions, take care of widows, the aged, the sick, the physically challenged, and the poor.43 The chiefs, therefore, were expected to be wealthy if they were to meet up with their responsibilities.117 Some kept slaves, utare,44 in addition to their many wives and children, to enhance their economic situation.
A. Ainu Education, Religion and Worldview
Every people have a system of education; education is not merely the ability to read and write. If education is a conversation between generations, oral tradition must be seen as a veritable means of education among the Ainu and the Igbo as well. As Toshimitsu has put it, “All people of the world have a history of wisdom, culture, religion, and art that had been preserved orally before they used a written language.”45 In other words, in most non literate societies, such as precolonial and colonial Igbo and Ainu societies, education was carried on through oral tradition and apprenticeship. It could go on in in informal places and situations. As Batchelor observes, “Ainu children used never to be troubled by schools or schoolmasters. The mountains, the rivers, and the sea were their school-house; necessity was their instructor; inclination and the weather were the only forces which made them work.”46 Ainu parents, like their Igbo counterparts, were in charge of their children’s education. Mothers taught girls; fathers taught boys. Girls learnt the art of housekeeping and the art of motherhood, dressmaking, and body painting. Boys were taught hunting, fishing, war skills and carving. And above all, morals, values and taboos were handed down in this way.
As it happened among the Igbo, colonization disrupted Ainu traditional education with the introduction of the alien system. This created a gap in which postcolonisation thrives. It is not clear what role Christianity may have played in the erosion of Ainu culture and belief system. But it is likely that Christianity in Hokkaido, as in much of Japan, did not meet with much success given the number of churches and Christians found in Hokkaido today.
In spite of the adverse effects of colonial education on Ainu culture, Ainu religion continues to survive. Ainu life was circumscribed by devotion to their deities, kamuy. Life itself and mundane living were anchored on sustained interaction with the gods through prayer. The dualism of Ainu worldview is reflected in the classification of being into Ainu (human being) and kamuy (gods). The same dualism also extends to Ainu vernacular medicine in which the human person is perceived in biological and spiritual terms. Most illnesses and bio-social misfortunes are considered the handiwork of malevolent spirits or even the gods. There is no hierarchy of gods, but the apehuchi kamuy, the god of fire, remains very important, as it is represented in every cise (house) through the central hearth. Prayers to apehuchi kamuy may precede other prayers, considering that it is believed to be the one to transmit the prayers to other deities.
One cannot discuss Ainu culture and religion without a mention of the i-oman-te, the spirit-sending ceremony of the Ainu people. Generally all things among the Ainu are considered to possess spirits which are sent back to the abode of the gods when the things could no longer be used or, in the case of animals, when they died or are killed. This ensured that the gods would continue to supply the people with these items or animals as much as possible. Of all the spirit-sending ceremonies, the bear festival is the most significant, perhaps because the bear itself is considered to be god of the mountains (Kim-un-kamuy). I-oman-te in its widest sense means the “sending of kamuy” and is seen as an important aspect of the Ainu spirituality. To an outsider, the logic of i-oman-te must be a bizarre and contradictory one. To appreciate the i-oman-te ritual, it must be considered from the point of view of animal sacrifice that is a feature of many contemporary religions.
B. Ainu Justice and Social Order
Ainu society was essentially masculine, but the women certainly wielded a complementary presence. Men ruled politically and socially and were also in charge of the justice system. Ainu society was largely maintained by taboos which had religious connections. Injunctions believed to be handed down by ancestors were taken seriously. Katopaku (crime) or Uenburi (bad conduct) could be the violation of a village law or contravention of religious morals. Punishment could take various forms, including ordeal and torture in ways similar to the ancient Japanese Kugatachi.47 Trials were open to the public and verdicts were reached through the elder’s consensual decisions, in light of precedence and custom. When the death sentence was handed down as a punishment it was executed in a manner that ensured that the accused suffered severely before dying, since death in itself was not seen as a punishment. At times settlements took the form of compensation (tsugunai or ashinpe).48 Generally, disputes between parties were resolved through a system of debate called caranke or charanke (to drop words or to argue). The debate could last for days or weeks until one of the parties gave up. The chief or an elder (ekashi) would be present to give judgment or broker reconciliation.
From the foregoing, the Igbo and Ainu naturally perceived culture as a way of life and the instrument or phenomenon which shaped society and its members, giving character to art and defining aesthetic taste. Beyond colonization, some of these cultural codes and values persist; others are hybridized in the conflict of postcolonisation, while others are lost in the waves of globalisation. One area where these changes and transitions are reflected is the arts of these peoples.
Art among the Igbo and Ainu
Art’s origin is often associated with ancient rituals whose essence was partly a negotiation or renegotiation of reality. From the beginning of time, all peoples had different means of responding to the mysteries and exigencies of being through the use of symbols and images. If art is a bio-cultural phenomenon or behaviour as posited by Ellen Dissanayake,49 then art and society are co-eval realities. Art in most non-Western societies did not need to exist on its autonomous value. If it did, it would approximate “another piece of deodorised dog shit”, as Chinua Achebe has noted.50
The Igbo believe that art and life are complementary. This relates to what Seiji Oshima calls “an aestheticizing of life” in his discussion on the meaning of ars in the Roman world.51 Oshima’s view of ars captures the concept of art and creativity as it was held by different societies, including the Igbo and Ainu, in earlier times.
For the Igbo, the word nka has a general meaning covering “art”, “artistry”, “creativity”, “skill”, “technology” and all the other notions having similar meanings in Western thought and perspective.52 Aesthetic principles may differ from one society to another, since they may be hinged on specific cultural codes. Among the Igbo art was not the monopoly of anyone; the ability to create belonged to everyone; so was the capacity to appreciate and enjoy art. The separation of art from society is a fallout of the colonial project.
For the Ainu, art was intertwined with life itself. The perception and purpose of art among the Ainu are, for instance, not different from those of most traditional societies. The Ainu had no word for art among the Ainu. Art was immanent in human nature and experience, a situation that reflects the “bio-social” essence of art, as discussed by Ellen Dissayanake.53 That art is a biological behaviour is true of all societies, both primitive and industrialised. The Japanese notion of art which had been affected by its contact with the West, no doubt, influenced the Ainu concept of art in the colonial period and beyond, such that the Ainu still see much of their artistic productions as craft.54 Ainu aestghetics was expressed in the notion of “pirika noka” (beauty in relation to forms and shapes) as commonly held by the Ainu people. “Nuye” as a description of the act of inscribing straddled both writing and drawing. Hence the derivatives “nuyepu” (writing materials), “inuye” (the general term for handcrafts and carvings) and “shinuye” (body drawing or tattoo) all harbour creative sentiments. Although the Ainu now live in modern homes like the Japanese and have adapted to the Japanese society, much of the traditional Ainu items are still produced in abundance today mainly as tourist/airport/popular art, within the bounds of “inuye” as a boon to Ainu cultural identity.
Unlike traditional Ainu art which was created in response to personal and social needs, contemporary Ainu art is mostly commercialised, in spite of the artists’ concern with identity and cultural survival. When the fisheries, agriculture and construction (the main industries in which the Japanese exploited Ainu labour) cheapened Ainu labour in the Meiji period, many Ainu turned to art and craft for economic survival. Others who could not create visual arts resorted to performance, playing the role of kankoAinu55 as means of livelihood. Although kanko living is despised by some Ainu, it has helped to preverve Ainu heritage and art, as Simon Coterill has observed.56
Having said this, what are the art types of the Igbo and the Ainu? How much transformation have they undergone in postcolonial time? The Igbo have masks (which incorporate sculpture, painting, textile, installation and performance), sculpture, drawing, painting, textile, and pottery/ceramics. These art types have evolved through colonial time and are still practised by contemporary artists most of whom are university trained. Other forms of art like printmaking and installation are also part of the modern techniques. However, in the flux of postcoloniality and globalisation, the Igboness of these genres cannot be based on the identity of the artists, but on the essence of style, form and iconography. For not only have the artists to address more global concerns and audiences, they are also objects of sundry influences and challenges that are mirrored in their works.
For the Ainu, traditional art modes include drawing, sculpture and textile. While these art forms persist among men and women in Hokkaido, a modern fine art tradition, including printmaking, is also developing, with some artists engaging art in less traditional ways, yet keeping to the Ainu spirit through their theme and content. These artists, unlike their Igbo counterparts, are not university products, but they seem to be abreast with the fleeting realities of contemporary art.
Igbo and Ainu arts have thus transmogrified in postcolonial time. For instance, although the influence of religion has waned, masks, gods, and otherworldly issues still inform art as ripples of the past. In both societies, new arts may reflect the postcolonial condition in their often hybrid character and content. In Igbo art, the limits of this situation is often reached in the artists’ receptivity to Western ideas. But for Ainu artists, the embrace of Japanese and Western influences seems more measured than suicidal.
Art, Culture and the Postcolonial Condition
Whereas colonisation and neocolonisation have taken a terrible toll on Igbo art traditions and left them struggling between death and survival, art and cultrual production thrive among the Ainu in Hokkaido. An important factor in this situation is religion as a crucial factor in the evolution of peoples and cultures. Colonisation in Igbo land was quick and dogged in displacing Igbo autochthonous religion through the instrumentality of Christianity. Although a number of Christian missionaries lived and worked in Hokkaido, Christians in Hokkaido today remain very few and far between. The Igbo situation readily typifies H.D.A. Major’s assertion that “When the religion of a civilization dies, the death of the civilization speedily follows.”57 Major’s statement provides a good reason for the decline of Igbo art and heritage in postcoloniality.
For the fact that Western anthropology, in its heyday, saw many non-Western societies as “primitive,” it logically underestimated their ability to make art in the Western sense. Individualism was not the hallmark of art in native societies, even in the cases of art objects that were made by individuals. Perhaps it is for this reason that the early Western anthropological studies focused on the collective significations of the art rather than on the “aesthetic qualities of the individual objects”.58 Colonialists think alike. They are dynamic and changing, while the colonized, whether in Africa, Asia or elsewhere, is “static and unchanging, detached from the flow, pace and dynamism of the rest of the world…until the arrival of… (the) colonizer,”59 be they European or Asian. Consequently they were unable to appreciate that the colonised societies, as Franz Boas insisted, had their own aesthetic taste, set of judgment and values, which may differ from the colonisers’ but which still were an indicator that “all societies had art.”60
Igbo and Ainu arts continue to survive in various degrees. In spite of modernization and technological advancement of both societies, their arts derive much inspiration from nature as is common with ethnic art. Plants, humans, animals, rivers, rains, and other things remain possible elements in Igbo and Ainu art. To different degrees, both art traditions abhorred realism or figural representation as the case may be. For Igbo art, representation was not totally ruled out, but realism and resemblance were not highly encouraged for fear of witchcraft. Thus both human and animal figures featured alongside organic and other forms but in often abstracted modes. This is not exactly the case in Ainu art where pure abstract forms and symbols are favoured also for the same reason of witchcraft and other taboos rooted in religion.
Although Chisato Dubreuil insists that most animals and their philosophic significations are not common in Ainu religion and mythology and could not have inspired the works of Ainu artists,61 is it possible that artists subtly alluded to some of these animals in their works from an abstract standpoint, knowing that a realist approach would run contrary to age-long taboos and the dignity of kamuy? After all, gods, goddesses and spirits are celebrated in much ethnic art without necessarily being depicted realistically. Perhaps this accounts for some morew (whorl) designs in Ainu art which vividly evoke a pair of owl’s eyes, albeit in an abstract manner.
One factor that has had considerable influence on the arts of both people is religion which is central in both cultures. In Igbo art, gods and totems can be the subject matter and can be depicted formally or alluded to aesthetically and iconographically; they can also be celebrated thematically. But in Ainu art, the role and place of gods may not be as direct. Ainu carvers have to give thanks to kamuy before they begin a work, even at the very point of felling a tree intended for carving, but they may not carve kamuy as subject matter traditionally. However, the flourish of airport art, especially bear and salmon carving, seems to have subverted this taboo. So has the emerging fine art tradition in Hokkaido. And talking about religion, one cannot discuss religion as a source of inspiration in postcolonial Igbo and Ainu art without a mention of Christianity, especially for the Igbo. In the Igbo world, Christianity has taken a great toll and has had positive and negative influences on art. For the Ainu, Christianity has very little or no impact on their lives and art. For in spite of the work of John Batchelor and other Christian evangelisers who lived and worked in Hokkaido at different times, Christianity is a minority religion in Hokkaido and Japan as a whole. But one cannot rule out the possibility that a few churchgoers in Hokkaido are Ainu and that Christian elements may stray into their works. A young amateur artist and cultural actor told me in Hokkaido that she read the Bible and that she found it very comforting. Is it possible that some of the cruciform motifs found on some Ainu textiles are indeed Christian elements?
In recent decades, however, the Third and Fourth worlds have been transformed drastically due to activities and influences in and from their former colonizers and other parts of the world. Caught in the crossfire of cultural conflicts, ethnic and native peoples have to grapple with the demands of tradition on one hand and the challenges of glocalisation and globalization on the other. Not only is this reality now reflected in the shift in subject matters, especially for the Igbo artists, it can be seen in the formal, aesthetic and iconographic elements of many works. For the Ainu artists also, there is every indication that sources of inspiration will widen and deepen as “the power of religious restrictions on the use of animal and human images (weaken).”62 This is already evident in the works of some contemporary Ainu artists such as Bikky Sunazawa, Moriyuki Kaizawa, Nuburi Toko, Takeki Fujito Shizue Ukaji, Noriko Kawamura, Koji Yuki and others whose works form the nucleus of the emergent Ainu fine arts. As Japanese and other influences wear out the veil of tradition and religion that once shrouded Ainu artistic production, new art forms and more exciting talents are emerging in Hokkaido. As Igbo and Ainu modern art are relatively at different levels of infancy, their greatest challenge in the postcolonial dispensation or what Simon Coterill calls “a consciously hybrid culture,”63 may be how to keep their identity in the face of the realities of globalization as a West-policed phenomenon.
Between the colonial and postcolonial trajectories, transition, change and continuity have defined art and culture among the Igbo and Ainu, although change, for the Ainu, has been very minimal. It is clear that Igbo and Ainu societies have had art throughout their histories, although ante-colonialism, they did not have a single totalizing word to describe the art experience. Both societies viewed art and the general ability to create as gifts from the gods which should be committed to the service of religion and the gods themselves. This obviously accounts for the religious essence in Igbo and Ainu art and also reinforces Karen Armstrong’s assertion that “religion and art were inseparable from the very beginning.”64 Of course, the connection between art and religion, as can be seen from Armstrong’s comment, is one that cuts across all humanity, but most vividly portrayed in native societies even as they go through colonisation, postcoloniality. This fact is further buttressed in the countless images found in the over three hundred decorated caves in Lascaux, Altamira and other parts of Southern France and Northern Spain.65 These labyrinthine images have been linked to ancient Shamanism believed to have flourished in Africa and Europe in the Paleolithic period, spreading later “to Siberia and thence to America and Australia, where the Shaman is still the chief religious practitioner among the indigenous hunting peoples.”66 If the European and African cave arts harbour images that share some commodities, they lend credence to some of Ellen Dissanayake’s theses about the connection between art, biology, culture, the human species, and society in her two major books on the subject of art, its origins and essence.67
The commonalities and divergences in Igbo and Ainu arts are, therefore, only a micro pattern of the macro qualities that define the human species, as homo religiosus and homo aestheticus.68 The concept of art in its narrower Western perspective came into Igbo and Ainu consciousness through the instrumentality of slavery and colonization, and persists in the postcolonial period. Although the art of both peoples suffered from non-recognition by their colonisers in their different historical and political developments, postcolonial Igbo art seems to have attained more recognition as art internationally than has Ainu art. While the international recognition of Igbo art is due in part to the flourish of African Studies Centers and some major exhibits of African art in the Western world, especially from the 1980s onwards, the poor perception of Ainu art persists as a result of the attitude of Japanese curators and art historians as well as the inability of Ainu artists themselves to see theirs as art.69 This is evidenced in most catalogues of Ainu art exhibitions where the word “craft” has been preferred to “art” or is used interchangeably with art, thus creating image and status crises for Ainu art and artists.70 However, in spite of the above fact, the Igboness of Igbo art is not as intact as the Ainuness of Ainu art. Although Westernisation can be blamed for the Igbo situation, difference in population also counts. With a population of about 15 million, the Igbo are the subject of more infusion and diffusions; hence the apparent loss of Igboness in Igbo art. With less than 20,000 Ainu in Japan today, cultural essence remains at the heart of much Ainu art.
All told, what emerges from the study of Igbo and Ainu art and culture is not a case of cultural diffusion between the two groups, as they are both distanced from each other without any contact. The study only foregrounds a good example of simul-development and thus inscribes art and culture as pan-human phenomena. In doing so, it underscores the uniqueness of the human species in spite of the diversity that defines the world.
Notes and references
1. Adiele Afigbo, Ropes of Sand; Studies In Igbo History And Culture. (Ibadan: The Caxton Press [West Africa] Limited, 1981), p.41; see also J. Okoro Ijoma, “Igbo Origins and Migrations,” Uwa Ndi Igbo. No 2, (June 1989), p.68.
2. Afigbo, Ibid, P. 341.
3. Simon Ottenberg, “A Modern Religious Movement and Indigenous Traditions” in C. Krydz Ikwuemesi (ed), Astride Memory and Desire: Peoples, Cultures and Development in Nigeria (Enugu: Abic, 2012), pp. 65-80.
4. Chidi Ugwu, “Indigenous Strangers: The Social Psychology of the Perceptions of Culture in Nigeria” in C. Krydz Ikwuemesi (ed) Ibid, pp. 51-64; see also Peter-Jazzy Ezeh, “Religion, Cultural Hegemony and Post-Colonial Social Order in Africa,” in C. Krydz Ikwuemesi, ibid, p. 81-94.
5. Barbara Aoki Poisson, The Ainu of Japan (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co, 2002), p. 14.
6. Miyajima Toshimitsu, Land of Elms: The History, Culture and the Present Day Situation of the Ainu People. (Cleaveland: United Church Publishing House, 1998), p. 10.
7. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, The Ainu Of the NorthWest Coast Of Southern Sakhalin. (Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 1974), p.1.
8. Yugo Ono, “Ainu Homelands: Natural History from Ice Age to Modern Times.” In William W. Fitzhugh & Chisato Dubreuil (Eds.), Ainu: Spirit of a northern people. (Washington, DC: University of Washington Press, 1999), pp.32-33.
9. Richard Siddle, “Ainu history: An overview,” in William W. Fitzhugh and Chisato Dubreuil (Eds.),Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. (Washington, DC: University of Washington Press, 1999), pp.67-73.
10. The Ainu Shinpo, otherwise known as the Act for the Promotion of Ainu Culture, was a result of actions and struggles by the Ainu over several years. Enacted on July 1, 1997 to replace the outdated Hokkaido Former Aborigines Act of 1899, it retained some of the objectionable features of the 1899 act, contained unsavoury characteristics of its own, and fell short of expectation, especially as it did not address political and rights issues.
11. See Masami Ito, “Diet officially declares Ainu indigenous.” Accessed December 17, 2012.http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20080607a1.html.
12. William W. Fitzhugh, “Ainu, Ethnicity: A History,” in William W. Fitzhugh, and Chisato Dubreuil (eds)Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. (Washington, DC: University of Washington Press, 1999), p.26.
13. Chidi Ugwu, in C. Krydz Ikwuemesi (ed), 2012, p.52.
14. G. Ferraro, W. Trevathan and J. Levy quoted in Chidi Ugwu,Ibid, p.52.
15. Adam Muller (ed), Concepts of Culture: Art, Politics and Society. (Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2005), p49.
16. P-J Ezeh, quoted in Chidi Ugwu, in C