Ensō came to the University of Iowa Museum of Art by way of tragedy. It was given from Sato himself in memory of Mary Hagihara Kujawski Roberts, who served as the museum’s director between 1988 and 1990, when she died of cancer at the age of 41. A centerpiece in her legacy opened at the Taiwan Museum of Art in the final year of her life. Forms and Functions of African Art marked the first significant exhibition of African art in Taiwan, but it also embodied Roberts’ commitment to intercultural exchange and the communicative power of aesthetic experience. “We hope” she wrote in her preface to the show’s catalogue, “that this exhibition will be a good-will ambassador […] making manifest our strong interest in international peace and understanding.”

Fig. 7. Preface to Forms and Functions of African Art, written by Chen Kuei-miao, Director of the National Museum of History, Taiwan, 1990

Roberts had hoped to gather interviews with visitors to the exhibition, which was eventually seen by half a million people. Her health kept her from making the trip to Taipei and these conversations entered an inexistent archive. Would it have been one of intimacy or estrangement?

The circularity of the opón Ifá that was displayed near the threshold of two galleries in Taipei was a common, though not a constitutive feature of the form. Yoruban divination boards can also be square (onígunmerin) or the shape of a crescent (ìlàjì opòn), evoking the four corners of the world or the arching heavens above the earth’s horizon line. A circular board (opón ribiti) is said to model a cross-section of the cosmos envisioned as a closed calabash, its intricately patterned border surrounding a smooth, expansive surface. 

Like the ensō, this is a technology for making contingency sweep into view, though its methods for doing so are as distinct as its relationship to temporality. Where the inerasable quality of sumi-e ink facilitates one means of capturing flickers of passing energy, an opón Ifá is more like a stage upon which the future speaks inside of the present. This is a renewable process, activated when a diviner (babalawo) sprinkles it with dust before throwing sixteen palm nuts across its interior to produce a configuration of eight sets of signs. Each sign is associated with one of 256 names and a corresponding verse which the diviner has committed to memory. They are chanted aloud for the client to interpret. 

Maybe you will never not be looking for what feels otherwise to your own muddled, inchoate experience of time, or for the promise of questions transformed by the right time and place.

There are other reasons to be patient while critiquing an appropriative and hyperventilating past that shared in this wish. Because invariably, even as museums sought to serve as an infrastructure for creating interfaces between cultures, they have always marked these transmissions with their own conceptions of what is legible and therefore valuable. Works of African art displaying evidence of use within rituals and performance were consistently preferred by museums and collectors as they began to compete amongst themselves within the terrains of acquired, emblematic authenticity. But the flexibility of this criteria regarding the value of wear-and-tear as applied to art that is African, rather than European, only serves to affirm the inequalities built into the institutions that house them.


Fig. 8. Catalog image for opón Ifá as it appeared in Forms and Functions of African Art, 1990

Because there can be no plausible history of European modernism without an acknowledgement of its imaginative construction of the “primitive,” there can be no full accounting for how integral these cross-cultural exchanges were. That would mean seeing what Picasso would have painted if he had never set eyes on an Iberian mask. Existing at a level somewhere between inspiration and strip-mining, canonical modernists seeking to redefine how art might still belong to a broken world were doing so in the variegated shadows of colonialism. This tension didn’t simply coincide with the early 20th century’s contestation of what art could be and do; it suffused these contestations when things were most aggressively and deliriously up for grabs.

In one telling of the world to come, it was imagined that art itself could dissolve from a rarefied sphere of exceptional treasures and disperse itself into the contours of everyday life. That the consecrated and de-sacralized tended to blur into one another was not a glitch but a feature of this possibility. Not only the Ifa divination system, but its requisite apparatus might look like an anticipation of that world, and something more than beautiful or functional. Regardless of how consequential these designations or their suspension were for any of the people actualizing the spiritual, social, and practical exchanges that passed across this board, its presence in the museum is predicated on their absence.

While we might retain a utopian desire to see art and life merge in order to reconfigure the world, this desire cannot sidestep these histories of expropriation. As the anthropologist James Clifford pointed out apropos of MoMA’s 1984 exhibition ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern: “The fact that rather abruptly, in the space of a few decades, a large class of non-Western artifacts came to be redefined as art is a taxonomic shift that requires critical historical discussion, not celebration. That this construction of a generous category of art pitched at a global scale occurred just as the planet’s tribal peoples came massively under European political, economic, and evangelical dominion cannot be irrelevant.”

Fig. 9. Artist Unknown, Opon Ifa (divination tray), Wood, 54.61 x 54.61 x 3.81, The Stanley Collection of African Art

It is not impossible that the significant crack running along the grain of this divination board’s interior is why it fell into disuse and became available to purchase, though there is no provenance research to confirm this. And no innocence would be on offer if it did. The opposite of innocence is information, which is liable to increase at the edges of things; this opon Ifa is one example, though with more information, we also get more ambivalence. In particular there is the problem of Eshu, the Yoruban messenger god whose face usually appears prominently at the top of divination boards.

In his commentary on this work, the art historian Cornelius Adepegba emphasizes that “the curious thing about this piece is not only the presence of two faces but [that] the markings on the faces are not the same. On one, there is ‘pele’ the three vertical gashes on each cheek, which is common to almost all the Yoruba sub-groups […] The other one has the so-called ‘cat’s whiskers’ which converge at the corners of the mouth and is restricted to the Yagba in the northeastern corner of Yoruba land where it has spread to the Nupe and the ethnic groups around the Niger/Benne confluence. Among the Oyo and Ife people, it is known as the slave mark and it is found on the cross-bearer and equestrian figures, both of which have been interpreted as errand runners in Benin art. Among the Yoruba, court attendants to rulers as well as even the subjects can be referred to as slaves. So as the case is here, the interpretation of the figures is difficult. What is certain is that one face is subordinate to the other.”

Lingering with this difficulty, we might also wonder if the carver withheld the image of Eshu as an act of reverence and strategy. Perhaps the object was always intended for sale and not for use. But if we are confused by what it is showing, this is also in keeping with the evasiveness attending to any interpretation of Eshu. Both healer and tormentor, he is a capricious trickster figure of crossroads and paradox. Adjacent to any errand-boy and at home in any interval of human waiting, he is sanguine to the rhythm and power of our anticipation and desperation to be heard or to hear something back, to arrive inside a point where signal and noise will separate.