Professor Phoenix Savage is an artist and designer of contemporary sculptures and jewelry, an Assistant Professor of Art, Tougaloo College Tougaloo, USA). As J. Williams Fulbright Fellow, she was in Nigeria between 2011 and 2012 as a visiting Professor of Art at the Obafemi Awolowo University. She spoke with ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA on her experience of Nigeria, Ife culture, how she became Ifa faithful and Chief Yeye Olomo Osara of Ile Ife
You were in Nigeria, Ile – Ife, between 2011 and 2012 as a visiting professor, was that your first time in Nigeria?
My goodness, yes, it was my first time in Nigeria. I was scared to death of coming to Nigeria alone and not knowing anybody or the language, just the horror stories. I was here for nearly a year and I loved every minute of it. You have to stay on your toe, which is for sure. ‘A stranger has no eyes,’ they say and this is absolutely true. I learned so much about myself, the culture of Nigeria, mainly Yoruba culture and Ifa. It was a breathtaking experience of joy and at times confusing.
How would you describe your time at Obafemi Awolowo University as a visiting Professor of Art?
The school had the best students in the world. They are full of delight to learn that is what being a student is about. The open door of discovery and my students at OAU were the best. I still know them today, we talk and sometimes even do projects together. It is great. I wish every student in America were like the students at OAU.
What were some of the most outstanding attractions for you then?
I loved how the students honour their instructors, they ran to carry their bags, I found that fascinating. I never allowed that mainly because it was awhile before I knew who the students were. But the gentle nature of the students and their commitment to their craft were extraordinary. These were delightsome for me. The other thing I loved was taking a break and watching the theater students and the music students practice. When you saw that it always felt like you were truly in a creative hub of goodness.
What was your first encounter with Nigerian art like?
I knew Nigerian art before coming so it was not a surprise, what was a surprise is the level of the quality that comes from nothing. A Nigerian artist does not go to the art store to purchase a paint brush, a sculptor does not order online a new craving tool. No, they first create the tool they need to make the art then they set out to make the art. That realty blew me away and I found it hard to create. I was spoiled, I wanted an art store. My Nigerian counterparts did not allow an empty tool bag to stop them from creating. I was humbled and embolden by that reality.
What do you miss about Nigeria and Ile Ife in particularly?
The people, there is no place like it. The people not only amused me but welcomed me into their hearts and that is the most precious feeling. Nigerians are some of the funniest people. They got jokes!!! To me, laughter is universal and while I may have a language barrier as I continue to learn Yoruba, what helps a lot is that we are able to laugh with each other.
If you had the opportunity, would you want to visit again?
Always. I have had the change to return in 2017 after my first stay in 2011. I was there nearly a year the first visit and in 2017 it was only a month visit for the Osara Festival. I always want to be in Nigeria without question.
What was your engagement with Ife culture like, when did you first get drawn to it and what arouse your interest in it?
My initial exposure to Ile-Ife was through the arts and African Art History. From there my relationship deepened. Coming to Ile-Ife to conduct research as Fulbright Scholar allowed me to really dive into the culture. Researching Ori furthered my knowledge and love for Yoruba culture. When you fully study it not just an aspect but looking at the whole of the culture, in particular the traditional culture of Ile-Ife, it is a very practical culture. It may not appear so today in terms of politics and foolishness, but set that aside and what you have if we follow the teachings of its traditions is a very clear and practical set of guidelines for a good life.
How did you become Chief Yeye Olomo Osara of Ile – Ife and what does your role entails?
I pray every day to understand my role as Chief Yeye Olomo Osara of Ile-Ife and to be the best chief I am destined to be. With that said, I am still learning what that all means. I am not there where the role of chief has its greater impact. From afar I can only pray and send support when I am able to. I was asked to become the chief by Olosara, the head priest of the Osara Compound there in Ile – Ife. I was very skeptical at first. I spent a good deal of time talking to Olosara to fully understand what he was expecting and what I was and was not capable and or willing to do. Once that was ironed out, we seem to have come to an agreement and that agreement has held to this day. I am very proud and happy to serve as Chief Yeye Olomo Osara of Ile-Ife. I pray my ancestors open ways to strengthen my service.
Are you still fully involved with the culture and performing your role where you reside presently?
Yes and no. In the US there are pockets of Orisha communities, mainly in larger urban areas. If you do not live in such an area, as I do not then you are very isolated from avenues of the tradition and are left to go it alone. I can count on one hand the people near me that may be of the tradition. I have given lectures on campuses about my role as chief and other aspects of the tradition and that has been nice. But I am left to practice my ways on my own.
Do you find any conflict in it given your background and beliefs?
I have absolutely no conflict at all. I do not think that at any point in my life and in particular my spiritual life, have I been anything other than African and traditional. It is what my destiny calls for and I am all too happy to honour that every day, every waking and sleeping second of my life.
How fulfilling are you in the performance of these cultural- religious duties?
I am wholehearted about my faith in Ifa and my duties to Osara and her children.
What is your impression of Ife art and cultural form? Obviously, Ife has been at the forefront of art since its inception as the centre of the universe. The art making that comes out of Il-Ife continues to astonish the world and I expect that to continue. I will add that for as much as it is highly traditional Ife art is also quite innovative as the artist pushes the boundaries on technique and presentation and that is highly critical to do.
Do you think there is enough exposure in this contemporary era of Nigerian and African art?
No, there is never enough exposure, which has changed with social media and the advent of self-promotion that social media encourages, but mainstream media coverage of art in general is slim and narrow down based on the levels of diversity one encounters against that of White men.
Is there enough interaction between Nigerian and African art, say for instance, American or Europe that you are more familiar with?
That to me is very slim, I think it happens more or better between African and Europeans especially in Germany, but not so much in the US with Africans in the Diaspora, we are still isolated from each other, to my sadness I will say. South Africans and Britons do well. But all of us could stand to mix it up far more and far better than we presently do, not to mention what a joy and benefit it would be for us all.
What is your message to Nigerian artists?
Well, I am not sure they need any message from me. Many, many of them are doing great. I may be the one that needs a message from them. They have talent and spunk and grit. That is what it takes for success. I wish them well as they continue to go forward and conquer. Isegun O! (I wish you victory).