In tribute to the popular Nigerian usage of iconoclasm/iconoclast

I've spent the morning reading, underlining and scribbling at the site of David Morgan's The Sacred Gaze and what do I find? The popular use of the terms iconoclasm and iconoclast in Nigerian press and popular language is actually pretty avantgarde – and no, I don’t mean that in any metaphorical sense but with particular reference to 19th century Euro-American avantgarde movements:

Artists claimed a new liberty: they now understood their task to be to direct the critical, prophetic voice of art against abuses of power and regnant conventions. Destroying idols became a favourite activity of the “progressive” or “avant-garde” artist. [Dario] Gamboni notes that the definition of iconoclasm as one who attacks “cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the ground that they are erroneous or pernicious” arose in the mid-19th century at the same time that the term avant-garde was used to describe the progressive aims of artists. Artists such as Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists in France were regarded by their admirers as attacking staid, bourgeois ideals and overturning them in the interest of new ways of seeing and valuing human experience. … (p. 139-40)

Interesting, or? Well, while I’m not sure whether there is any relationship between the Euro-American avant-garde use of the term and Nigerian popular use I rather doubt it. Instead I rather suspect that in the Nigerian not unlike the 19th century European context iconoclasm (in the sense of the destruction of images related to localised religions) was often associated with resistance to established (‘traditional’) authorities – just think again of the paragraph by Olufemi Vaughan I quoted yesterday: The ITPA’s commitment to the special status of chiefs in local administrations was closely associated with a condemnation of ‘shallow amateur iconoclasts,’ which I suspect belonged to a younger generation that had converted to Christianity and from that new found position of righteousness challenged established authorities. - Didn’t my friend define an iconoclast as somebody like Jesus? In any case, this at least is the context that Ramon Sarro suggests for the religious and later state backed iconoclasm among the Baga in Guinea. Well, grateful for any thoughts on this …

More on The Sacred Gaze and Visual Piety some other time


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