Performativity of an Ifá Divination Tray in a Western Museum

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Fowler’s Museum curator of African arts, Gemma Rodriguez, examines a selection of African divination objects in Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives (2010b). The exhibit includes a 19th century Opon Ifá, or Ifá divination tray; a pair of Madebele Senufo divination figurines; and a 19th century Kashekesheke divining instrument from the Congo. The museum considers the exhibition of these objects as a “close study of works that reveals the diversity of African cosmological systems and differing concepts of fate, destiny, and causality” (Rodriguez, 2010a). Although every item might be subject of an individual study, this paper will focus on the Ifá divination tray on the premise that objects perform meaning “ by virtue of being defined, segmented, detached, and carried away by ethnographers”(Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1998).

Drawing from Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s Objects of Ethnography (1998), Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish (1977), and Wande Abimbola’s Ifá: an exposition of Ifá Literary Corpus (1996), I will argue that the mode the museum displays the Ifá divination tray performs in the object an act of appropriation that constraints its cultural meaning and perpetuates the power of the Western dominant culture. The paper will examine the performativity of the Ifá divination tray outside its original context and what it does to the exhibit. It will also examine the questions of how the meaning of the object as well as its relationship with viewers has been disciplined.

The word Ifá referrers to both the Yoruba god of wisdom, also known as Orunmila, and his divinatory and philosophical system through which the Yoruba people of West Africa may discern their past, present, and future (Abimbola, 1976). It is a traditional bod...

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III, J. P. (1982). Babalawa. In Y. B. Red (Ed.), (Vol. 3x8, pp. An Ifá diviner or “father of the secret”). Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (1998). Objects of Ethnography. Destination Culture : Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Museum, F. (2010a). Divination Tray (Opan Ifa). In E. T. crp2 (Ed.), (Vol. 2x2). Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Museum, F. (2010b). Intersections: World Arts Local Lives. In UCLA (Ed.), (pp. 1-12). Los Angeles: Regents of the University of California.

Rodriguez, G. (2010a). Culture Fix: African Divination Objects. Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives Retrieved November 13, 2011

Rodriguez, G. (2010b). Divination Tray (Opon Ifa). Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum.

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