Art and Power in Yoruba: Flash of the Spirit Chapter Review

Art (Fine arts, Performing arts)

The short response needs to be about this question: What is the relationship between art and power in the Black Atlantic visual tradition? I am taking a Religion: Meaning and Purpose in the Arts class. Use the book Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson (Vintage Books, 1984) to do this assignment worth 15% […]

Art and Power in Yoruba: Flash of the Spirit Book Review

When the missionaries arrived in Yoruba land in the ninetieth century, their main aim was to spread the gospel and bring about civilization. On the contrary, the Yoruba community worshipped a god called Olorun and built urban cities. The Yoruba people produced some fine artwork, with most of their carvings telling stories of their heritage, unlike in Europe, where nothing of comparable artwork was produced. Yoruba’s religion was symbolized through various forms of artefacts and living entities, which also represented their power. The relationship between art and power is symbolized through artistic tools, cities, leadership, animals, and trees.

The black Atlantic visual tradition maintained by the Yoruba people allowed a symbiotic interaction between art and power. According to a European explorer, R.H. Stone, the natives dressed in artistic clothing and engaged in creative endeavours, with men undertaking building, carpentry, weaving, and leather tannery, while women spun, wove, and dyed cotton fabrics. Therefore, creative activities were part of the Yoruba culture, with rich, vast artwork flourishing under their care. Similarly, the natives interpreted their worldview aesthetically; this included everyday activities such as colour, taste and even abstract, metaphysical manifestations. For example, the Yoruba religion explains how god descended from the heavens to gift earth with Ashe. The substance, composed of a viper, python, white snail, earthworm, and woodpecker, had the power of life and death (Thompson, 1984). Ashe’s agency and power contain an abstract, complementary attribute, which is mostly represented in objects honouring their deity. One such object is a ritual ceramic bowl currently in the Yale University Art Gallery showing avatars of Ashe, such as the god of thunder, among other divine beings (Thompson, 1984). The ceramic bowl also contains sceptres that underscore the nobility of individuals who personify and grasp agency power (Thompson, 1984). Similarly, the presence of three stones within the ceramic bowl to represent native women’s cooking activity means that moral adherence safeguards the interest and health of the country and its people. Other art forms collected from the Yoruba people show the god Ashe in multiple forms and avatars in relation to the native’s sociocultural happenings. Therefore, the Yoruba used art to represent belief and adherence, showing art’s relevance to religious authority and power among the people.

The prevalence of Ashe transcended metaphysical manifestation and societal hierarchies, thus affecting earthly power structures and, consequently, artwork expression. According to Thompson (1984), artwork transcended its confinement and makeup and manifested itself as “divine force incarnate” (p. 7). For example, Ashe is a privilege merited to the highest habitats of the kingdom, with the diviners, priestesses, chiefs, and kings having the power to bridge the gods and the people. For example, the prevalence of artistic attires adorned by the king radiates divine command. While the feathered avatars adorned with shining beads protect the supreme leader’s head, the common folks wear veils to protect them from the king’s heavenly gaze. Therefore, artistic clothing and attire define the societal power structures and hierarchy within the kingdom of the Yoruba.

Various art forms within the Yoruba people are crucial in defining power structures in religion and societal hierarchy. The relevance of art in symbolizing power in the community has gained relevance in understanding the black Atlantic visual traditions, with objects such as the spiritual ceramic bowl and king’s crown helping to gain a better understanding. Therefore, the affiliation between art and power within the Yoruba people helps contemporary historians understand the customs and norms of the people.


Thompson, R. F. (1984). Black saints go marching in. In Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (1st ed., pp. 1-9). New York, NY: Vintage.

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Published On: 01-01-1970

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