“In the beginning, there was no word, only sensations,” says Henry John Drewal.
“The senses are crucial to understandings of the arts, as well as the formations of persons and cultures, and histories,” explains Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Henry J. Drewal
Drewal began to discover the central role of the senses in the arts in the 1960s. While in Nigeria teaching French and English and organizing arts camps as a Peace Corps volunteer, he apprenticed himself to a Yoruba sculptor, an experience that proved to be transformative.
He followed up in 1978 with mask-making apprenticeship with another Yoruba sculptor in Nigeria, and the Gelede mask he created still dances in annual festivals.
Through these experiences, he says, “I gained insights into Yoruba artistic concepts, not only in discussing them with artists and observing them as they emerged from the creative process, but also in attempting to achieve them in my own carving under the tutelage of Yoruba artists.”
He adds, “In other words, my own bodily, multi-sensorial experience was crucial to a more profound understanding (oye) of Yoruba art, and the culture and history that shape it. This process of watching, listening, carving, making mistakes, being corrected by example, and trying again, was a transformative sensorial experience for me.”
Drewal has received a 2016-17 senior Fulbright Scholar award to continue exploring African art through what he calls Sensiotics – “the study of the multi-sensorial dimensions of the arts, both in the making and the reception of the arts by body-minds.”