A Saga of
Making a Film Documentary on
by Ron du Bois, Professor Emeritus of Art,
Oklahoma State University
From the start, our Nigerian Saga
was ruled by chance, by luck, by indeterminacy. We were led by
forces whose effects could never have been foreseen or predicted,
such as a chance meeting in a type of local eatery called a buka. My
wife and I were the only Westerners in a group of Nigerians gathered
there for a noon meal. They were curious to know about us and what
we were doing in a local buka. We told them we were from Oklahoma
State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, and were in Nigeria under
Fulbright support. We were overwhelmed when one of them said, "I
graduated from O.S.U. with a Ph.D. in Epidemiology." His wife and
children lived in Stillwater! While I had never seen or met him in
our university community, our paths crossed in that buka on the
campus of the University of Ile Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo
University). This meeting (no doubt arranged by the Eshu, the Yoruba
deity of chance) proved to be crucial and auspicious to the film
documentation of Yoruba women potters.
His name was Dr. Julius Afolabi, an engaging Nigerian whose
grandmother was a potter. His uncle, Sam Osashure, was an official
in the city of Ilorin, a major pottery production center about 60
miles northwest of Ile Ife. His mother lived in a small village
close to Ilorin. Julius visited her on a regular basis. Would we
like to come along and meet his mother and his uncle and visit Dada
Compound, where a community of women potters worked year round? His
uncle could introduce me to the potters and strike some sort of
arrangement regarding filming them at work. It was the perfect
opportunity to begin fieldwork.
The University of Ile Ife was our host
institution and the heart of the support system that made the
project possible. The university had an interesting and active
ceramics program, headed by Ralph Ibigbami, a potter, ceramic
sculptor, and scholar. I would eventually visit his home in Eshan
Ekiti and record potters in that area.
My initial Fulbright proposal had been reviewed and approved both
by Professor Ibigbami and Dr. Roland Abiodun, Art Department Chair.
They reported to the Fulbright program that they would take
responsibility for our welfare and accommodations, even though these
matters had not yet been formally accepted by the slow-moving
university administration. Despite their efforts, living
accommodations were not available. Instead we were housed in the
university hotel for nearly three months before finally securing a
regular apartment where we could unpack our luggage and I could
prepare for my field research.
During this time my wife, Thora, a pianist, became a valued
member of the highly active music department and I began to get my
bearings at the university. It was located a short way from the
ancient city of Ile Ife, the place where, according to Yoruba
belief, all human beings were created. The city is famous for its
production of both terra cotta and brass-cast images of Yoruba kings
and queens during the middle ages. It is the center of the Yoruba
I had to abandon my preconceptions on the first visit. The paved
streets, heavy traffic of buses, cars, trucks, taxis, and
motorcycles immediately dispelled the image of Ile Ife as an African
city of the past. Instead I found, as did the early Portuguese, that
the city was bustling with industry, energy and street life.
In spite of the influence of Western
religions, traditional Yoruba religion was still vital. The ancient
festivals were still being performed. I was able to interview an Ifa
priest – a revealing experience in it's own right. As I videotaped
daily life and festivals in Ile Ife, I had no specific understanding
of how the scenes would be used, and several of them became
important sections of the documentaries, providing a striking
contrast between contemporary city life and the traditional pace and
practices of the women potters.
The United States Information Service was a crucial part of our
support system. The Lagos office received our ten boxes of luggage
and the critical shipment of ECN (Eastman Kodak Color Negative) 16
mm film. These were then transferred to the Ibaden USIS office. USIS
personnel arranged for accommodations in Ibaden and the final stage
of our trip by car to the University of Ile Ife.
We had no transportation of our own and the prospect of buying a
car and driving in Nigeria was daunting. Eventually, by chance, we
did acquire a Volvo station wagon and I was able to make regular
trips to Ilorin. I even learned to drive in Lagos. The driving
conditions are so scary in that city that I preferred to maintain an
illusion of control and safety by claiming the wheel myself.
The initial trip to Ilorin was made in
Julius' car. His mother welcomed us with warm hospitality and a
hearty bowl of famous Yoruba stew. Then we visited Julius' uncle,
Sam Osashure. He knew the head mistress of the potters at Dada
Compound and made arrangements on my behalf for filming and
videotaping throughout the compound. The head mistress asked for and
received a cash payment in return for this arrangement.
Once the word went out that payment had been made, the normally
reserved and camera-shy women allowed me complete freedom to roam
the compound, to photograph, and to film. Normally they do not
welcome strangers. They live in a closed society that protects their
craft secrets. They believe that if they share their craft, the
ancestors who taught them might not approve. Pottery is their only
means of livelihood and the processes are traditionally taught only
to those born into the hereditary profession of potter.
I believe the women made an exception for me
because of the way I had gained admission, i.e., through influential
Yoruba friends who followed the correct procedures and spoke their
language. Julius' and Sam's negotiations and preparations were
crucial to successfully documenting this famous pottery community.
I needed a base of operations in Ilorin, food and shelter, and a
place to store my equipment. The United Church of West Africa
maintained economical living quarters in the city. Dr. Afolabi made
arrangements for me to stay there during the week until the project
was completed. On weekends I returned to the campus in Ile Ife to
visit my wife, and catch up on campus life. These arrangements
worked perfectly. My UCWA room was a fraction of the cost of a
hotel. It had a bed, table and chair, and most importantly, a
shower. The gates were closed at night, so it was a safe place to
park my Volvo.
My schedule was the same, week after week. I got up, ate, picked
up Dr. Afolabi's brother, Shola, who was my translator, and went to
Dada Compound to observe, study, ask questions, and film until
sunset. Sometimes I gave a few of the potters a ride home. (They
usually walked to work in the morning and left the compound well
after dark, taking a bus home.)
I established rapport with the women in a number of ways.
Initially, rather than taking the large 16 mm camera into the
compound, I began shooting with my small 8 mm video camera. When
they saw themselves in the playback mode, they understood what I was
doing, and the ice was broken.
They understood I was a potter because I helped them with their
clay and wedging tasks. I was not able to keep up with them. Their
strength and stamina came from wedging clay every day since
childhood. As potters, they performed amazing feats of endurance and
They must have thought it odd that a male was a
potter. Yoruba culture traditionally has been gender specific
regarding work, insisting that women perform tasks associated with
hearth and home and that men perform tasks outside the home. When
questioned, master-potter Alhaja said she was not aware that men
were potters in Northern Nigeria. She believed that custom and
tradition call women to pottery, yet couldn't think of any specific
restriction against men becoming potters. The question had never
My contacts at the University of Ile Ife referred me to Dr. N.A.
Olaoye, a specialist in craft technologies at the University of
Ilorin. Much of the narration was based on the information and
research he provided.
It seems impossible to pick out any one of
many interacting factors of chance and luck as being most important,
but the departure of my department head, Rowland Abiodun, for the
U.S. was a crucial breakthrough. His leave of absence made it
possible for him to loan me his Volvo station wagon for over four
months. The project would have been far more difficult without
Roland's trusty Volvo. I'm happy to report that I was able to return
it to him in better condition than when he left.
In 1988 I returned from Nigeria with 10,000
feet of 16 mm Eastman Kodak Color Negative motion picture film. The
film was developed in the U.S. I also had considerable 8 mm
videotape that was to prove extremely valuable. With the advent of
digital technology, we were able to digitize both film and video for
editing purposes. Without the digital technology that came into use
well after my return from Nigeria, the documentaries in their
present form would have been more complex and expensive.
Text and images courtesy of Ron du Bois, Professor
Emeritus of Art, Oklahoma State University