Accepted paper:

Aesthetics and social change in Okpella (Edo State), Nigeria


Jean Borgatti (Clark University/ Boston University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper compares preference data focused on masks collected in 1979 (400 interviews) and 2003 (130 interviews), in Okpella, (Edo State, Nigeria), and addresses questions of how well formed and resilient the local aesthetic has proven to be in the face of dramatic social change.

Paper long abstract:

Survey research proved an effective tool for tapping into reservoirs of local perception in Okpella, a place and a people, located north of Benin City in southern Nigeria, when informal consideration of images failed to prompt discussion of aesthetic criteria. In 1979, five years after a social and historical study of Okpella's ancestral masquerades was made, a major survey on aesthetic preference was undertaken. 400 individuals of different ages and genders were interviewed. In 2003, a panel study took place. 100 of the original sample were re-interviewed along with additional young people. The survey's centerpiece was a set of 'mask' images categorized as 'beautiful' (osomhotse) or 'grotesque' (ulishi). Respondents saw these in paired sequences, making what is called a 'forced choice' between two images. Rankings were then constructed using statistical procedures. Formal art historical analysis of the ranked images and acquired cultural knowledge provided the basis for constructing a theory, or at least an hypothesis, of what made an image 'beautiful' or 'grotesque,' and where people focused when they make such assessments. The proposed paper looks at the questions asked in the original study (e.g., Is there an aesthetic when people choose not to voice criticism?), their relevance for today, and the independent value of the responses compared over this time period to provide valuable insight into how well formed and resilient the Okpella aesthetic has proven itself to be in the face of dramatic social change.

panel W114
Returning to the field: experiences and dilemmas in re-studies