Though not a contest, scholars struggled to outdo one another on Thursday, May 19 in their presentations on renowned scholar, Abiola Irele and his contributions to African literary criticism.
The event, a colloquium, was held at Drapper’s Hall, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, to honour the eminent academic as he clocked 75.
The roll-call of guests at the programme reflected Irele’s influence in literary criticism and other areas of academic. A number of guests confessed that though seeing the renowned scholar in flesh and blood for the first time, they had read almost all his works which have broadened their thinking on Africa, its cultures and languages.
One of such was K.A. Adebowale, dean, Faculty of Science, who represented the Vice Chancellor, Isaac Adewole. He disclosed that he met Irele for the first time ever earlier in the day when he came to visit the Vice Chancellor. “I thought he was going to be a very fat man,” he said, to underscore how he had always perceived the famed scholar who retired from Harvard University, US, to join the Kwara State University.
He added, “I read a lot about him. He is an embodiment of excellence. He has permanently imprinted his footprint, not only in his profession, but in all he laid his hands upon.”
Intuitive and precocious
The Vice Chancellor noted further that Irele was one of the leading scholars who laid the foundation for modern African literary criticism. “It is to Professor Irele’s intuitive and precocious handling of exegesis that students and even other scholars of African Literature have had to rely on for penetrations into the hidden and intricate labyrinths of textual meanings.”
An insightful appraisal of Irele’s academic life took place during the two major sessions of the colloquium. Opinions were freely expressed about his person and the entirety of his offerings to the knowledge market.
In Praise of Alienation
Dan Izevbaye, a professor and colleague of Irele, examined his works with special emphasis on his first inaugural lecture titled “In Praise of Alienation.” The lecture delivered on November 22, 1982, has remained a rallying point for the study of Africa by scholars across the world. Izevbaye recalled that Irele warned his audience that he would not discuss French as a language, which was odd because he was to give the lecture as a professor of French. He added that the lecture marked a turning point in the study of African tradition and history, previously viewed from colonial perspectives.
He explained that the lecture generated harsh criticisms but only because It “was an essay before its time. The audience was not ready for it.” Describing Irele as a man of many parts, Izevbaye said the cerebral literary critic is also a fantastic tenor with a “concert voice”. He finally submitted that his environmental and academic backgrounds have helped shaped his eventful life in the academics, writing and publishing.
The interesting sessions also witnessed cross-fertilisation of ideas and interrogations of the scholar’s works. Playwright and Irele’s first doctoral student, Femi Osofisan, said he would prefer that his former teacher returned to the University of Ibadan instead of assuming the post of pioneer provost at the College of Humanities, Management and Social Sciences, Kwara State University.
Reacting to Osofisan’s and others wish that he returns to UI, Irele said given that he had achieved many feats in places he has worked, he would also like to make a mark before leaving his new place of work. To show his commitment to the fledgling university, he donated his entire library to it to boost its operation. Irele added that he saw in the Vice Chancellor, Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah, the zeal to make the institution “another UI in the country.”
Speaking earlier, Na’Allah thanked Irele for conferring recognition on the new institution by choosing to join its faculty. “Everywhere I go and his name is mentioned, I let people know that he is in Kwara State University. He has made us known to the whole world. So a honour for him is a honour for Kwara State University.”
Are they talking about me?
Irele, who sat silently watching as speakers showered encomiums on him later spoke up: “At a point during the presentations, I asked myself, ‘who are they really talking about’?” He also noted that fears being expressed about the fate of literary criticism in Nigeria are unfounded, given the quality of presentations he listened to. He said he is hopeful that there many competent young scholars who will keep the flag flying.
Perhaps to reflect his social and academic life, the event was spiced with some musical entertainment. On hand to perform was the trio of Edaoto, Cornerstone and Awoko.
Sola Olorunyomi, the coordinator of the colloquium, summarised its essence thus: “If we have to quantify these in terms of the cultural economy, because of the pioneering works of people like Irele, Echeruo, Izevbaye and so on, it is possible for the rest of us to say we can build a career. That means not just a career in Nigeria and Africa but in the Diaspora ‑ North America, Europe and other parts of the globe.”
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