TUNDÉ KELANI, ÈṢÙ OF NIGERIAN CINEMA:
YORÙBÁ AESTHETIC FORMATION,
TRADITION, AND MORALITY
A divine trickster, master of disguise, challenger of orthodoxy, shapeshifter,
and enforcer, Èṣù is the spirit of the imagination, critique, and innovation.
In Yorùbá performances and rituals, drummers, dancers, and singers begin
with an invocation of Èṣù to open the portal to the Òrìṣà1 and ancestors. Èṣù
opens the doors to the past and future (Aiyejina 2009). The spirit of Èṣù can
be said to inhabit the realm of the arts, but not all artists perform Èṣù-like
feats. I open this article with the suggestion that the art of world-renowned
and critically acclaimed Nigerian filmmaker, Tundé Kelani, is analogous to
the work of Èṣù.
Following a section describing my ethnographic methodology, moral
themes in thirteen of Kelani films are identified, illustrating how Kelani’s
representations of Yorùbá traditional culture are central to the films’
allegorical impact. The final section builds on Yeku’s concept of Alter/Native
narrative (2012) and Meyer’s discussion of aesthetic formation (2015) to
make an argument that Kelani’s innovative evocations of Yorùbá traditional
culture can be understood as aesthetic formations of a morality that
cultivates a more balanced present and future. Creating aesthetic formations
that reimagine and recontextualize Yorùbá traditional culture into new
1 According to Ifá, the sacred text of Yorùbá religion, there are around 400 Òrìṣà,
good supernatural entities (forces of the right) and around 200 Ajogun, evil
supernatural entities (forces of the left). Because Yorùbá cosmology assumes the
addition of new entities (added to the pantheon after the creation of the natural
world), the total number of Òrìṣà is 400 + 1, and the total number of Ajogun is 200
+1 (Abímbólá 2006: 28-29).
Tundé Kelani, Èṣù of Nigerian Cinema 21
allegories and myths for contemporary audiences, Kelani’s films evoke
Yorùbá morality, challenge postcolonial institutions, and leave us with a
provocation to act.
Tundé Kelani, Èṣù of Nigerian Cinema
In Yorùbá cosmology, Èṣù is the Òrìṣà who controls and keeps the world in
check, mediating between good and evil forces of the universe. Èṣù’s power
enables him to become the wind when he wants to travel, crisscrossing the
sphere of the earth and beyond. Èṣù is multiple and vast in kind, number,
and function. A unique form of Èṣù governs each chapter of Ifá2, the sacred
text of the Yorùbá divination system. A particular form of Èṣù is related to
each Òrìṣà. Different types of Èṣù live in the forest, home, crossroads, and
water (Abímbólá 2006: 118).
Kelani’s films open the portals to the past as they take inspiration from
Yorùbá cosmology, philosophy, traveling theatre, and literature. His films
challenge us to dig deeply into a collective source of cultural wisdom to
discover and play with Yorùbá history, knowledge, and aesthetics. Kelani’s
films open the portals to the future as they challenge us to imagine a Nigeria
(and a world) free of imperialism, big man corruption, terrorism, sexism,
ableism, disease, and environmental degradation. Kelani’s work asks us to
create a Nigeria whose democratic institutions function fairly and belong to
all Nigerians. And when Kelani’s art taps into our universal human desire
for love and laughter, we are more likely to enjoy the beauty of this world—
nature, poetry, music, dance, and masquerades.
Afis Tunde Yeku develops an analytic concept he calls “Alter/Native
narratives,” building on the term coined by Aiyejina, which he argues are
“experimental cinematic texts in contemporary Nigerian film culture” that
represent and thus reaffirm an African worldview by drawing inspiration
from African culture and history (Aiyejina 2010: 13).3 For Yeku, the films
of Kelani and Afolayan4 are representative of Alter/Native cinema. The
concept of Alter/Native film helps specify Kelani’s unique category of
2 The Ífa divination system is comprised of 256 odù (chapters), and each odù
contains 800 stories.
3 Yeku’s concept also challenges and critiques mainstream Nollywood narratives
that borrow from and reproduce Eurocentric narratives about Africa and the world—
stories and screenplay structures that he claims are often recycled and commercially
4 Son of Yorùbá theatre actor “Ade Love,” Kunle Afolayan is a protégé of Kelani
whose films have been associated with New Nollywood (Haynes 2016: 290).
Nigerian cinema. Alter/Native narratives are shaped by indigenous
performance and storytelling practices and are produced for ideological
purposes: to convey “what it means to be African” (Yeku 2012: 22). Rooted
in African performance modalities and aesthetics, Alter/Native cinema
experiments with multiple forms of storytelling, incorporating dance,
music, folklore, masquerade, and the range of verbal arts—word play,
proverbs, oríkì (praise poetry), and Ifá verses (Haynes 2016: 136; Yeku
Kelani’s films allegorically interrogate the forces of good and evil without
solving our problems for us. Whether he chooses to conclude his narratives
on bitter-sweet or upbeat notes, Kelani the Èṣù leaves us with thought-
provoking monologues or epilogues in which he alerts us to the scope of the
social, economic, and political realities that need our attention and action.
While Kelani’s films may offer a sense of closure, they are intended to
propel us into a state of questioning. In the sequel to Ṣaworoidẹ (1999),
Agogo Èèwò (2002), the final scene is a cinematically rich and suspenseful
portrayal of the day of judgement when the king and his Ifá priest preside
over the chiefs’ public confession of their guilt. If they are guilty and do not
confess, they die after the seventh strike of the sacred bell. After two chiefs
confess, the film’s brilliantly acted anti-heroes, Balogun and Seriki, keel
over and die in a darkly comedic moment of comeuppance. The film’s voice
of morality5, a wise town elder, offers his words of wisdom in a closing
monologue, reminiscent of Yorùbá theatre finales:
Mere sermons won’t stop robbers. Only force can curb their activities. We
sit down and dream. We lie down, yet no change. Only when we get up on
our feet can our dream be realized. We’re preoccupied with sweet
descriptions of the promised land. It’s strenuous rowing and paddling that
can get us there. Hence, the youth that have just pruned new shoots of
conspiracy, don’t throw away your machete. As soon as new evil sprouts,
cut it off (Kelani, Agogo Èèwò).
This statement contextualizes the film’s political allegory with a warning
about our collective responsibility during a newly democratic Nigeria in
which old patterns of power abuse are still the norm. Not only should we
resist complacency by throwing away our machetes, but we should look to
Yorùbá cultural wisdom to keep power in check. This finale is a classic
example of Kelani’s technique for inspiring further dialogue, a Yorùbá
5 Adesokan (2012) refers to this archetype as “the moralizer” and noted the
proliferation of this type of character in Nollywood films after the moralizer Opalaba
appeared in Ṣaworoidẹ.
Tundé Kelani, Èṣù of Nigerian Cinema 23
traveling theatre convention in which actors asked the audience to share
their thoughts and analyses (Barber 2000, Haynes 2016). At the end of
Kelani’s films, we are left asking, “What social, economic, and political
institutions have just been unveiled, parodied, and/or critiqued on screen?
What would we have done in the characters’ place? Will we accept the
challenge to take action?”
Èṣù is an androgynous force whose neutrality allows him to play a key role
in conflict resolution, a mediator between the realms of good and evil.
Kelani’s representations of gender often “dislodge universalist and patriarchal
narratives that position Nigerian women as inferior to their male
counterparts” (Giwa-Isekeije 2013: 119). Kelani’s portrayals of strong
female protagonists—their perspectives, insights, and triumphs—challenge
culturally sensitive gender inequities. While most of Kelani’s characters are
multi-faceted, his female characters are often more creative, resourceful,
and resilient than their male counterparts. Kelani’s female characters
reimagine and talk back to Nigeria’s local and state institutions—
polygynous marriage, chieftaincy, development, education, health care, and
so on. Kelani’s representations of gender invoke Yorùbá values of gender
complementarity, respect for women as mothers and peace makers, and the
need to dialogue about harmful, systemic inequities.
Èṣù maintains order through the practice of sacrifice, “a code of communication
between the natural and supernatural realms of the Yorùbá cosmos”
(Abímbólá 2006: 62). In order to manifest positive change, we must give up
something without expecting anything in return. The Yorùbá concept of
sacrifice is complex and includes forms of insurance against failure,
repentance, various social acts, food for the Òrìṣà, and so on (Abímbólá
ibid: 63). Many scholars, critics, and fans have borrowed Soyinka’s phrase6,
“camera with a conscience,” to describe the work of Kelani. Kelani’s
conscience-driven films ask us to consider making some kind of sacrifice
for the greater good of our natural and human realms.
In his work about the Ghanaian National Theatre, Shipley (2015) argues that
trickster narratives help Ghanaians negotiate tensions between a nationalist
ideology of the collective good and a neoliberal ideology of individualism.
Through the trickster’s unique talents (wit, creativity), skills (storytelling),
characteristics (charm, curiosity), and flaws (greed, laziness), Ananse
6 According to Kelani, Soyinka first described a collection of his films as “Camera
with a Conscience” at a screening for the Lagos Black Heritage Festival (Kelani
trickster storytelling is an enduring form of cultural mediation that asks
Ghanaians to debate about what makes a moral citizen at different historical
junctures. Comparable to Ananse stories, Kelani’s trickster storytelling asks
Nigerians to debate about what makes a moral citizen. Kelani collaborates
with and takes his inspiration from Nigerian novelists and playwrights such
as Faleti, Osofisan, and Ishola, who became professionals during Nigeria’s
transition into nationhood. The call to sacrifice for the collective good is an
ideology that emerges from Yorùbá philosophy and a nationalist worldview.
The caution against acting in self-interest and the call to act on behalf of the
collective—family, community, culture, nation, world—are themes running
through Kelani’s work.
Èṣù teaches lessons through trickery. Inspired by the repertoire and actors
of the Yorùbá traveling theatre, Kelani’s films often include characters
whose wit and cunning not only entertain but tap into deep emotional terrain
to get the audience thinking about what we might do when morally
challenged. Haynes (2016) offers a thorough analysis of Kelani’s first major
film, Ti Oluwa Nile (1993). The three-part film is about the drama that
unfolds after Mr. Johnson approaches a townsman, Sanya, to purchase land
to build a gas station complex. However, the land Mr. Johnson covets does
not belong to Sanya or any human; it belongs to the gods. Adepoju plays
Otun, a chief who learns he has become the third man to die due to his
support of Sanya’s lie about who owns the land. Haynes aptly characterizes
Adepoju’s performance as a broken man reduced to begging for his life at
the feet of his king:
Adepoju’s genius as an actor allows glimpses of the child inside the
hardened man Otun. And the scene might be read as a popular referendum
on the character he plays (the character that Adepoju as Baba Wande
habitually plays), the wily rogue—a figure that is central to Nigerian folk
culture as well as popular culture…He is hard to give up. Adepoju and
Kelani share with their audience a wicked sense of humor, a connoisseur’s
appreciation for wuruwuru and magomago (various kinds of tricky
business) (Haynes 2016: 122).
Otun is an Èṣù-like anti-hero. His charm and desperation trick us into
rooting for him until the bitter end. His path takes many twists and turns.
He shifts shape again and again as he overcomes near-death circumstances
to rise up out of his own ashes. Amazingly, even after all of his second
chances, Otun never learns his lesson. And his life is finally claimed by the
gods of the land. Ifá’s final prophecy contains the film’s morality: imagine
protecting our sacred land from thoughtless development; imagine electing
leaders who are honest and respectful of our cultural values and resources;
Tundé Kelani, Èṣù of Nigerian Cinema 25
and imagine being wary of greedy leaders’ tendencies to lead people astray.
Kelani’s storytelling and characters deploy Èṣù-like humor and trickery to
make their points.
Tundé Kelani’s Aesthetic Formations:
Tension between Mythic and Everyday Life
My approach to writing about Nigerian film has grown out of my
ethnographic research and my collaborations with performing artists in
Èrìn-Òṣun7 since 1991, during which I spent my third year of college at the
University of Ìbàdàn living in Queens Hall and commuting to Èrìn-Òṣun on
most weekends. The late Bassey Andah and Wale Ogunyemi were my
mentors at UI and supervised my early fieldwork in Èrìn-Òṣun, where I
began to learn the Yorùbá language and bàtá8 culture as an apprentice to
master bàtá drummer, Chief Làmídì Àyánkúnlé (1949-2018). I have
documented the everyday culture and practices of Àyàn 9 and Òjè 10
professionals based on field research from 1995-98 and the early 2000s.
After seeing the film Agogo Èèwò, I was thrilled to recognize the Égúngún
Arèkú sequence filmed in Èrìn-Òṣun’s palace courtyard. I later learned that
Kelani worked on that scene with Àyánkúnlé’s brother, Chief Rabiu
Ayandokun. In 2012, I began to work with artists who perform fújì11 and
related genres in and around Ìlọrin. Alongside Àyánkúnlé, Andy Frankel
7 Èrìn-Òṣun is a medium-sized (around 75,000 people), semi-rural town on the
outskirts of Òṣogbo in Òṣun State, Nigeria.
8 Bàtá drums are double-headed and conical, said to be commissioned by King
Ṣàngó during his fifteenth-century reign of the town of Òyó. Since Ṣàngó’s death,
bàtá drums have been played to invoke the Òrìṣà as well as for entertainment.
9 Yorùbá drumming families in Nigeria identify with and/or worship Òrìṣà
Àyànàgalú (Àyàn for short), the spirit of the drum. Those who are born into a
drumming lineage are given a name that begins with the prefix, Àyàn.
10 In addition to their roles as worshippers and bearers of the sacred masks for the
Egúngún (Òrìsà of the ancestors), Òjé families or Elégùun Òjé are entertainment
masqueraders—also known as agbégijó, alárìnjó, and apidán. Children born into an
Òjé lineage are thus given names starting with the Òjé prefix. Òjé families work
closely with and at times marry into Àyàn families: Òjé performers dance, praise-
sing, and perform acrobatic and masquerade displays, while Àyàn drummers provide
the accompanying drum rhythms and texts.
11 Fújì is characterized by its Islamic-influenced vocal style, Yorùbá praise poetry
(oríkì), and driving percussion. Fújì’s popularity hit a peak in Nigeria and on the
global stage in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and fújì bands continue to record their
music and perform throughout Nigeria and across the globe into the twenty-first
and I (Làmídì’s dedicated collaborators and friends) were honored with
chieftaincy titles in 2017. In our new roles, one of our goals is to establish
an Àyànàgalú School for the Arts, a dream of the Àyánkúnlé family.
In Sensational Movies, Meyer builds on the field of phenomenology to
define a range of concepts—aesthetic formations, imagination, imaginaries,
images, sensation—to help us understand how media has the power to “hone
the imagination into shared imaginaries” (Meyer 2015: 18) and thus mediate
between the personal and the social. Meyer’s concept of “aesthetic
formation” is the idea that humans exist in relationship with our material
cultural forms (present in our everyday lives), a “sensory fabric” through
which we sense our worlds (15). Media, such as film, mobilize aesthetic
formations to draw us into shared imaginaries, representations that
“underpin the moral and intellectual schemes and sensory modes that
govern people’s ways of being in the world” (14). In Meyer’s analysis, for
example, Ghanaian video movies produce aesthetic formations that clash
with the state film industry’s notion of culture; video movies mobilize a
version of Ghanaian culture that the state believes represents Ghana
unfavorably to the world, including portrayals of religious experiences
(divination and revelation) that have the potential to awaken evil spirits (19).
Kelani’s aesthetic formations inspire my imagination as I am propelled into
a shared imaginary characterized by Yorùbá performance, philosophy,
folklore, history, landscape, cloth, and language. While viewing and
reviewing Kelani’s films for this project, I am transported back to Nigeria
with every image, song, evocation of place, and utterance of the Yorùbá
language. I recall being drawn into the lives and artistry of Àyánkúnlé and
his family. I re-experience my first big concert at UI, Sir Shina Peters. I
remember feeling confused and burdened by the chaos of life under the
military regimes of Babangida and Abacha. I remember the vivid novels,
plays, and essays by Soyinka, Emecheta, Osofisan, and Tutuola showing up
in my dreams. I remember smuggling The Open Sore of a Continent (1996)
into Nigeria for colleagues after the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the
prominent novelist and political critic and one of the Ogoni Nine. I recall
going to the market after the new fifty-naira bill picturing the Better Life for
Rural Women program was released and hearing women traders whisper,
“Fun mi ni better life” (“Give me a better life”). Kelani’s aesthetic portrayals
of the intermingling of Yorùbá politics, power, and culture evoke tensions
between mythic and everyday life in Nigeria, inspiring his audiences to
celebrate the beauty of Yorùbá life while imaging how to create an even
“better life” for everyone.
Tundé Kelani, Èṣù of Nigerian Cinema 27
Moral Themes in Tundé Kelani’s Films
What follows are my brief descriptions of thirteen of Kelani’s films,
highlighting their moral messages to illustrate how Kelani’s aesthetic
formations reimagine tradition to create contemporary allegories. After
seeing each film in chronological order, I was moved by Kelani’s artistic
drive to bring each film to another level of artistry—mobilizing new
technologies, storytelling modalities, and aesthetic formations.
Ti Oluwa Nile/The Earth is the Lord’s (1993-5) can be read as an allegory
about the evil effects on a small town of materialism and capitalist values
embedded in the thrust of development. Gèlèdé12 masquerades make an
appearance at the end of the trilogy, signifying the town’s rootedness in
traditional culture alongside its newfound awareness that development
decisions must respect the sacredness of the land, a finite resource. Ifá’s
predictions are accurate and the ancestral land spirits vindicated. How can
Nigeria draw upon its cultural knowledge to find ways to support local and
national development that avert environmental and social degradation?
Ayọ Ni Mo Fẹ (1994) explores themes of gender, marriage, and mental
illness through a plot about love and a chief’s quest to undo a curse he
inherited from his mother. Men objectify, abuse, and propel women into
states of mental instability. Ifá advises the cursed Chief Adeleke and sets
him on the path to redemption. A mental health hospital helps Jumoke cope
with her suffering from a love relationship gone bad and subsequent abuse
by the chief. Both traditional and modern systems of knowledge and their
institutions, Ifá and hospitals, have the power to heal. How can we address
gender inequality and violence against women as root causes of mental
instability in women and men?
Kòseégbé (1995) parodies corrupt political leadership through a story about
an attempt to implicate a newly elected customs director in a scandal. The
artfully shot panoramas of bustling nighttime and daytime Lagos markets
represent the gulf between the masses of people going about their business
and leaders who abuse their power from afar. When a government is in
transition, we see what happens as new leaders disrespect and quickly usurp
previous leaders. How can we work together to ensure Nigeria’s success
12 Gèlèdé masquerades represent the idea that women possess extraordinary power
like that of the Òrìṣà and ancestors. Women can use their power to bring disaster or
prosperity into the world (Drewal 1990; Hallen 2000).
when modern institutions emulate corrupt behavior and discourage us from
making sacrifices for the greater good?
In Ó le Kú/This is Serious (1997), the university student protagonist, Ajani,
struggles to find love while under the pressure of his parents to get married.
This film can be read as an orí (the physical head) and èsè (legs) narrative.
Orí is the Yorùbá principle of the realization of earthly success or failure,
and èsè is the principle that struggle and hard work are required for success
(Abímbólá 2006: 73-4). One must work hard to find success through the
realization of one’s life path. Ajani struggles and suffers as he continues to
choose partners whose paths do not easily align with his. In the end, each
character’s orí becomes clearer and the characters are able to move on with
their lives. How can we develop the patience and discipline necessary to
realize our life paths even when our decisions challenge others’ expectations
Released on the heels of a newly democratic Nigeria after fourteen years
under military rule (1985-98), Ṣaworoidẹ/Brass Bells (1999) offers a
poignant critique of corrupt kings and military rule within a drama about
small-town governance during a logging company’s quest to harvest the
town’s trees. Refusing to take the oath of kingship, the corrupt King Lapite
eventually loses his life at the hands of the equally corrupt Colonial Lagata
in a military coup. When the town drummer plays the dùndún drum with its
sacred bells (ṣaworoidẹ), Colonial Lagata dies a dramatic, public death. If
small towns choose leaders who respect the institution of kingship, taking
their oaths and Ifá’s prophecies seriously, perhaps they could collaborate
peacefully with profit-driven companies. How can we support and encourage
our leaders to prioritize their people and land when the short-term motives
of development undermine our country’s sustainability?
Thunderbolt/Magun’s (2001) metanarrative is about a western-trained
medical doctor’s interest in researching the validity of traditional medicine
to treat the curse and affliction called magun. Revolving around a cross-
cultural marriage, this film critiques ethnic stereotypes as we see individuals
defy them. An Igbo Youth Corps worker, Ngozi, is married to a Yorùbá man
who curses her. Ifá, herbal medicine, and western medical treatment work
together to cure Ngozi, and she ends up finding love with another Yorùbá
man. How can we incorporate traditional medicine into our biomedical
system to understand and treat our bodies holistically, attending to the mind,
body, and spirit of each being?
Tundé Kelani, Èṣù of Nigerian Cinema 29
Agogo Èèwò/Taboo Gong (2002), Ṣaworoidẹ’s sequel, is about a town
tradition in which chiefs must take an oath of honesty to ensure their loyalty
to the king and town. The moral voice of this film is an elder wise man who
sings the town’s oríkì to open the story and closes with a cautionary
soliloquy (quoted above) about the need to keep our power-hungry and
selfish leaders in check. King Bosipo is a righteous man of the people (for
a change) whose chiefs collude with the logging company for personal gain.
On the fateful day of judgement, the town’s political interest groups and
others watch their corrupt chiefs die instead of confessing their guilt. When
faced with the opportunity to profit from the privatization of town resources,
how can our leaders exercise respect for the land and people to ensure
sustainable development and equal access to resources?
The Campus Queen (2004) explores themes of sexism, violence, corruption,
campus cults, and people’s suffering through the lens of university culture.
The moral messages about the suffering of the poor at the hands of
politicians are revealed in extensive student hip-hop/pop/rap music and
dance performances. Within the context of a culture in which sugar daddies
solicit and “buy” young women, the protagonist, Banke, uses her beauty,
charm, and sense of adventure to manipulate a military governor’s sexist
expectations of young women; she eventually uncovers his administration’s
corruption. How can we make sure our universities are inspirational
environments that encourage students to become active in the struggle for
justice as opposed to perpetuators of violence against women and vulnerable
Àbèní (2006) represents the intertwined lives of cosmopolitan characters
from wealthy and poor families who move back and forth between Lagos
and Cotonou. The main characters, Àbèní and Àkànní, represent a
generation for whom true love transcends class differences and generational
expectations. The wealthy father of Àbèní represents the traditional practice
of Yorùbá parents, particularly fathers, choosing their daughters’ husbands.
After the young adults go through internal struggles to find love and
purpose—temporarily estranged from their parents—they learn from their
mistakes, redeem themselves, and reunite with their families. How can we
find common ground across class position, generation, and gender, draw
strength from our shared humanity, and celebrate life together?
The Narrow Path (2007) returns back to village life and offers a critique of
the cultural practice in which families publicly validate a bride’s virginity
after her first night with her husband. The main character, Àwèró, is
juxtaposed with a minor character, Àjìké, a female government worker.
Having survived rape as a young woman, Àwèró reluctantly agrees to
marriage and then suffers the consequences when the town discovers she is
not a virgin. Àwèró challenges this tradition by her willingness to sacrifice
her own life to avoid war. All the while, Àjìké represents another example
of an empowered female role model as an advocate for the town’s
educational development. How can we condemn practices that devalue and
harm African women to move closer to creating a world that recognizes and
supports African women and their work in the world?
Arugbá (2008) takes its inspiration from the annual festival honoring Òrìṣà
Òṣun. The film follows a female university student, Adetutu, who can be
seen as a modern Yemọja, the spirit of the Òògùn river (river of medicine)
and motherhood (Abímbólá 2006: 128). Adetutu embodies the generations
who have one foot in the traditional world of their small towns and one foot
in the modern world of the university. The king and chiefs of Adetutu’s
town are at odds with each other over their internal corruption, the
embezzlement of World Health Organization funds to treat and prevent the
spread of HIV/AIDS. Representing idealism and morality, Adetutu saves
vulnerable people and aspires to open an organization to help women and
children. How can we nurture the idealism of our youth while dismantling
the big man corruption that plagues our institutions?
In his semi-autobiographical film, MAAMí (2011), Kelani depicts football
star Kashy’s journey back to his village where he visits his estranged and
evil father who practiced human sacrifice. We follow the story of the
footballer’s bitter-sweet childhood—his memories of being raised in
poverty by a struggling but loving mother, Ebuola. We see women treated
as sexualized objects through the eyes of a young boy raised by a single
mother. Remembering his “home,” symbolized by a masquerade performance,
helps Kashy gain the courage to navigate the world of élite sports on his
own terms. When Kashy confronts his father, he resolves his painful past
and takes pride in playing football for Nigeria. How can we make peace
with past injustice, embrace our inherited wisdom, and contribute to our
Dazzling Mirage (2014) revolves around Funmi, a professional woman
driven to excel in her career in a Lagos marketing firm while managing her
sickle cell anemia. Struggling with her health and love relationship, Funmi
finds inspiration in a Sickle Cell Foundation support group and becomes a
key player in educating the public about what it means to live with the
disorder. The sickle cell group represents a contemporary support structure
and voice of wisdom. Funmi’s parents are also wise, supportive, honest, and
Tundé Kelani, Èṣù of Nigerian Cinema 31
forgiving of their determined daughter. Finally rejecting her unsupportive
fiancé, Funmi eventually falls in love with, marries, and has a child with a
loving partner, her boss whom she got to know as a colleague. How can we
educate each other, develop sensitivity around, and support people who
suffer from disorders and illness?
Yorùbá Aesthetic Formation, Tradition, and Morality
There is much scholarship dedicated to the discussion of the concepts and
categories of tradition and modernity in African contexts (Klein 2007;
Meyer 2015; Ranger 1983, 1993). Meyer’s discussion about why we must
be careful about using these concepts uncritically is worth mentioning:
scholarship and African institutions still fail to question the very categories
of tradition and modernity that were created through colonialism. The
colonial assumption is that tradition is a set of local practices/ideas distinct
from western/modern practices/ideas, producing a duality in which
modernity is superior to tradition and represents the direction of progress
(Meyer 2015: 256). Meyer explains, for example, how the Ghanaian
movement, Sankofaism, conceived of tradition as a noble resource signifying
cultural heritage (263), uncritically reproducing the colonial model in which
tradition does not live in the present.
Yorùbá tradition, however, is well known for its inherent flexibility as it
incorporates new ideas and cultural forms. I can’t even remember when I
first heard the Yorùbá axiom, “Our tradition is a very modern tradition.”
While Yorùbá popular culture producers continue to regenerate and reinvent
traditional culture, Kelani and other culture producers are ever-conscious of
the potential loss of traditional knowledge and skills in the face of modernity
(Barber 2000, 2007; Haynes 2016; Klein 2007, 2012). Thus, Kelani self-
consciously engages in the process of reimagining and recontextualizing
traditional culture, grounded in Yorùbá morality, into new aesthetic
formations for present and future audiences.
While it is important to analyze Kelani’s allegories within the political
economic contexts of the moments of their release, we can also understand
the films’ moral messages within the context of Yorùbá philosophy. We can
think of the philosophical meaning of Yorùbá morality within the context
of the concepts of ẹwà (“beauty”) and ìwà (character). A moral person is
someone seen by others to have ìwà l’ẹwà, “beautiful character,” which
means one exhibits good behavior in the world as evidenced by a
combination of what one says and does (Hallen 2000). A Yorùbá traditional
doctor explains succinctly: “It is the behavior of the person that we look at
before we say he or she has [good] moral character (ìwà). Character (ìwà)
is the head [highest form] of beauty (ẹwà)” (Hallen 2000: 116).
In her analysis of Yorùbá dance, Àjàyí (1998) explains that a well-respected
dancer exudes ìwà l’ẹwà, an outwardly expressed internal quality she
interprets as “presence is beauty.” Through stance, posture, and appearance,
a beautiful performer conveys a balanced sense of being—ìwòntúnwònsì
(measure of the right, measure of the left), the outcome of a balanced right
and left. An aesthetics of balance, argues Àjàyí, is the expression of the
Yorùbá philosophy of “complementary oppositions” in which one force
balances the excesses of the other. Nothing is inherently good or bad, but
everything has some of each; life is a process of balancing oppositional
My attempt above to define broad questions arising from each film’s
allegory reveals an underlying theme: at the foundation of a Yorùbá
morality is the understanding that people whose good outweighs the bad
(for the moment) take action (speech and deeds) reflecting their good moral
character, while people whose bad outweighs the good (for the moment)
take action reflecting their bad moral character (ìwà burúkú). Significantly,
we all have the capacity to find a sense of balance in life. Kelani’s
storytelling digs into and displays multiple points along the moral spectrum,
creating compelling characters whose morality reflects their varying
degrees of balance and imbalance.
Kelani’s narratives look to indigenous sources of knowledge for representations
of human and supernatural struggles for and achievements of balance. Upon
some of my initial viewings of Kelani’s films, I had mixed feelings about
one of Kelani’s recognizable techniques for representing Yorùbá traditional
knowledge—stand-alone scenes (often in sepia or black-and-white) featuring
sustained sequences of Ifá divination (Ṣaworoidẹ), oríkì singing (Ó le Kú,
Thunderbolt Magun), bàtá drumming and dancing (Agogo Èèwò, Arugbá),
and Òrìṣà imagery (Arugbá). Initially, these scenes seemed to overly
romanticize the past, perhaps ignoring the existence of the artists and their
art forms in the present. But I have since come to interpret these scenes as
purposefully heightened in their other-worldly beauty (ìwà l’ẹwà) and
strategically positioned within the context of larger narratives. These dream-
like sequences offer a preamble to or pause in real-time action that then
become part of the past-present-future material world (aesthetic formation)
that Kelani goes on to create. These sequences become pivotal in
establishing the films’ moral messages, evoking aesthetic formations in
Tundé Kelani, Èṣù of Nigerian Cinema 33
which members of the spirit and human realms offer inspiration from the
mythical and historical past.
Around thirty minutes into Arugbá, Makinwa, the male university student
protagonist, is learning a bàtá dance with a master drummer in his dorm
room, preparing for his group’s production. Cut to a four-minute black-and-
white scene in which fifteenth century Òyó King Ṣàngó is dancing to the
drumming of his personal bàtá drummer on a hillside. As we watch the
skillful drummer and dancer, we listen to neo-traditional praise singing
(ewì), a beautiful poem about the special relationship between Ṣàngó and
his drummer.13 When the historical duo parted ways after a fight, the song
goes, “Ṣàngó’s dance lost its rhythm, and Sate’s drumming lost inspiration.
The duo then realized that drumming and dancing are inseparable. That is
what life is all about. A world of symbiosis” (Arugbá 2008). As we rejoin
the film’s action, we are left to absorb and contemplate a broader moral
message about ìwòntúnwònsì, how people/entities who embody complementary
sources of inspiration need each other to survive in this volatile world. And
if we do not work together to express our ìwà l’ẹwà, such beauty will
Drawing upon Yorùbá folklore, cosmology, and philosophy, Kelani actively
creates new traditions. In his analysis of Arugbá, Yeku also makes this
It can be argued that Arugbá is a folklore film that reconstitutes narratives
from African traditional religion, practices and beliefs in an urban
context…[I]t might also be argued that Kelani is a myth maker who nuances
in traditional religion and beliefs effective antidotes to contemporary
societies’ malaise (Yeku 2012: 49).
I like the idea of Kelani as a modern myth maker who inspires us in the
present. Adetutu, the female protagonist of Arugbá, derives her supernatural
strength from her relationship with Òrìṣà Yemọja. A modern-day Yemọja,
Adetutu glides through life with ease and grace—saving people in need,
leading her performance group, finding love, and serving as her town’s
Arugbá, a virgin who carries the ritual calabash in the annual procession to
the Òṣun river. A young woman firmly rooted in her home town while
pursuing her university education, Adetutu’s goal is to give back to her
community by opening a nongovernmental organization to serve the needs
of women and children. This contemporary Yemọja myth encourages girls
13 A colleague of Kelani wrote this ewì for the purposes of the film. Kelani, email to
the author, June 22, 2011.
and women to discover and trust in their power and teaches men to honor
women’s supernatural strength. Adetutu is a role model for expressing one’s
ìwà l’ẹwà: putting in the work to realize her orí, finding a healthy love
relationship, and serving the greater good.
By way of conclusion, let us look again at the range of overlapping moral
themes posed by Kelani’s allegories.
How can Nigeria draw upon its cultural knowledge to find ways to
support local and national development that avert environmental and
How can we address gender inequality and violence against women
as root causes of mental instability in women and men?
How can we work together to ensure Nigeria’s success when modern
institutions emulate corrupt behavior and discourage us from making
sacrifices for the greater good?
How can we develop the patience and discipline necessary to realize
our life paths even when our decisions challenge others’ expectations?
How can we support and encourage our leaders to prioritize their
people and land when the short-term motives of development
undermine our country’s sustainability?
How can we incorporate traditional medicine into our biomedical
system to understand and treat our bodies holistically, attending to
the mind, body, and spirit of each being?
When faced with the opportunity to profit from the privatization of
town resources, how can our leaders exercise respect for the land and
people to ensure sustainable development and equal access to
How can we make sure our universities are inspirational environments
that encourage students to become active in the struggle for justice
as opposed to perpetuators of violence against women and
How can we find common ground across class position, generation,
and gender, draw strength from our shared humanity, and celebrate
How can we condemn practices that devalue and harm African
women to move closer to creating a world that recognizes and
supports African women and their work in the world?
How can we nurture the idealism of our youth while dismantling the
big man corruption that plagues our institutions?
Tundé Kelani, Èṣù of Nigerian Cinema 35
How can we make peace with past injustice, embrace our inherited
wisdom, and contribute to our nation’s future?
How can we educate each other, develop sensitivity around, and
support people who suffer from disorders and illness?
Enacted through narratives that critique Nigeria’s postcolonial institutions
and their leaders, this set of issues compels us to think about how to act
morally in a world in which the struggle for balance is constrained by
powerful forces beyond our control. Tundé Kelani’s aesthetic formations,
mobilized through Èṣù-like storytelling, offer new allegories that awaken
our spirit and desire to create a more balanced world.
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Hakim, Jide Kosoko, and Kareem Adepoju. Yorùbá and French. VDC.
Agogo Èèwò/Taboo Gong. (2002) Dir. Tundé Kelani. Perfs. Wale
Ogunyemi, Dejumo Lewis, Lere Paimo, and Larinde Ayinyele. Yorùbá.
VCD. Nigeria. Mainframe.
Arugbá. (2008) Dir. Tundé Kelani. Perfs. Bukola Awoyemi, Segun Adefila,
Peter Badijo, and Kareem Adepoju. Yorùbá. VCD. Nigeria. Mainframe.
Ayo Ni Mo Fe 1 and 2. (1994) Dir. Tunde Kelani. Perfs. Yomi Ogunmola,
Bola Obot, Lere Paimo, and Alhaji Kareem Adepoju. Yorùbá. VHS.
Campus Queen, The. (2004) Dir. Tundé Kelani. Perfs. Serah Mbaka, Lanre
Fasai, Segun Adefila, and Lere Paimo. English, Yorùbá, and Pidgin.
VCD. Nigeria. Mainframe.
Dazzling Mirage (2014) Dir. Tundé Kelani. Perfs. Kunle Afolayan, Kemi
Lala Akindoju, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, and Yomi Fash-Lanso. English.
VCD. Nigeria. Mainframe.
Kòseégbé. (1995) Dir. Tundé Kelani. Perfs. Wole Amele, Toyin Babatope,
Faith Eboigbe, and Jide Kosoko. Yorùbá. VHS. Nigeria. Mainframe.
MAAMí (2011) Dir. Tundé Kelani. Perfs. Funke Akindele, Wole Ojo,
Tamilore Kunoye, and Yinka Davies. English and Yorùbá. Digital
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Narrow Path, The (2007) Dir. Tundé Kelani. Perfs. Sola Asedeko, Seyi
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Ṣaworoidẹ/Brass Bells. (1999) Dir. Tundé Kelani. Perfs. Koya Oyewo, Lere
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