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Chicago Speaks Mon Apr 21 2014

Chicago Speaks: Yoruba, as Spoken by Artist Dayo Laoye

chicagospeaks.jpgAs a global city, Chicago is home to many languages besides English. Chicago Speaks profiles speakers of these languages, and shares some of their personal stories along the way.

As a young painter in Nigeria in the 1980s, Dayo Laoye favored what he describes as an impressionistic, "c├ęzannesque" style. Then, a month before his 29th birthday, he came to the United States to study at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The move shifted his artistic focus.

"The faculty at Howard," he says, "emphasized that I should draw on my ancestry." That's what the 55-year-old artist has been doing for the past 26 years, 24 of which he's spent working out of his studio in Hyde Park.

Laoye is Yoruba. As such, he belongs to an ethnolinguistic group of more than 35 million people who for the most part live in southwestern Nigeria and the nearby countries Benin and Togo.

Laoye's paintings draw on Yoruba culture. He practices the Yoruba religion -- to the dismay of his Baptist mother back in Nigeria. And he is one of Chicago's Yoruba speakers, a group that could comprise as many as several thousand people.

(The number is hard to pinpoint because the U.S. Census Bureau lumps the West African languages Kru, Igbo and Yoruba into one category. According to the bureau's 2006-2008 American Community Survey, 267,000 U.S. residents and 16,500 Illinoisans speak one of those three languages.)

Yoruba in Nigeria

Photo by Foster Garvin
Nigeria's official language is English, which arrived via the British, who ruled Nigeria until 1960. But Nigerians speak hundreds of other languages, and among these Yoruba is one of the most widely used.

It's a tonal language, which means one set of letters can have several meanings depending on the speaker's pitch. Laoye gives an example: oko, whose possible definitions include "farm" and "penis," among others. One day at Laoye's elementary school, a student who was just learning the language read a passage that contained the line "my father's farm is bigger than your father's farm" -- pitching his voice, to his classmates' delight, incorrectly.

Yoruba class aside, Laoye's schooling was in English. With his family, though, he spoke Yoruba, and many of his linguistic memories from childhood involve the proverbs his mother and grandmother always used. "Proverbs are important to speaking Yoruba well," Laoye explains.

As the late University of Nebraska professor Oyekan Owomoyela puts it in the introduction to his online anthology of Yoruba proverbs, the culture's richness in proverbs "bears out the Yoruba insistence that bereft of proverbs speech flounders and falls short of its mark, while aided by them communication is fleet, and unerring." Or, as a Yoruba person might say, "proverb is the horse of speech; when speech is lost, proverb is the means we use to hunt for it."

Yoruba in Chicago

With other Chicagoans, of course, Laoye doesn't always have recourse to proverbs. Aside from phone conversations and online exchanges with friends and family from Nigeria, his use of Yoruba is largely limited to the restaurants he sometimes visits for a Nigerian food fix. (His picks: Nigerian Kitchen, TBS Restaurant, Iyanze and Bolat.)

From time to time, he also gives Yoruba lessons. His students tend to fall into at least one of three categories: people planning to travel to Nigeria, academics studying Yoruba culture and practitioners of the Yoruba religion.

"When Dayo teaches, it's not just about the language," notes Gwen Luster, a former student who says knowing the language has deepened her religious practice. "He provides a cultural backdrop."

A Mind at Home

Laoye's knack for drawing connections isn't limited to his teaching. Talking about his life, he fluidly shifts from his language to his art to his roots -- which, by the measure of years, are now nearly as deep in Chicago as in Nigeria.

"When I'm around a person that understands my language, I'm in my best mode," he says. "The closest to that is if I'm around friends or collectors of my work that have visited me in my environment. Where we're sitting now [gestures toward his studio] -- it's is like being in Nigeria... Anywhere I travel to, whether locally or nationally, the moment the plane gets close to O'Hare or Midway, or my taxi nearly gets to Hyde Park, the more my mind starts feeling at home."

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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