Currently living in the US, Nigerian artist Wole Lagunju focuses on challenging and critiquing notions of imperialistic cultural idioms. He talks to AFRICA IS NOW about his exhibition Yoruba Remixed, the role of African history in his art and his exploration of the symbolism of Gelede masks.
Who is Wole Lagunju?
I grew up in Osogbo, a town in Western Nigeria famous for its art movement. Osogbo is also known for the annual Osun-Osogbo festival, an event which is a celebration of the river goddess, Osun. I graduated in 1986 from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) with a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts and a specialisation in graphic design. Over the years, my art practice has examined the cultural idioms and visual design of the indigenous artistic practices of traditional Yoruba women in Nigeria. In my paintings and installations, I have explored the design and motifs found in adiré textiles, traditionally dyed indigo fabric. Recently my art has also examined Gelede masks with a view to bringing fresh insights into Yoruba mask making.
‘Gelede is a male-oriented dance which celebrates women and their sacred powers of procreation and sexuality.’
How did you start painting?
My painting experience started as a youngster growing up in Osogbo, in the early ’70s. I grew up in the midst of artistic activities and participated in the Osogbo art movement under the tutelage and mentorship of some of the principal artists like Jacob Afolabi. Professional painting started for me while at the University of Ife, but I did not pursue it as a major. It was one of the electives I chose towards a degree in graphic design. After my graduation from the University of Ife, I worked at The Daily Times in the early ’90s as an illustrator. Thereafter, I had a brief stint in advertising and after some travelling in Europe, in the late ’90s I decided to practice as a full-time studio artist with an initial bias for painting and drawing.
What role does African history play in your paintings?
My relocation to the Western world has reintroduced me to societies with an historical background of colonisation and imperialism. My living experiences in them have exposed me to the present and historical roles these societies have played in the shaping of the African continent. For example, in the US there’s a historical and cultural background of slavery and racism. It has led me along a path towards re-evaluating the purpose of my art and the issues that I choose to address. The social experiences I have encountered have made me rethink the purpose of art in itself and the role of the contemporary African artist.
In my recent artworks, I address the issues inherent in African history by critiquing imperialistic cultural idioms and interrogating the colonisation of Africa and the subjugation of its traditional culture.
What place does African culture and tradition have among today’s African youth?
Globalisation has opened a vista of world culture to the African youth with access via the internet to a plethora of information, introducing them to a wide array of cultural choices. Traditional African and indigenous culture is now thought of as unfashionable or inferior.
The Yoruba Remixed paintings utilise a lot of traditional masks. Can you elaborate on their symbolism?
My paintings in this exhibition reference Gelede masks. Gelede masks are worn by Yoruba menfolk to celebrate women and their relevance to Yoruba society. Gelede is a male-oriented dance which celebrates women and their sacred powers of procreation and sexuality. The masks and dances satirise, entertain and educate onlookers and the society at large. As much as Gelede celebrates the powers of motherhood in Yoruba women they are also a salutation to their personal physical attributes and endowment. This is found in the meaning of the word Gelede itself. ‘Ge’ means to ‘pet or tenderly deal with’, ‘ele’ refers to a woman’s private parts and ‘de’ means ‘to soften them with gentleness’.
Gelede masks have elaborate wooden superstructures with carved human and animal imagery. These are spiritual and physical representations alluding to the awesome powers of ‘our mothers’ or women. They also represent the Yoruba notion of the physical head or ori of an individual. Ori being the seat of the life force in the physical and supernatural realms.