Essay - Dr. Charles Gore School of Arts, SOAS

This is an important exhibition by Wole Lagunju and highlights his achievements thus far as aninnovative and dynamic artist. He is an artist who has gained increasing international attentionduring the second decade of the twenty first century. The artworks he produces strike a powerfulchord in the viewer by bringing together a range of concerns and a seductive formal visual aestheticto the key themes and imagery that he develops and explores. He offers multiple ways ofconsidering some of the dominant visual tropes of social/cultural relations within and betweensocieties which he reconstitutes in innovative and challenging ways within his painting andiconographies.

His art offers playful yet seductive engagements and inflections on the interconnectivities of humanexperience that resonate with the viewer, whatever their perspectives, cultural dispositions andexperiences. At the same time it celebrates but also fuses together intrinsic cultural specificities andways of seeing deployed at particular localities and with differing cultural outlooks. This is achievedin a variety of ways through his creative articulations of imagery that brings together within thesame frame the intersections of the local, regional and the intercontinental. Moreover his spatialimagination roams far and wide, inflecting the local and the global simultaneously. He plunders thepossibilities of history, juxtaposing contrasting cultural modes plucked from differing times andspaces to invoke new forms of encounter and new ways of reflecting on the actual historicalencounters between differing cultures with all the inequalities these presaged. The terms of thesehistorical encounters he imaginatively re-views and re-writes within his innovative iconographies tofree them from the constraints of domination/subjugation. Instead he make images as spaces ofsubversion, reversion and playful delight in the restitution to the viewer of unexpected yet diversepositionings and perspectives that offer new forms of engagement and enchantment. Lagunju’s artliberates and captivates the viewer by offering new possibilities as this exhibition makes apparent.

Wole Lagunju was born in 1966 in Oshogbo in Osun state in Southern Nigeria where he grew up. Hisfather’s pharmacy was adjacent to the then well-known art gallery, Mbari Mbayo. The gallery waspart of a building where the celebrated playwright, Duro Ladipo had lived. It was with Ladipo’stheatre troupe in Oshogbo that the German Ulli Beier began to formulate and advance theemergence of the Oshogbo school of art in the early sixties. As a young child Lagunju remembers thelocal impact and revitalisation it had in Oshogbo as a new centre of contemporary art. The Oshogboschool encouraged individuals to express their creativity in visual mediums through a range ofworkshops held by Ulli Beier out of which a number of artists emerged, such as Twins Seven Sevenamong others. Furthermore Ulli Beier’s first wife Suzanne Wenger settled for the rest of her life in Oshogbo and promoted the famous Osun grove of the city into which she was inducted as apriestess. This creative dynamism inspired Lagunju and encouraged him to pursue a path in the arts.

Lagunju progressed to Obafemi Awolowo University at Ile Ife, gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree inFine art in 1986 with a major in graphic design. Obafemi Awolowo University has a lively artdepartment and is notable as the centre for the influential Ona art movement that developed in the1980s, in which Yoruba speaking artists sought to link their contemporary art practice to localYoruba cultural approaches and visual traditions in a range of mediums, such as, for example, theforms produced in textiles or ceramics. He was taught by some of the founders of this artmovement during his time at university. Subsequently Lagunju worked as an illustrator for the DailyTimes Newspapers, Lagos, linking up there with another notable artist Victor Ekpuk who hadgraduated in 1989 from the same university. For a few years he worked in illustration but by themid-nineties he set up his own studio practice and also worked for Glendora, The African Quarterlyon the Arts, which was the seminal arts journal that explored the resurgent art scene and culturalindustries in Lagos as they recovered from the economic vicissitudes and consequences of theReagonomic structural adjustment economic programme imposed at the end of the nineteeneighties. This had resulted in a decade or more of acute economic hardship accompanied by highrates of inflation throughout Nigeria and which had made life difficult for artists as patronagediminished substantially. During this time he exhibited mainly in Lagos and Port Harcourt, such asthe exhibition Ona – Best of Ife at the Signature Gallery in Lagos, 1995 with one or two internationalexhibitions, such as at Mainz in 1997 and in Trinidad and Tobago in 2002.

His paintings and installations during this period often made reference to Adire, the famous Yorubawomen’s indigo dyeing tradition in which resist patterns are inscribed onto and stand out against thecotton cloth dyed indigo to produce patterned rectangular panels in seriate composition, usingfigurative and non-figurative designs. Adire is sold in the textile section at markets, and the market isoften conceptualised in local Yoruba terms as the meeting place for the world, both near and faraway, material and metaphysical. In his installations when pots featured as part of the installation,they were often wrapped in Adire cloth. Moreover this practice also alluded to local religious beliefsas it is also a practice for encasing known or unknown metaphysical forces contained within such potforms at local shrines. His artwork during this period interrogated the vicissitudes and insecurityexperienced in market transaction and exchange to explore wider questions of uncertainty andchange imposed from without by unseen forces, often couched in terms of a globalisation with itsunforeseen punitive local consequences.

In 2006 Lagunju was awarded the prestigious Phillip Ravenhill Fellowship by the University ofCalifornia, Los Angeles, and this precipitated his decision to move permanently to the United Statesto pursue his art. He was now situated as a transnational artist located in both Yoruba and Americansociety with differing contextual perspectives and ways of seeing, and he seized the creativepossibilities this double consciousness offered, building on the trajectory of practice he had alreadyembarked upon. As Imo Dara noted(, accessed 17/11/2018), in 1996 Lagunju had been commissioned by the GoetheInstitute (the cultural centre representing German cultural interests in Lagos) to produce a posterfor a collaborative project between German and Nigerian playwrights which they had sponsored.From childhood he had a visual interest in masquerades which performed in the markets and otherpublic spaces of Oshogbo and the image of his poster contained a depiction of a European wearing aGelede mask. This was partly inspired during his time at university when he had been taught byBabatunde Lawal who carried out research on Gelede masquerades advocating by his own exampleanalysis on its own local terms (and models of performance) rather than to have imposed externaleuroamerican modes of analysis that colonised its putative subject. In the United States Lagunjudeveloped this iconography and the autonomy of Gelede masquerade further as Lawal’s approachhad earlier indicated to him. With his interests in media and representation, derived in part from hisprofessional trajectory as illustrator and art director for Glendora which had sensitivised him to suchissues, he absorbed the debates in the United States concerning the marginalisation of models ofcolour in the fashion industry. Now he created portrait paintings that situated famous fashionmodels wearing Gelede masks to interrogate ideas concerning race and the intersectionalities ofidentity constituted within a euroamerican hegemony.

The portrait commissioned from the artist has been a key genre of representation and self-presentation by its subject in European art history, defining within its frame particular constructionsof personhood at a given historical moment (and society) from the renaissance onwards. Moreoverwithin this European trajectory, the conventions of the portrait define the attributes of identity andinscribe the thereby constituted individual with the intersectionalities of gender, race, age andsexuality among others as configured at that moment within its regime of power. However Lagunjucreatively takes up the possibilities of the portrait genre in the twenty first century (with all itsvarious recastings and insertions in media and new media, such as the selfie) and institutes analternative and autonomous regime of power by framing the painterly portrait as Geledemasquerader. A Gelede masquerader facing out of the pictorial frame and returning the gaze of theviewer.

Gelede or Efe Gelede masquerade (signifying that it is performed sequentially during the day andnight) takes place in the market and is directed at women, especially mature women. Historicallysuccessful Yoruba men measured wealth and success in the numbers of followers that they attractedand the women who married them swelled their numbers by bearing children. Women were seen tohave great metaphysical power through their reproductive capacity which they could also withhold,thereby using it to the detriment of the lineage and the wider Yoruba community. Geledemasquerade is performed exclusively by men in order to please and entertain women throughdance, music and song, so that they will not be antagonised and withhold or lose children to diseaseand death through their metaphysical capacities. Further to this, Efe Gelede carried out at nightinvolves the singing of satirical songs that make public the hidden wrongdoings of the rich andpowerful to the entertainment of the entire community, but especially to the delight of thesemature women who have the power to exercise this ambivalent metaphysical power. The identitiesof the performers are not hidden or concealed in Gelede masquerade performance and such singersin any other context than Gelede would risk being severely punished or expelled from thecommunity for revealing such hidden secrets and scandals in their songs. However themasqueraders are protected by the metaphysical powers of the women who are entertained bytheir performance, such that no-one no matter how powerful would dare to punish or disciplinethem. To do so would be to risk metaphysical retribution in the form of loss of children and wealthwithin their own family and lineage.

Lagunju draws on these conceptions of the power and gendered relationships articulated by Geledeto insert multiple and autonomous gendered positionings within his artwork. The imagery of aGelede masquerade is juxtaposed with fashion models of colour, highlighting the gendered andracialised inequalities of the United States, in order to play each dialectically with the other. Theirjuxtaposition opens up a co-terminous transnational pictorial space for the viewer to engage withthat empowers female model of colour and potently rebuts the intersectionalities of inequality.

Further subversion and a transgressive and ambiguous playfulness is realised through the portraitsof Gelede clearly being demarcated as female, raising the question of whether such a portrait is theembodiment of the Gelede masquerader typifying ideas of female beauty and femininity therebyrepresentation of womanhood, or of the masquerader who is exclusively a male performer. Theexclusivity of male performance is undermined by the imagery of iconic contemporary femalefashion models who have featured in the media. This set of gendered intersectionalities is furtherexplored and elaborated within this exhibition where the gendering of the figure is less fixed andmore fluid, seemingly moving across a diverse range of gender positionings.

This transgressive subversion and play is enhanced by the various other series of portraits thatLagunju has developed. The iconic model series references fashion and modes of pop art thatemerged in the nineteen seventies at a time of liberation and decolonisation in Africa as well as thecivil rights movement in the United States. This series can be juxtaposed with other series ofportraits based on iconographies derived from the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuryEuropean conventions of the elite female portrait respectively. The sixteenth and seventeenthcentury were a historical period when European nations expanded their mercantilism to other partsof the world and established the precursors to colonialism, most tragically in the brutal enforcedmigrations of people from Africa to the new world, including Yoruba diasporas. The conventions ofEuropean elite female portraiture, especially in the clothing and adornment, reflected the opulenceand wealth that such elites gained from participation in the slave trade. The end of nineteenthcentury saw the imposition of the colonial enclosures, including what is now the Yoruba speakingareas of Nigeria and Republic of Benin. These gendered portraits with Gelede masks bear witness tothese hierarchies of imposed domination with their presence and visually offer an autonomous localand gendered power to contest and deconstruct them.

A by-product of the colonial enclosures in Africa, initiated from the second half of the nineteenthcentury onwards, was the importation of artworks (including carved sculptures) back to theEuropean metropoles. Their forms were displayed in museums and taken up by European artists intheir developments of European modernism in the early twentieth century but bereft of theiroriginating contexts. Gelede masks with their artful contemporary and topical imagery skilfullycarved and incorporated into the headpiece have been a favoured artwork to collect and are foundin museums around the world. Part of Lagunju’s strategy is to make these masks visible in hisiconography and thereby reclaim their heritage from the euroamerican museums that now exhibitthem. As he stated in his Imo Dara interview (, accessed 17/11/2018), “I started by appropriating images and memorabiliafrom the social hierarchies of the Western world, and juxtapose them [with] Gelede masks from theYoruba people of Nigeria. In my thinking, this was a way to reclaim a stolen heritage and a critique ofthe racial and social dogma that so permeates the cultural ideologies of the 20th century. “

His jewel like ink drawings also feature in the exhibition and adopt a more gestural approach inwhich the artist’s spontaneity can be traced in the fluid runs of liquid colour into and across thepaper. They are often inspired by Yoruba sayings and proverbs articulated into condensed andallusive motifs which can be interpreted in multiple ways. A notable series is the Oya Ma Yawaseries inspired by the Yoruba precept that family kin should not be parted from each other in theway that serrated points of the carved wooden comb separate out the hair. Moreover the points of the comb can be taken to represent the different members of the family but remain tied to eachother by the ridge of the comb, reiterating the precept through the visual form of the comb. Lagunjuuses this as a creative starting point to elicit a multiplicity of images that hinge on this visualstructure but rapidly transform into a range of vivid forms; human, masquerade, animal and thatseemingly at times cascade, coalesce and flow into each other. The forms evoke the folklore andproverbial imagery that is found in Yoruba cultural life. The hues chosen and their flows of colourcreate a glowing world of the imagination that invites the viewer to enter. They are virtuosorenderings of the artist’s imagination at the height of his mastery.

In conclusion Wole Lagunju is the quintessential twenty first century transnational artist situatedboth within the Yoruba speaking cultures of southern Nigeria and in the consumer orientated post-fordist capitalist culture of the United States. Confronted by hierarchies and contradictions ofinequality and ongoing narratives of imperialism and domination, which were also part of the historyof what is now the nation state of Nigeria, his art and its iconographies have drawn on and straddleda range of cultural resources derived from both cultures to address these issues directly. He skilfullymobilises the genres of portrait painting to his own purposes to playfully decentre and deconstructthe narratives of power that seek to legitimate inequality through imaginative and vividcompositions with their deft and imaginative handling of brilliant colour. Centring the Gelede maskat the heart of his iconography, it gazes out at the viewer to pose fundamental yet liberatingquestions as to heterogeneity, diversity, gendering and the exercises of power to the viewer.

Interview with Wole Lagunju, Charles Gore, London, United Kingdom, 16/8/2018.

Dr. Charles Gore School of Arts, SOAS

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