Wole Lagunju — Nigerian Artist Creates Cultural Hybrids To Tackle Sociopolitical Issues
Artist Wole Lagunju, who now lives and works in the United States (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), was born in Oshogbo, Nigeria, in 1966. He studied graphic design during his time at the Obafemi Awolowo University, formerly known as University of Ife. In his colour-intense figurative work the painter merges various cultural and historic motifs, which refer to his roots, western sociocultural imagery, art history or his native country’s colonial past. The Black experience, with its facets and its history, plays its part, particularly in his paintings with oil on canvas. The artist has formed an individual imagery that is unique and easily recognisable. Especially his large-format figurative paintings, intertwining Nigerian Yoruba headdresses with historic royal or iconic western attire, have become his trademark.
While studying at the University of Ife, Lagunju came in contact with “Onaism”, a contemporary art movement that fuses traditional Yoruba ornaments, motifs and designs with forms of contemporary artistic expression. These artistic roots are visible throughout his entire body of work. The use of Yoruba symbols is especially present in Lagunju’s small format works on paper, which have been a constant part of his artistic output since the beginning of his career.
In an article by “Contemporary&”, it is displayed that Lagunju feels like his work with ink on paper serves as ‘an escape’, which he “practice[s] almost daily, as automatic; spontaneous; almost therapeutic”¹.
Even though his works have been boasting with colour and dynamic brushstrokes since his early career, the style has changed over the years. Two early works from 2007, which are part of Lagunju’s “Hand, Feet and Lip Print” series, already convey his fearless use of colour. Saturated, bright colours are set adjacent to opaque acrylic paint in pastel shades, while using parts of the unpainted white background to form the faces of his protagonists. Vital parts of the faces are shaped by the imprint of the artists hands, feet and lips. The way, in which the artist places the prints of hands and feet above and around the eyes of these anonymous heads, is reminiscent of masks, which seemingly foresees the significance these objects will have in his future work.
In the Nigerian Yoruba culture, masks play a vital role in ritualistic processions and dances. Wole Lagunju has given the “Gelede” mask great significance in his work. Traditionally worn by men, it is used in ceremonies and dances to honour women and fertility.² The masks often consist of two parts, the lower part that represents a calm female face, referring to a mother’s patience. The superstructure on top is a complex crest of varying motifs, especially related to West African Fauna.³ Though the ‘mask’ is supposed to be placed on top of the head, rather than covering the face, Lagunju uses the objects to represent the entire head of his figures. Decorated with various symbols like snakes, birds and daggers, these traditional headdresses can incorporate a multitude of meaning. In “Drawing I” from 2017 Lagunju creates a head from coloured ink, which is interfused with symbolic creatures. A snake-like form seems to wind down from the figures mouth into its throat, while a Lizard with a red head and blue body escapes the mouth, winding upward. A third foreign element is placed in the middle of the head, penetrating the skull. Although being highly symbolically charged, the drawing radiates lightness through its dynamic and sparse use of ink.
This swift and sketch-like application of the ink, characteristic for his drawings, provokes the inherent lightness of all his works on paper. In contrast to the appearance, the subject can nevertheless be critical or controversial, touching on themes as identity struggles, gender roles and colonial hierarchies. In his more recent piece “Living with your hands up always” from 2020, Lagunju confronts the viewer with a subject that has been especially present over the last year — the ever present fear Black people experience of being watched and targeted, often brutally, by police and other state authorities — especially in the context of living in a predominantly White society. This work captures the feeling of always having to be careful of what to say and how to act, so as not to attract attention — of being aware that just being alive, being present at any given moment, can cause devastating tragedy. The drawing shows a round light grey coloured head, whose facial features, as eyes, nose and mouth stand out in a slightly dulled blue, red and green. Like horns, two hands stick out of the top of the head. It appears, as if the figure could not hold its hands any higher than it is already trying to do. The hands are tied with a chain, conjuring up associations of police imprisonment and slavery.
One of Lagunju’s newest drawings “If the blind, leads the blind” from 2021 seems to refer to the world’s issue with finding a way through this unknown territory of a global pandemic and the many missteps that occurred due to lack of knowledge. In its colour palette this work is unusually quiet, with dark shades of brown, grey and black dominating the composition of two figures, one seemingly leading the other. Both figures look up, eyes closed, without seeing where the path may lead to. Only a touch of blue brightens the image.
In an interview for “The 1–54 African Contemporary Art Fair”, the artist stated that moving to the United States in 2007, gaining new insights and experiencing new influences has led him to steer away from the explicit depiction of classic Yoruba symbols. He states: “Instead of using symbols to explain my art to people, I could use figuration. […] Art bridges that element and that distance to convey ideas to meet people and exchange cultural beliefs”⁴.
Lagunju has found a new language and style to present and transport the issues that concern and move him. In accordance, his choice of media and technique expanded. Lagunju’s work is mostly known for his large oil paintings on canvas, in which he juxtaposes Yoruba “Gelede” culture with differing western imagery, ranging from royal renaissance attire to modern pop culture — thus always integrating deeper meaning.
In his work “Study from a coiffeur girl” from 2016 (title picture), the artist merges a Nigerian Yoruba “Gelede” helmet mask with an extravagant, intricate sixteenth century attire, in order to create his female protagonist. The mask, the artist uses to represent the head of the figure, is modelled after a wooden original, as this is his general practice. The pointy face is held in a dark red-brown colour, bearing traditional Yoruba facial cuts — three lines — on the cheeks and forehead. In the middle section, the hair is represented by several rows of carved plaits that are in line with a complex crest. Both sides of the mask are adorned with coiled pangolins, an animal native in sub-Saharan Africa.⁵ The body of the displayed woman is clad in a dress that is embellished with red roses on white noble fabric, golden ornaments and gold jewellery with gemstones. Lagunju fashioned the dress after a painting, dated 1569, by an unknown artist, which is titled “A Young Lady Aged 21, Possibly Helena Snakenborg, Later Marchioness of Northampton”. The depicted attire points to a relation to the British House of Tudor and Queen Elisabeth I.⁶ Wole Lagunju creates this harsh contrast, in order to question sociopolitical hierarchies, while referring to the early beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, that would mark and shape the future of West Africa, therefore his native country Nigeria, and the country’s relationship to Great Britain for centuries to come.
The work “Black Girl II” is closely related to the former mentioned topic in terms of the Black experience in the context of predominantly White societies. It features a young woman wearing an elegant white button down dress and white gloves, which points to the nineteen fifties era, when racial segregation was still in place throughout the United States. Only in 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination, which — at least on paper — banned the lesser treatment of Black individuals. Lagunju, places the “Gelede” mask on the elegantly dressed woman, identifying her as a proud, self-assured Black woman, in a time, when this attitude would have been frowned upon by many. The “Gelede” object used for this painting is comparable to the earlier mentioned mask, as it also features a large middle coiffure crest, lined with plaited rows.
As mentioned, the “Gelede” mask is traditionally worn by men to honour and praise women’s fertility and motherhood. Lagunju defies this role by also choosing to crown women with these headdresses. Therefore, the empowered woman praises herself, independent of the worship of men. In his work “Yemoja and the dream of Monet’s Water Lilies” the artist displays the goddess Yemoja, a deity who is celebrated in the Yoruba culture as the giver of life and mother of all deities. The female figure is wearing a fashionably, fancy off shoulder top with a bow on the side, which is seemingly made of Kente cloth — a West African (especially Ghanaian), traditionally handwoven fabric, with complex patterns in bright orange, green, red, yellow and blue. The presented “Gelede” mask features three longitudinal tribal facial scars on the cheeks, referred to as “Pele”. The top of the mask is crowned by birds holding objects in their beaks. They are integrated in a complicated structure of bands that might represent snakes. The title of the painting suggests that the artist thought of Monet’s “Water Lilies”, when creating the background for this piece. The art historical reference to water seems fitting, as the goddess “Yemoja” is worshipped as a water deity, specifically of the “Ogun River” in Nigerian Yorubaland.⁷
The painting “Vintage Glamour II” from 2020 seems to centre around the themes of identity and gender. As in all of Lagunju’s works, the focus lies on the figure in the centre of the piece. Overflowing, intense decor is stretched out all over the canvas, as the artist uses a dense flowery pattern to cover the entire background in varying pastel blue and rose tones, as well a bright ochre-yellow colour that is repeated in the figures suit and tie. As this type of outfit suggests the protagonist represents a male figure, the head offers a different interpretation. The archetype for the head is a terracotta sculpture, shown at the Met Museum, whose soft female features portray a young woman.⁸ The delicate pottery object was created between the twelfth and fifteenth century in the city of Ife, the capital and religious centre of the ancient Yoruba kingdom of Ife. The lines or grooves that run vertically along the entire face of the sculpture, either refer to tribal scarring or are a representation of the veil that was commonly worn by Ife royalty.⁹ The juxtaposition of male and female attributes in this piece gives a powerful statement concerning freedom of individual expression.
Two of Lagunju’s newer works from 2020 touch on the subject of individuality in a similar manner. “Homage to sapeurs” and “Urban Kings II” celebrate the freedom to express oneself through fashion as well as the ability to shape ones individual appearance and attitude. Both works depict Black male characters, with proud and determined body postures. The former is dedicated to the “sapeurs”, the members of the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People (SAPE). This group of people is religiously dedicated to following their codex of dressing in an extravagant sophisticated manner, thereby often camouflaging their social status, whilst spending everything they have on their outer appearance. In order to make this statement unmistakably clear, the artist has written the acronym “SAPE” on the protagonists long swaying coat. As the portrayed man poses like a model at a photo shoot, the male figure on the latter painting appears similarly model-like, as if walking for a runway show. In this context it seems fitting that the figure wears extravagant, prominent clothing with large, flashy letters inscribed on it, much like brand names. The cloak almost looks like a royal mantle, especially in combination with the “Gelede” mask, which sits on the figures head, resembling a crown — appropriate for an ‘Urban King’. Both art works distinctly praise expressing one’s affiliation with a group or in contrast one’s uniqueness through projection on the outer appearance. It provides the message to stand with pride for who one is.
Wole Lagunju’s painterly work creates hybrids of Nigerian Yoruba culture merged with western iconic imagery. While exposing issues related to the Black experience or individual struggles, referring to identity and gender, he manages to create an aura of empowerment. The artist’s works on paper, however, additionally function as a sort of pressure release to the creator as well as the viewer. Despite the bright and radiant colours, the work does not shy away from difficult social questions.
¹ https://contemporaryand.com/exhibition/wole-lagunju-we-all-live-here/ (09.06.2021)
² https://www.dorotheum.com/en/l/3304883/ (09.06.2021)
⁴ The 1–54 Studio Visit Series: Wole Lagunju: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujbxQbCMRnU (09.06.2021)
⁵ See the archetype wooden mask: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/19412/lot/317/ (15.06.2021)
⁶ See the archetype painting: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/unknown-artist-britain-a-young-lady-aged-21-possibly-helena-snakenborg-later-marchioness-t00400 (20.06.2021)
⁷ https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yemonja (20.06.2021)
⁸ https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/320573 (19.06.2021)
⁹ See information regarding Ife and features of Ife art: https://www.worldhistory.org/Ife/ (19.06.2021)
Images: Courtesy of the artist and Ed Cross Fine Art
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