In conversation with Wole Lagunju: on Art & reclaiming the narrativePosted on
I first saw Wole Lagunju’s work at AKAA fair in Paris. His towering and colourful painting Suburbia (2017) featured a hybrid and androgynous character, quintessentially modern and stylish from neck to toe who sported an intricate Gelede Mask as a head. It caught people’s attention and a passionate debate ensued over the gender of the character. Was it a man or a woman?
In that context, their gender didn’t matter. In Yoruba traditional culture, men wear various Guelede masks and perform dance routines in celebration of women’s natural powers. The issue at the heart of the painting and Lagunju’s work concerns the manufactured hierarchy of cultures. His work is an invitation to take a physical and metaphorical step back, look at history and question past narratives and representations.
A few months later, he was exhibiting at the London Art fair with Ed Cross Fine Art Gallery. The show curated by Katherine Finerty recreated the intimacy of a salon conducive to further discussions about identity, colonisation and culture. So I reached out to the artist, through Ed Cross, to know more about him and his work, and continue the virtual conversation started with his work.
Obatala: Can you let us know how you got into Art?
Wole Lagunju: I studied Fine and Graphic Arts at Obafemi Awolowo University, formerly University of Ife, Nigeria and graduated in 1986. I also grew up around an arts community, the Oshogbo Art School, in Oshogbo, a town in Western Nigeria.
Obatala: You are renowned for your hybrid paintings that juxtapose a body from a particular historical era with a Yoruba Guelede masks. Can you elaborate further on the meaning of your work and also how that juxtaposition came about?
Wole Lagunju: I am interested in the reinterpretation of Yoruba iconography and its hybridization towards eliciting a newer commentary and redefinition. A recurrent feature of traditional Gelede masks and costuming is Caucasian imagery, which inspires me as an African artist at diaspora crossroads.
I became interested in the juxtaposition of Gelede masks with bodies from some historical era in 2007. I was motivated by the debate on the marginalization of women of color in the fashion industry. I critiqued this and other related issues by transposing Gelede sculptural headdresses onto images of Caucasian women to underscore the underrepresentation of color and race in fashion. The resulting images were meant to challenge the notion of monolithic culture which deems some cultures as preeminent and others marginal. My work widened at this juncture to address iconic images in Anglo-European fashion from 18th century Elizabethan, England and the fifties and sixties in Euro-American culture. The resulting images interrogated imperialistic cultural idioms and singular historical perspectives and also referenced the colonization and decolonization of the African continent.
Obatala: Specifically about your previous work, the Elizabethan imageries, that era is referred to as the golden era and remembered as a period of renaissance. Your paintings seem to be a visual reminder that slavery also funded this revival. Is that a way to reclaim the narrative and move away from what the Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the “single story”?
Wole Lagunju : Yes, I am interested in what could have been and a reclaiming of the narrative. I am aware having a sense of history at the back of my mind that the elaborate opulence and gilded demeanor of women of power in Western portraiture derived largely from the proceeds of the inhumane trade in slaves and that of forced labor on Anglo and Francophone plantations. My paintings featuring Gelede masks and Western aristocratic juxtapositions are my own way of commenting on and reclaiming history.
Obatala : Can you tell us a bit more about your creative process? From the idea to the final painting?
Wole Lagunju : My creative process reimagines Yoruba traditional practices towards bringing fresh insights into existing knowledge on masquerade and mask making traditions. It begins with the selection of a Gelede mask and a reference portrait or painting. This reference image is usually from The Dutch Golden Age, Elizabethan, Tudorian or the fifties and sixties Euro-American eras. I make a realistic composite of mask and bodice or dress, but I am not especially disposed to photographic reproduction. My interest lies in mimicking the simplicity of rudimentary design evident in a Gelede mask whilst combining my personal and contemporary drafting skills. I am particularly interested in the awkward juxtaposition of mask and bodice to create a ‘new masquerade’ straddling the traditional African and contemporary Western world.
My process would not be complete without some digital scaling which ensures my proportions and symmetry are correct and final. Initially, my medium for bringing my composite drawings to life was acrylic paints, but recently this has evolved into oils. This is because I prefer the vividness, which the paint retains when it dries.
Obatala: Although the Gelede series is the most high profile of your work, you are a multidisciplinary artist and have used other medium of expression in the past: photography, textile installation. Do you have a favorite one? And why?
Wole Lagunju : Although I have worked in the past with textile installation, graphic design and painting, I do not have a favorite medium. Presently, I am constrained by a lack of space, which is why I have decided to work primarily with paintings. They are easy to execute, keep and do not take up much space as installations. If and when I acquire more studio space in the United States, I intend to return to the mediums of expression I have explored in the past. Hopefully, this should be sometime in the nearest future.
Obatala: Your latest works mark a new evolution in your style with the appearance of bold, bright colors and flowers. Can you tell us about your artistic influences?
Wole Lagunju : I have always used the bold, bright colors and flowers in some of the original Gelede paintings I made especially Vintage glamor, 1965 in 2014. However, instead of using the bright flowers on the clothing of my recent figures, I have introduced them also onto backgrounds. My preferred influences are vintage clothing and fabrics from the fifties and the sixties. I am interested in them because they are expressions of the counterculture during an era of decolonization and the independence of several African countries. This era also birthed the flower power movement, feminism and the African American civil rights movement.
Obatala: Your work has been very well received at the London Art fair, what is next for you?
Wole Lagunju : I am delighted that my work was very well received at the London Art Fair! I therefore, intend to keep doing what I am doing, even better!
Let’s continue the conversation about Contemporary African Art online: