Professor Peju Layiwola, in her recently-concluded exhibition at the University of Lagos, redirects the viewer’s gaze beyond the textile indigo-dyed fabrics to the production process. The exhibition titled; Indigo Reimagined, sums up her overall experience and engagement with clothes in both research and studio experience, writes Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
So much about the exhibition Indigo Reimagined pivots on the fascination for “the ordinary and simple things”. Indeed, Peju Layiwola affirms in an artist statement published in a catalogue for the solo exhibition – which opened on Thursday, June 13 and ended on Tuesday, July 30 – that they continue to inspire her just like her dual Yoruba and Edo heritage does.
The University of Lagos was, by the way, born to a prosperous Yoruba father from Lagos, Babatunde Olatokunbo Olowu, and an Edo woman, Princess Elizabeth Olowu, whose father Oba Akenzua II reigned from 1933 to 1978 as a Benin monarch.
“History plays a major role in the choice of materials I explore in my work,” she explains. For both the paintings and installations displayed at the J. F. Ade Ajayi Auditorium Gallery of the University of Lagos swirl around the Yoruba cultural history.
Still on history, Professor Layiwola decries the fact that colonialism truncated the evolution of a thriving local textile industry. This was even when it was not as brutal and obvious as the invasion and looting of the Benin empire by the British. Yet, it was an incontrovertible fact that this colonial history was also exploitative.
In a manner of speaking, Indigo Reimagined could be deemed a shift in focus, for the artist, away from the theme of her previous landmark exhibition, Benin1897.com. For the woman, who had made history as the first to hold an exhibition bordering on the restitution of the looted Benin artefacts, it was time to move on from the emotive subject to “something more flowery and engaging.” Hence, she says: “It was a deliberate shift.”
There was also the fact that on account of her dual heritage, people in the local art circles were beginning to see her as a Benin woman. This is despite the fact that Nigeria is not a matrilineal society. Thus, delving into the Yoruba textile tradition, for her, became a way to shrug off this misconception.
Nonetheless, this solo exhibition isn’t necessarily Professor Layiwola’s first work with local textile fabrics. She has always inveigled textiles into her works, albeit subtly. She recalls producing a number of prints in 2002 as a fall-out of her direct experience of a visit to a local market in Ibadan and an interaction with the women. That was how one of her paintings, titled “Lizard in Oje Market”, was conceived.
Another opportunity to work with local fabrics offered itself to her in 2014. A public art project, titled Whose Centenary?, held at Igun Street in Benin City. Bringing together the likes of Jelili Atiku, Victor Ehikhamenor, Jude Anogwih, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Jumoke Verissimo and Taiye Idahor, among others, it questioned the celebration of the centenary. After all, wasn’t the 1914 amalgamation conceived more for the convenience of British administration than for the good of Nigerians? On taking a second look at the date, the artists discovered that 1914 was the year His Royal Highness, Oba Ovonramwen, king of Benin, who resisted British imperialism, had joined his ancestors. “So I came up with a public art concept to celebrate the culture, costumes, dances and art of the Benin people,” she recalls. “I was very involved in designing the costumes for the performances.”
Of course, there is also her community work, which has in recent years revolutionised the teaching of arts and crafts to students in the Surulere neighbourhood of Lagos. She facilitated hands-on workshops on tie and dye, batik and silk painting at her location, which is known as Women and Youth Art (WYART) Foundation. Through moving her art empowerment centre to that neighbourhood, she was able to build a network with lot of artists and artisans.
This explains how she got the U. S. State Department Hillary Clinton Smartpower project grant to conduct public workshops for secondary school students in the area from 2017 to 2018. It was thanks to this grant that a California based artist, Brett Cook, came to Nigeria. The WYART Foundation had, in partnership with the Bronx Museum of Arts, New York, supervised the artist’s collaboration with university students from different faculties to make the iconic mural at the University of Lagos, titled “Nurturing Peace, People, and Ideas”.
For this was a period, she involved university students while working with six secondary schools in the area. Thus, the undergraduates were given the opportunity to hone their pedagogical skills. Prior to all this, she had in 2002 had blazed the trail by introducing a digitally-recorded format of teaching art.
Much as she considers the just-concluded exhibition as the direct fall-out of her town and gown experience, she adds: “The major impetus has been my mother, who was designing Edo costumes.”
This explains why, on moving to Ibadan, she decided to focus on the Yoruba costumes.
About a year before Indigo Reimagined, Professor Layiwola held the inaugural edition on the indigenous clothing tradition at the Raw Gallery of the Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Here, she worked with textile fabrics from Southern Africa.
In addition to all these, the several articles she had written on textiles, which were published in reputable academic journals, egged her on as she put the final touches to the exhibition’s thematic thrust.
On the exhibition itself, she says it “highlights the multidimensionality of dyeing fabrics whilst simultaneously providing us with a window into the beauty and functions of other indigenous crafts like pottery and metal work associated with dyeing.” She also says that the featured installations at the exhibition “are not limited to the dyed textile as a site of adornment and signification”, but they instead “redirect our gaze at the very process of ‘art as art’ in their own right; in a sense, the process, methodology and labour of making art is itself conceived of as art.”
Thus, the viewer, through this conceptual engagement with the textile fabrics, is compelled to direct his gaze at the important – albeit, often disregarded – production process. Back to the exhibition – which stands as a reflection of modern urban culture in the introduction of new themes, techniques and materials – it is ultimately a collation of her overall experience and engagement with cloth in both research and studio experience.