Artist Spotlight

Adeniyi Olagunju, Nigeria

February 26, 2017

By: Adenike Cosgrove

Reshaping Traditional African Art

Why do you incorporate traditional African art and objects into your work?
In the contemporary world, there is this perception that old isn’t good, but my life revolves around these two worlds—the contemporary and the traditional. The last three generations of my family has had twin children—my mum, my grandparents and my brother. As Yorubas, my family’s carved ere ibeji figures when babies have passed away. We may not know the meaning behind these carvings but we’ve maintained the traditions.

Mangbetu, 2016
Adeniyi Olagunju
TAFETA, London

I think that’s why I’m attracted to things that involve multiples and why my work is made up of repetition. The idea of multiples was the inspiration behind dividing these sculptures, something that was once ‘one’ becomes ‘two’. The work also speaks to globalisation. It’s about the role of the extractive industry in our lives and in our value system. How the raw materials we extract from the ground has taken precedence over more important things in our lives such as culture, art and traditions. I try to create a conversation about what is important within our communities.

In the sculptures, the metals used in the middle of the pieces are from the region where the object was carved. So in the objects purporting to be from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I apply gold, silver and copper. The idea is to take that thing which is old, ‘fake’ or ‘worthless’, that thing which people no longer want, and reshape it into something new, something contemporary. It’s like what Clement Greenberg said about the different between avant-garde and kitsch. The difference is so thin.

Mangbetu, 2016
Adeniyi Olagunju
TAFETA, London


"The contemporary does not happen in a void."

What makes an object craft? What’s the difference between an object produced for tourists to one that’s high art? I wanted to discover if it is possible to elevate these objects. To me, the difference is in the activity that surrounds its creation, the meaning behind its creation. The artist is involved and there is a concept and idea behind the adaptation of the raw material.

The original sculptures are destroyed by cutting them in half and they take on new shapes and new meaning. From that point on, people view these objects as art, the transformation has happened. It no longer looks like the familiar and those that once shunned the traditional now see my work as modern art!

Luba, 2016
Adeniyi Olagunju
TAFETA, London

Luba, 2016
Adeniyi Olagunju
TAFETA, London

‘Newish’

How did you first discover classic African art?
A passion of mine is documenting the different cultures and festivals in Nigeria. I regularly attend and photograph festivals such as the Durbar in Northern Nigeria, the Osun Osogbo festival, and the Ofala festival in Onitsha. Attending these festivals is one of the ways I learn about who I am, who Nigerians are, and to understand where the notion of ‘idol’ and ‘voodoo’ came from.

Newish, 2017
Adeniyi Olagunju
TAFETA, London

In attending these events, I try to understand why so many Africans have rejected their cultural and traditional histories. I think a lot of it had to do with colonisation. When the Europeans and Arabs came to Africa, they used religion as a force for control. They told us to become Christians and Muslims because the wood we were praying to wouldn’t do anything for us. The only thing that was important were the natural resources in our lands—the gold, diamonds, oil, silver and copper. Praying to these wooden objects wouldn’t achieve anything—best was to dig up and trade mineral resources to better your life.

A lot of people believed it and we still do. But suddenly, you find these same ‘useless’ wooden objects in British museums and they’re suddenly priceless. And as we know, anything that’s priceless is THE most valuable thing. But even till today, we still don’t know our value and the wealth that we own in these priceless objects. We still believe that value is in crude oil and we forget about the art and our culture.

I wouldn’t have known about these objects and raw materials I use in my work, if not for my cultural research. For example, the first time I saw ekpiri seeds was during the Ofala festival in Onitsha. Dancers and performers would use them as instruments during the annual celebrations.

I’ve always loved the art of joining one thing to another or of creating something new from objects that had a different function or purpose. The vision for my latest series is to take something small—the ekpiri seed pods—and create a piece that’s over 8 feet tall. It’s an ongoing investigation into the connection between culture and visual art. How Igbo traditional musical instruments fit into my artistic conversation.