I grew up in Oṣogbo, a city famous for its art school. I grew up at a time when the Oṣogbo art school was really booming—western artists would travel to Oṣogbo to study and exhibit with local artists like Jimoh Buraimoh, Chief Twins Seven Seven, Jacob Afolabi, Muraina Oyelami etc. At that time, my father was a pharmacist and his store was located next door to the popular art gallery, Mbari Mbayo. The gallery was housed in a building where the famous Yoruba playwright, Duro Ladipo lived. I grew up in the midst of all the drama and excitement of the Nigerian art scene in the ‘70s.
I graduated from the University of Ife, in 1986 with a degree in Fine Art and a specialisation in Graphic Design. I felt that graphic arts would give me a broader base for my art practice. After schooling in Ife, I became an illustrator in The Daily Times. I did illustrations for articles written by Wole Soyinka, Biodun Jeyifo, Ken Saro Wiwa and other notable writers. I later worked in the advertising industry for a while. But soon after, I became a full-time studio artist. I left Nigeria for Germany in the mid-1990s, where I started to consolidate on my painting and drawing from childhood and professional experiences in Oṣogbo with urban Lagos. Then in 2007, I was awarded the Philip Ravenhill Fellowship by UCLA and have been in the U.S. since then.
It started with early life in Oṣogbo. As a child, we lived very close to a market, Oja-Igbona, (a subsidiary of the king’s market). Masquerades came to the market to dance and bless the female traders. Masquerades also appeared during new year celebrations—they come dancing to homes looking for hand-outs and money. So I grew up with masquerades.
I started incorporating masks into my work in 1996 when I was commissioned by the Goethe Institut (the German cultural centre) in Lagos to design a poster for the Afrika Project, which was a collaboration between playwrights from Germany and Nigeria. The poster was to incorporate a European with a Nigerian mask. Being fascinated by Gelede masks at the time, I decided to incorporate a Gelede mask into the illustration.
In the U.S., with the debate about the marginalisation of models of colour in the fashion industry, I started thinking about how I could capture the current sentiment. So, I began to superimpose Gelede masks on fashion models to question ideas about race, colour, identity, and monolithic cultures—how we seem to always look at culture with western eyes.
Looking at images from the Victorian and Elizabethan era, the grandeur and opulence of that time came from the proceeds of slavery and oppression. On the other hand, the ‘60s and ‘70s were a period of liberation and decolonization. I began to ponder on how to make artistic statements about both these two periods. I started by appropriating images and memorabilia from the social hierarchies of the Western world, and juxtapose them Gelede masks from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. In my thinking, this was a way to reclaim a stolen heritage and a critique of the racial and social dogma that so permeates the cultural ideologies of the 20th century.
Babatunde Lawal was a teacher of mine at Ife university. I avidly read his books on Gelede performances and ritual art which educated me on the various forms of Gelede masks. I chose Gelede masks to use in my work because of the the cultural theme, myths and philosophies behind them. The Gelede masquerade is a performance for ’our mothers’ in Yoruba culture by men to celebrate the sacred powers of procreation and sexuality and to ensure continual blessings for the community. My paintings explore how the societal values of traditional Yoruba culture are documented in indigenous iconography. They also make commentaries on issues of procreation, motherhood and femininity when juxtaposed with images of women from the modern world.
But I also see my work as a continuation of traditional African art. A continuation because if you look at the traditional design of Gelede masks, they fall under three main types: images of caucasians, images of market women and images of Islamic mullahs. So by combining images of women from the West with Gelede masks, what I’m doing is a continuation of traditional craftsmanship and design. I am redefining and reinterpreting traditional Yoruba visual art.
A number of these traditional objects were taken from the Yoruba people. I appropriate images of Gelede masks located in Western museums as a way to reclaim back a stolen artistic heritage. My reasons for this are twofold; appropriating objects back to where they came from while also making my work relevant to the two different worlds which I inhabit as a diaspora person. Thereby, I create a meeting point where both cultures can synergise.