Lagunju’s hybrid paintings of traditional Gelede masks are juxtaposed with images of modern women in the Western world and redefine the forms and philosophies of Yoruba visual art and design. He re-imagines and transforms cultural icons appropriated from the Dutch Golden and Elizabethan ages interspersed with elements from the Western world of the fifties and sixties. Lagunju’s cultural references, mined from the eras of colonisation and decolonisation of the African continent, critique the racial and social structures whilst simultaneously evoking commentaries on power, femininity and womanhood.
Lagunju focuses particularly on the Gelede festival and the masks relating to it.Performed annually in Yoruba communities, the Gelede Festival focuses on celebrating women, their physical attributes, sacred powers and motherhood. Importantly the rituals are performed almost exclusively by males as a way of appeasing females in a patrilineal community. Central to the Gelede rituals are the elaborate wooden masks perched precariously on the heads of the performers, each mask meticulously carved to resemble men, women and animals in various guises. Enveloped in vibrant costumes and masks the performers both entertain and enlighten the community. They tell the oral histories of the Yoruba people through song and dance as well as rituals to appease and praise the life-giving force of the female deity.
In Lagunju’s paintings, the masks replace the heads of the subjects and occupy a definitory and pivotal role within the composition. By replacing the head with a mask, Lagunju is referring not only to the Gelede rites but also to the Yoruba notion of ‘ori’. Literally meaning ‘head’, ‘ori’ refers to the larger Yoruba metaphysical idea that highlights the ‘ori’ as the seat of the life force in the physical world and connection to the supernatural realm. In other words, the head represented by the Gelede mask in the painting becomes a visual representation of a person’s destiny, ‘ase’ (West African philosophical concept of self-determination/power to change one’s destiny) and their life force.
“I have chosen, therefore, to celebrate the masks by making visual compositions of ‘new’ Gelede masquerades dressed in the ceremonial regalia of the Western world. In doing this, I mean to critique racial and cultural stereotypes and ideology. These are values and stereotypes that generate assumptions of a dominant cultural prerogative and singular historical perspective within issues of power, gender and identity
In this exhibition, I have also chosen to appropriate imagery from the fifties and sixties, Euro-American era. An era which signifies the birth of the African American civil rights movement, the age of the counterculture, the rise of feminism and the flower power movement. In this way, I choose to celebrate womanhood and femininity at a definitive historical period of liberation, decolonization and African independence.”
Through his bold paintings, Lagunju evokes the partly didactic and partly celebratory rites as in the Gelede Festival. By bringing the traditional Gelede masks into the realm of contemporary discourse surrounding African art he is cementing the importance of vital aspects of Yoruba culture whilst simultaneously educating the public. Lagunju’s unique blending of traditional masks as well as contemporary imagery mined from the Western culture also acknowledges the challenges of globalization and impact of the West on African traditional arts but also celebrates the dynamism of Yoruba culture that can absorb and reinterpret these influences.
Wole Lagunju is a 1986 graduate of Fine Arts and graphic design at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria. He is an accomplished illustrator, graphic designer, installation artist and painter. Lagunju was awarded a Phillip Ravenhill Fellowship by the UCLA in 2006 and a Pollock Krasner award in 2009. He currently lives in the United States.