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’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 in 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 of the 19th century whilst evoking commentaries on power, femininity and womanhood.
Wole 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.
“My paintings of Yoruba Gelede masks juxtaposed with classical and iconic Western imagery explore the notions of race, femininity, womanhood and sexuality. They are also meant to be contemporary redefinitions of traditional Yoruba visual art.
Gelede (Ge means to ‘pet or tenderly deal with’; ele refers to a woman’s genitalia and de, ‘to soften them with gentleness’) is a male dance by which men celebrate women, their physical attributes, sacred powers and motherhood. 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 and gender and identity.
With both male and female characteristics, Gelede masks have elaborate wooden superstructures with carved human and animal imagery. These are spiritual and physical representations of ‘our mothers‘ or women and their metaphysical powers. The masks, occupying definitory and pivotal roles in my paintings allude to the Yoruba notion of the physical head or ori of an individual. Ori being the seat of the life force in the physical and supernatural realms. In other words, the head represented by the Gelede mask in the painting, is a person’s destiny, life force or ase.
In this exhibition, I have 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
My reasons for making Gelede paintings as redefinitions of Yoruba visual art are threefold,
- To educate the public about some practices in traditional Yoruba culture that are becoming extinct. The factors for this can be attributed to globalization, modernity and its trends, religious fundamentalism etc.
- My belief that Yoruba culture is a dynamic culture subject to contemporary definitions which are vital to its traditional arts.
- To have a visual documentation of Yoruba Gelede masks, not as traditional objects but as contemporary African art.”