The Yoruba of South-west Nigeria have been drawing intricately beautiful patterns – mostly of indigenous flora and fauna – with wax on white fabrics later dipped in indigo dye. The local name for these fabrics is ‘adire’, which means tie and dye.
Though the history of adire fabric and how it became domesticated among the Yoruba is hazy, the earliest producers of this patterned attire were Egba women from Abeokuta.
Since the first Egba woman, who dipped a patterned fabric into a pot saturated with indigo to the introduction of modern dyes, adire fabrics have featured prominently in the art and culture of the Yoruba people.
But when people think of adire, it is unlikely they are thinking of other materials outside fabric – a piece of multi-coloured textile adornment.
But Peju Olayiwola, a don at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Peju Layiwola, has taken the adire patterns as it is traditionally known a several notches higher with her pleasantly surprising twist to the traditional art.
Through her solo exhibition, titled Indigo Reimagined that opened at the J.F Ade Ajayi Auditorium Gallery of UNILAG, Ms Olayiwola transposed the traditional adire patterns on metal, clay and foam – materials which are not traditionally associated with the adire.
For Ms Olayiwola, the exhibition, which opened on June 13, could as well be a return to her artistic journey. As a girl, she and her mother, Elizabeth Olowu, the daughter of late Benin Monarch, Oba Akenzua II, dazzled with bronze casting.
Explaining what makes the exhibition different, Ms Olayiwola told the Guardian newspaper days before it opened that it was conceptual, ”yet tactical, engagement with cloth compels the viewer to look at the often neglected but important aspects involved in the process of this long-standing tradition of indigo dyeing”.
“The show stands as a reflection of modern urban culture in the introduction of new themes, techniques, and materials. It ultimately challenges the viewer to see a cloth in its multiple sociocultural and political dimensions.”
At the opening of the exhibition, she explained further about where the inspiration for the work of arts originated from.
“The works in this show are about cloth and yet not principally made of cloth. It celebrates the ingenuity of Yoruba artists and the art of Yoruba women who painstakingly painted cassava paste on cloth with feathers. It reveals the inter-connectedness of various artistic genre associated with dyeing such as painting, stencilling and pottery,” she said.
“Stamping History”, one of the eye-catching work on display at the exhibition, is an array of tiles of foams with intricate patterns and design culled from the urban culture on each of them cut by a Ghanaian carver, Macathy Laryea.
The designs are also infused with adinkra symbols from Mr Laryea’s native Ghana. It also speaks of the cross-border influence of the traditional Yoruba craft of indigo dyeing.
“The multicultural dimension of these designs shows that indigo dyeing has moved away from being a solely Yoruba idiom with a large number of West Africans situated around the Bank Olemoh/Akerele area (Surulere, Lagos) practising the trade,” Ms Olayiwola wrote in the description of the work.
“Oje Market Day,” is a motley display of colours and patterns and fabric named after the popular Oje Market in Ibadan. It is visual poetry of the portrays the ancient city.
“Oje Market Day” refers to the connection between both local and international markets in textile. Oje Market in Ibadan was known as the international market for textile in West Africa. Exquisite hand-woven indigenous fabrics from different cities in southwestern Nigeria were sold in the market,” she wrote in the description of the work.
“Indigo cloth is interspersed with other fabric types and colours. The browns and yellow ochre, like the rusty roof of Ibadan, are a reference to JP Clark’s 1965 classical poem, ‘Ibadan,’” she added.
Many in the audience at the exhibition were held in awe by the historical significance of the works on display.
Sandra Odiagbo, an art connoisseur, said the exhibition is a testament to the “super intelligence” of the Nigerian artists. She added that the exhibition is a road sign that “pointing us back to our roots and a nudge that we should not forget our historic wealth”.
Bruce Onobrakpeya, a sculptor, said the exhibition is a “huge step forward” in Nigeria and African art. He encouraged authorities in universities across the country to establish an art academy where such brilliant skills can be taught to future generations.
“You are a gem and a cultural hero. I haven’t seen an installation of this magnitude using various materials to celebrate our cloth history,” he said while appreciating the work.
The exhibition ends on July 30.