The Golden Age III, 79cm x 79cm, Oil on Canvas 2018

Yoruba Remixed by Wole Lagunju opens at EBONY/CURATED Cape Town on December 6th. This solo exhibtion is the multi-award winning Nigerian artist’s first in South Africa.

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. 

Ancestry, 76cm x 61cm Oil on Canvas, 2018

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. 

The Performance, 180cm x 152cm, Oil on Canvas, 2018

Metaphysical Other II, 76cm x 61cm, Oil on Canvas, 2018

Through his bold paintings, Lagunju evokes the partly didactic and partly celebratory rites as in the Gelede Festival. 

By bringing the traditional Glede masks into the realm of contemporary discourse surrounding African art he is cementing the importance of vital aspects 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.