ART PARIS 2020 – WOLE LAGUNJU

Originally from Osogbo, a city in south-western Nigeria, Wole Lagunju, who has been based in the United States for a decade now, has created a powerful piece of work combining multiple techniques: painting, drawing, design, and textile installation. A collaboration with the Goethe Institute of Lagos (Nigeria) led to him making his home in Germany in the mid-90s. The introduction of the traditional Gelede masks in his avant-garde compositions dates back to this period. Wole Lagunju has redefined this mask not as a traditional object of an anti-historical era but as an interaction with contemporary reality, questioning the relationships of power, gender and identity.
Driven by a deep sense of history, Wole Lagunju uses the artistic richness of his Yoruba culture, one of the largest and most important cultural groups in Africa, south of the Sahara desert, to underline its contemporary dimension. The traditional decorative style of the Yoruba : the onaism, in its contemporary version, dress his characters as, for example, sex symbols and present and past movie stars. These decorative patterns have recently invaded the background of his compositions, creating an open space where his subjects seem to float. His critical vision of the representations of power in the Western culture of past centuries, their splendour, a product of slavery and colonial oppression, the challenges of globalization and the hybridization of cultures have shaped his reflections, as seen through his cultural lens. This culture, which is considered by archaeologists as important as that of the ancient Greeks, is now threatened by both religious fundamentalisms and the fallout from globalization.

« Spirit of Mami Wata », tittle of the large format canvas on display at Art Paris, is one of Wole Lagunju’s most emblematic works. In a decorative space where bursts of colour, of an absolute freedom, seem to spill over from the canvas, the central figure appears to project itself out of, but, asexual and faceless, it participates in the general structure. Without distinct features, she is : spirit, goddess, mother-goddess, Mami Wata, who is considered to be the first woman in the Yoruba universe. She represents the beliefs, traditions, and complexity of a culture whose peak was over a century before the first contact with Europeans.
The Yoruba society stretches from southern Togo to south-western Nigeria, and the city of Ifé is considered its cradle. Ambivalent and unpredictable, this goddess is believed to lead her people to a positive future and social harmony. She is celebrated during the fascinating gelede masquerades, which the artist attended in his home town Osogbo. During the celebrations, it is men wear masks to celebrate the power of women in order to earn their benevolence. These masquerades are constantly reinvented, modified in their meaning and functions, according to where they are held and who participates in them, and, for the Yorubas, they represent a medium for stories, myths and the recall of struggles at the time of slavery and colonization.

In his compositions, Wole Lagunju superimposes cultures, without chronology or hierarchy. An astonishing crest-mask, perched precariously on the head of the goddess, unfolds a very elaborate sanctuary scene with four characters in a meeting. The background refers to the Ona style, from the Onaism artistic movement, which the artist adheres to. The contemporary version of this graphic repertoire, inspired by traditional Yoruba ornaments, is taught at the Arts Department of University Ilé-Ifé. The goddess wears her symbolic colours : red and white. With her trendy look, represented by the fashionable shoes she wears, she blurs the line between myth and contemporary reality.
The artist, in touch with his time, develops of a new language. Unlike in the Western world, here the avant-garde is used to understand tradition, and not the other way around.
Wole Lagunju confronts us with a charged work: the complex history of cultural hybridization and the reinterpretation of pre- and post-colonial aesthetics.