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Indigo reimagined with Peju Layiwola

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Arts and Culture Editor
15 May 2019   |   3:02 am
Art is often seen as a man’s world; with male artists dominating books and shows. In fact, the ratio of male to female artists in Nigeria tilts strongly in favour of men. In art schools, men are a majority of faculty members. Peju Layiwola is one of the few female artists defining the Nigerian art…

Layiwola in the studio

Art is often seen as a man’s world; with male artists dominating books and shows. In fact, the ratio of male to female artists in Nigeria tilts strongly in favour of men. In art schools, men are a majority of faculty members.

Peju Layiwola is one of the few female artists defining the Nigerian art landscape. The academic has evolved to become a respected figure in the male dominated industry. She follows her mother, Princess Elizabeth Olowu — daughter of Oba Akenzua II of Benin — in a career as an artist, adding art history to the mix.

Though she started with bronze, like her mother, who paved way for females to be bronze casters, she now focuses on using fabric with her sculptures.

From June 13 to July 30, 2019, her latest show, a solo, will be on at the J.K. Ade Ajayi Auditorium Gallery, University of Lagos.

Titled, Indigo Reimagined, an exhibition of textile installation, the show is based on the indigenous dyeing tradition of adire popularly known among the people of Southwest Nigeria.

“Indigo Reimagined highlights the multidimensionality of dyeing fabrics whilst simultaneously providing us with a window into the beauty and functions of other indigenous crafts like pottery and metal work associated with dyeing,” Layiwola says.

She adds, “these installations are not limited to the dyed textile as a site of adornment and signification. Instead, they redirect our gaze at the very process of ‘art as art’ in their own right; in a sense, the process, methodology and labour of making art is itself conceived of as art.”

She continues, “this 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 cloth in its multiple sociocultural and political dimensions.”  

The show brings together her overall experience and engagement with cloth in both research — which she has documented in different ways including the article, Lace Culture and the Art of Dressing Well in Nigeria in the publication, African Lace: A History of Trade, Creativity and Fashion in Nigeria — and studio experience working with youth in her Centre for arts and craft. It also situates her artistic practice at the junction of her Yoruba and Edo lineage.

Her trajectory with textile further includes facilitating hands-on workshops on tie and dye, batik and silk painting at her Women and Youth Art Foundation (WYART) in Surulere, Lagos, and designing of costumes for the public art project, Whose Centenary?

Layiwola’s work, in a variety of media ranging from metalwork and pottery to textile and sculpture, addresses diverse strains of the postcolonial condition. She focuses on personal and communal histories, which centralise Benin as both an ancient kingdom and a contemporary city.

Art, for Layiwola, is a habit both at home and in school. The visual art teacher says her childhood in Benin City stoke the fire of being an artist.

The artist once told the media that she spent time there as a young girl, and was fortunate to see the city as a gallery: “People producing arts, all along the roads, on the streets; everywhere and you begin to know that this is a city of Art.

On Mission Road, in all the streets we passed while on our way to school every day, you saw arts everywhere. So, that was much etched in my consciousness as a young girl growing up in the city. Having grown up in the city under the influence of my mother who is also an artist, it became easier for me.”

She was able to learn and be influenced by what she saw and what she had around her. “But more directly, my mother was more involved in community works, teaching women art. Then Edo State government used to commission art and she would be involved in those activities. During those trainings, I’d go with my mother with the techniques she’d taught me at home.

So, even people realised that I could also follow in my mother’s footsteps and some of them could give me money for some of the works I did. For me, that was an inspiring moment. Yes, it was indeed. And mother told me that if I could follow the art, I would make a success of it.”

In her teaching, writing, and art, there is continuous engagement with themes of artifact pillage, repatriation and restitution, history, memory, gender the continually mutable processes of production.

Her work moves from the emotive space of art pillage in Africa captured in previous shows: Benin Art and the Restitution Question (2010), Whose Centenary? (2014) and Return (2018) into a gentler engagement with cloth and its multiple significations in ‘Indigo Reimagined’. 

Born to Babatunde Olatokunbo Olowu from Idumagbo, Lagos, her paternal grandfather established the first cinemas in the old Midwestern region.

Layiwola earned her BA in 1988 at the University of Benin, Benin City; an MA and Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Ibadan, in 1991 and 2004 respectively.

With a doctorate in art history, Layiwola teaches and curates at national museums, and remains faithful to the art of the kingdom of her ancestors.

She has also fought for the return of the ‘Benin Bronzes’, which were stolen by the British during colonial times and which largely remain in museums overseas.

She began her teaching career at the University of Benin in 1991, and then joined the services of the University of Lagos in 2002.

Within the academy and beyond, Layiwola has instituted practical interventions and initiated new pedagogical methods that extend into local communities through the non-profit organisation, Women and Youth Art Foundation (Wy Art) that she founded in 1994. One remarkable innovation is the creation of the first instructional DVDs on arts and crafts in Nigeria.

According to her, “the Foundation is about teaching skills that are for empowering. It is to help imbibe the values of art in the society. It is about those values that make one a better artist. It is not only the values to help an individual to realise his talents but also for the individual to be useful to the society. It has a broader base of skill acquisition made available to the youths through the workshops and trainings and other materials in forms of video, pamphlets and manuals. In this way, after the training, they are made to be useful to their communities.

The training is also extended to schools and outside. So, it is a training programme, but also serves as a platform for women to discuss issues that pertain to them and so on. They use arts to discuss and interface on other spheres of their professional lives as they relate to them.”

She has received several awards: Departmental prize in Applied Arts 1987; Best graduating student at the University of Benin Art school in 1988; NYSC Merit Award, Lagos State (1989); Distinguished Researcher’s Award, Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, 2007; Two Central Research Grants of the University of Lagos; and Commendation for teaching at the University of Lagos, in 2005. She is Professor of Art History and the current Head of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos.

On the international level, Layiwola was recently selected as a Tyson Scholar at the Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, USA and Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Arkansas (2019-2020); Terra Foundation grant for American Art 2018; CAA-Getty Alumni grant (2018), Nominated, US International Leadership Programme (IVLP) 2011; Partner with Bronx Museum of the Arts on the Hilary Clinton US State Department SmARTpower programme, 2012; US Lagos State Consulate Grant 2017; US Alumni Exchange Award 2018 and Goethe Resident Artist grant, (KNW), Dusseldorf, 2017.

Layiwola is President—elect and Vice President of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA), USA and member of various associations; Board of the Lagos Studies Association; Art Powa Publishing Network (ARTPOWA), South Africa; International Committee of Museums (ICOM); College Arts Association (CAA); Nigerian Field Society, Ibadan Branch (NFS) and other organisations. 

She has served as guest lecturer in several Universities/Institutions including; Rhodes Island School of Design (RISD), Providence, 2019; Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi, USA 2017; Tougalou College, Jackson, Mississippi 2017; University of Arkansas, 2017; The Art Institute of Chicago, USA, 2008; University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2008; University of Zurich, Switzerland, 2004.

Layiwola has also been a guest speaker at Art X, 2016/2018, initiated the Annual Omooba Yemisi Shylon sponsored UNILAG/OYASAF Art Entrepreneurship Workshop (2011 to 2014) at the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos; initiated the making of the iconic wall mural on the façade of the Creative Arts building at the University of Lagos; and served as facilitator at several editions of the Bruce Onobrakpeya Art Workshops at Agbara-otor, Delta State.

She has also been an artist in residence, in the Arts of Africa and the Global South Research Programme, (RAW) Grahamstown, Rhodes University, South Africa, 2018; Artist-in-Residence, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, Germany, 2017; and the Triangle Workshop, Alakuko, Lagos, Nigeria, 2010 organised by The British Museum in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Yaba, Lagos.