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Moremi, the challenge of capturing the heroine in painting, sculpture

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‘Iwalewa’ (Character is Beauty) 36 x 30 inches. Oil on canvas 2019, by Biodun Olaku

Moremi, as an icon in royal circle and female virtue, has been widely celebrated across different media. Perhaps, for the first time, visual art, in a broad scope, is expanding the Moremi narrative.

A 12th century Ile-Ife queen, Moremi Ajasoro has been celebrated over the ages as a courageous and brave Yoruba woman. And now 28 contemporary Nigerian artists, across different cultural backgrounds, have converged to express their impressions of Moremi in sculptures and paintings.

Organised by Alexis Galleries and House of Oduduwa as a touring art exhibition, the show titled, Moremi: A View from the Masters, took off in Lagos and is scheduled to travel through select Nigerian cities. The show will also hold in London, New York, Dubai, among others.

With the growing awareness on feminism in contemporary African society, celebrating Moremi appears to transcend the confinement of female artists. In fact, the artists of Moremi: A View from the Masters are mostly men, except for one or two. While it could be argued that the show confirms the drought of female ‘masters’ in the Nigerian visual art circle, the crust of the gathering is not lost: to promote feminist virtue as seen in the life of Moremi Ajasoro.

Either as realism, impressionism or abstract representation, artists have no previous visual reference of the heroine to rely on. In modern and contemporary periods, the only visual memory of Moremi is that of the actress Abiodun Caroline Duro Ladipo. Through 1970s, the late thespian, Duro Ladipo, made so much fame staging Moremi Ajasoro, as he travelled round with his theatre.

His wife, Abiodun, who played the lead role of Moremi, had since become the face of the 12th century legend, at least in visual representation. In fact, very few remember the actress’ real name as Abiodun. The stage name ‘Moremi’ has stuck till date. Even, a 2017 Moremi statue commissioned by Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, the Ooni of Ife erected in his palace still can’t erase people’s memory of the theatre version face created by Ladipo.

Towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the exhibiting artists of Moremi: A View from the Masters are not under critics’ radar to capture semblance of a 12th century queen. Whatever the challenge each artist faces in depicting Moremi under, the goal is the virtue that the legend represents.

In a profile view painting, titled Iwalewa (Character Is Beauty), Abiodun Olaku depicts Moremi as a woman whose strength lies in her virtue. An artist whose mastery in realism painting is ascending to legendary status, Olaku, in Iwalewa coalesces contemporary fashion and native beauty.

Chinwe Uwatse represents Moremi’s boldness in a painterly drawing. The artist’s adornments of the figure in royal paraphernalia lifted by shoulder-high physique emit so much courage and boldness, even with face dripped in humility and authority.

So far, Uwatse is the only female artist in the group show at the time of preview. Perhaps, more female artists will join the exhibition before its final shows, as the organisers note.

Another impressionist, Gab Awusa probes into Moremi’s strength and comes up with Secret Weapon, a depiction of the legend in some kind of spiritual consultation.

Whoever wonders what the fashion taste of a 12th century legend woman might look like has clue in Alex Nwokolo’s impression of Moremi. Heavily beaded, even to the loudness of earrings that protrude like layers of wheels, the portrait shows a lady, who, in her warrior traits, exudes high fashion taste.

Other featured artists in the show include, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Kolade Oshinowo, Bunmi Babatunde, Gbenga Offo, Reuben Ugbine, Tola Wewe, Sam Ovraiti, Duke Asidere, Dominique Zinkpe, Fidelis Odogwu, Sam Ebohon, Tony Nsofor, Edosa Ogiugo, Mavua Lessor, Segun Aiyesan, Ato Arinze, Zinno Orara, Diseye Tantua, Joshua Nmesirionye, Gerry Nnubia, John Oyedemi, Joe Essien, Abraham Uyovbisere, and Gerald Chukwuma, among others

Sponsored by Pepsi, Amstel Malt, The Guardian, ITB Construction, Wazobia TV, Cool FM, La Cave, Mikano, Cobranet Internet Service Provider, Delta Airline, The Homestores and Art Café, the exhibition, according to its curator, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis, will have part of the proceeds donated to an NGO. The beneficiary charity group, she explained, would be of the choice of Ooni, Oba Ogunwusi, Ojaja II. The Fine Art Department, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, is also expected to be a beneficiary of the proceeds.

“The traveling show is to keep the memory of the legend alive,” Princess Ronke Ademiluyi, Global Ambassador, Queen Moremi Ajasoro Initiative stated. “Her story is about sacrifice of a leader to keep her people’s dignity.”

The lesson, she argued, “is to teach young people about how to be a good community leader,” as well as “promote selfless leadership.”

One of the artists, Ovraiti, explained his art’s perspective of the heroine. “I am looking at Moremi from contemporary role of women, so, women of today reflect in my painting.”

For Ovraiti, the Moremi example explains the lack of female numerical strength in certain situations. “Just as there was only one woman known as Moremi in her time, so there are few” for the exhibition too.

Arinze, a ceramist, notes, “I am showing Moremi in my work as a mother.”

Describing Moremi as ‘the real African queen’, the sculptor Odogwu says his work titled The Custodian reflects “beauty and elegance.”

Nnubia, another artist says his Victory by Fire represents Moremi’s travails during her fight against injustice. “We need to always give women chance to contribute to the society,” Nnubia harps.

Perhaps, more female artists would have been included in the exhibition, the curator said, explaining that “based on mastery of art,” focus, “only two women are included,” so far.

Ademiluyi adds: “Telling her story through the eyes of the artists bring freshness.”

Born in Offa, Moremi married Oranmiyan, and became the Oloori (Queen) to the heir of Ife and Founding Father of the Yoruba, Oduduwa.


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