We first encountered the artist Wolé Lagunju in 2020 and instantly became enamored by his vibrant body of work.
This marked the beginning of a collaboration three years in the making.
We sat down with Wolé to discuss his artistic practice, his influences and upbringing, and the shirts we made together...
"The Yorubas have a saying, ‘Oju Ona’, which can be translated as the ‘eye for design’, a vital element of traditional Yoruba art and culture, a lynchpin for my artistic practice in contemporary African art."
-Wolé Lagunju (excerpts from our interview, April 2023)
Perhaps it is 'Oja Una' that explains the sheer charisma of Wolé's paintings. Wolé has a unique ability to combine seemingly disparate elements to create a fashionable and energizing whole. The result is works with a magnetic allure from first glance. When we spent more time with them, we began to appreciate the weighty purpose underpinning the buoyant and colorful paintings. Wolé is thoughtful and bold in the ways he challenges notions of culture and identity.
We practically begged him to collaborate with us over a lockdown Zoom call in the summer of 2020. We were so excited when he agreed to work with us to create two limited edition shirts.
Wolé is known for large-scale paintings in which he blends Western and Yoruba iconography. For instance, Wolé will combine 18th century Elizabethan portraits of aristocrats in bodices with Gelede masks traditionally worn during celebratory Yoruba festivals. In other cases, he will juxtapose elements sampled from a European fashion magazine with traditional adiré batik fabric designs. In doing so, he reframes our perspectives on historical narratives and social hierarchies.
Collaborating on the design of shirts was a natural extension of Wolé’s ongoing interest in fashion as cultural artifacts to reframe. We enjoyed working with Wolé to adapt his striking work into two shirts.
Wolé’s effortless interplay of seemingly disparate elements should come as no surprise knowing that vibrant colors and intricate patterns held a prominent place in Wolé’s life from an early age.
He grew up in Osogbo, Nigeria– a town known for its traditional textiles and indigo dyeing techniques– where his grandmother worked as an adiré fabric and bead merchant. Her experience would plant seeds of inspiration for her grandson's work as an artist... Wolé recalls:
"During my early childhood, I remember [my grandmother] regaling the family with folk tales about the lexicon and iconography on the adiré fabrics that she sold. The tales of her experiences in the Yoruba market sharpened my visual and design orientation particularly in dreaming about how I could use adiré in my art, to bring the Intriguing characters in her stories to life."
In addition to its rich history of textile traditions, Osogbo is also known for the famed Osogbo Art Movement, which blossomed in the 1960s. Wolé described the movement he witnessed emerging:
"The Osogbo artists were a lively and colorful group of people and interestingly, my father’s pharmacy was part of the building which housed the only gallery in town... the artists would congregate to banter... to have art workshops or loiter over drinking, smoking, playing checkers...
It was fertile ground of inspiration for a young Wolé. He recalls the vibrancy of the movement and the lessons he drew from this community of artists:
"While drawing or painting, they also entertained the onlookers or the idlers around them with tales of specters, ghouls or otherworldly beings that they perceived in dreams of the night or extra-terrestrial visitations of the gods and goddesses of the Yoruba pantheon, which they strove to depict in their art. Since most of these artists also doubled as theater practitioners with the popular Duro Ladipo theater, the mise en scene occasionally erupted into loud staccato drumming, vigorous dancing with masquerades or egungun and vociferous chanting of an individual’s self adulating panegyrics.
"It was indeed a spectacle of entertainment and art and I was privileged to have received art lessons and mentorship from some of the artists."