Embroidery in native-woven African clothing predates European imported fabric such as the lace brands. However, the aso ebi culture, more than other factors, has promoted over 50 years of Austrian-made lace in Nigeria and strengthened the people’s fashion exuberance, so suggests a tour photography and installation titled African Lace, A History of Trade, Creativity and Fashion in Nigeria
JOINTLY organised by Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Austria, the exhibition, which took off in Vienna and currently showing at National Museum, Onikan Lagos, for the next three months, is expected to move to Ibadan later in the year.
|works on display during the exhibition in Lagos|
The exhibition also revisits Austrian-made embroidered fabrics’ entry, popularity in Nigeria as well as the politics involved in the economics of this transatlantic trades.
Social anthropological evidences – via several photographs as old as a century or more seen over the decades – seems to suggest that the native Yoruba woven fabrics known as aso oke were the natural choice in aso ebi before the advent of imported fabrics. Apparently, lack of mechanising of these native fabrics and the inability to meet the mass demand of the aso ebi phenomenon, particularly from the period towards the independence of Nigeria, gradually gave rise to the demand for imported fabrics such as lace. Perhaps the beauty of aso oke is the native hand woven and customised characteristics. However, whatever the embroideries such brands as sanya, alari and others in the aso oke family had, these imported lace fabrics attempted to equal.
Works of Ojeikere such as Man and Wife From Ishan, Lagos (1956); Wedding of Mr and Mrs Uzi, Benin City (1960); Adegorioye’s Wedding (1964), explained the gradual rise of the imported fabrics in the aso ebi circle.
The curators of the exhibition, Austrian Barbara Plankensteiner and Director of Museums, NCMM, Nath Mayo Adediran, in their separate speeches at the opening explained the focus of the event. Adediran’s caution that the show should not be seen as promoting lace, but adding value to memory, “an attempt to build capacity and effect change,” underscored the place of museum within this context. However, given the volume transactions involved in the lace business between Nigeria and countries such as Austria, China, Korea in the past decades, observers have been questioning the economic value of this expensive culture.
Although there has been an increase in cost of aso ebi, particularly for wedding occasions, the resilience of this unique culture of social gatherings and celebration continues. Glittering large format of Opara’s works shot last year in Lagos at weddings showed that grumblings against the rising cost would not stop the aso ebi maniac. While some of the pictures showed gatherings of identical dressings in geles (head ties) and mere similarity in colours for the buba (blouse) and iro (wraparound), others still maintain the complete aso ebi outfits.
For the NCMM, it’s Director-General, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman’s explanation that the show “offers insight into the society life and vibrant fashion scene of Nigeria, especially the southwest,” captured the responsibility of the government in documenting and promoting culture. The value of the lace and aso ebi synergy, he added includes “creativity, opulence, and joy of social gatherings and group celebration in Nigeria.”
Indeed, African Lace, A History of Trade, Creativity and Fashion in Nigeria is a balance visual narrative on Nigeria’s journey through the mills of embroidery: images of four-piece aso oke for male and female as well as traditional male gowns of Hausa origins on display indicated that the modern and contemporary fashion of the people are deeply indigenised.
In a highly sensitive art and culture environment such as Nigeria’s, it won’t be surprising if purists’ reactions, in the days ahead, throw the exhibition into shades of controversy. For example, the show could be seen as promoting the Austrian brands of lace, as a text at the immediate entrance of the National Museum’s art gallery informed that cheaper fabrics from China, India, Korea and India have led to the decline in demand of European brands. The Austrian products, it added, remains the better fabrics.
If such and similar issues on the role of museum arises, Adediran’s remark would have provided an answer. He stated that the materials and images of this exhibition “are products for contemplation and reflection, which offers us a rare opportunity to engage the present to question the past.” He noted that through the decades, the fashion scene has added to the indigenous art and literary languages. “Authors and writers did not spare words for it, even our own Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka wrote on Wonyosi (a brand of lace).” The history, he warned, “is the message of the exhibition and not the trade.”