From the Diaspora, politics of aso-ebi via photography
By Tajudeen Sowole
The culture of group uniform dressing known as aso-ebi has, in the past, enjoyed artistic expression, mostly in painting and sculpture by some artists. However, U.K-based photographer, Jide Alakija’s Owambe, Aso-Ebi and the Politics of Dress peeps into the resilience of this culture, at home and abroad.
|A model shot of Agbada by Jide Alakija
HELD at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Sabo, Yaba, Lagos from October 29 to November 3, 2011, the show reflected on these common images associated with extravagant social gatherings, mostly wedding and funeral ceremonies.
The theme provoked a number of issues such as the uniqueness of the aso-ebi culture, economic factor as well as identity, particularly for Nigerians in the Diaspora.
At the opening, the director of CCA, Bisi Silva explained that the exhibition was a continuation of the centre’s “ongoing curatorial and research project, which has focused on the sartorial over the past two years.”
Some of the works showed that in party setting of the U.K. and the U.S. as well as high profile weddings in Nigeria, the owambe (elaborate ceremony) and aso-ebi culture are no longer an exclusive preserve of the Yoruba.
For example, one of the images, apparently taken at a wedding abroad, showed a gathering of women in Igbo George wrapper and blouse, completed with gele (headwrap and tie), all in the aso-ebi trend.
Whether it’s in the iro (wrapper) and buba (Yoruba loose-neck blouse), complete with gele for women and the men’s regalia of buba, sokoto (trouser) and agbada (robe) with cap, “it’s a Nigerian identity, abroad,” Alakija stated. A wedding, either in the church or traditional setting, is not complete without owambe and aso-ebi, he noted.
As resilient as aso-ebi culture appears as one of the beautiful aspects of the Nigerian character, the economic cost of belonging to this identity may, however, erode its inherent cultural value, some observers have noted.
And this, it has been argued, has been part of the changes in aso-ebi over the years. From what used to be dominated by ankara, aso-oke, wools and other low-cost fabrics, taste for aso-ebi, in recent times, has gone higher, such that social gatherings, particularly, wedding, according to research findings, are being exploited by celebrants to make extra money through selling fabrics at exorbitant prizes.
But the increasing cost, Alakija argued, “has not diminished aso-ebi abroad, it’s even getting more sophisticated.” He noted that high cost is a relative term as far as belonging in this social function is concerned. Aso-oke, is almost out of reach in the aso-ebi circle because of the customised nature, hence it’s “usually worn by the celebrants only.”
|Shot from a wedding scene by Jide Alakija
Even as higher cost is redefining Aso ebi, experts in gele tying, strangely, are among the beneficiaries of commercialisation of owambe and aso-ebi. Again, Alakija’s works, which also highlighted the beauty of the headdress, in different styles, showed that it’s an essential part of aso-ebi.
For example, one of such gele experts – not featured in Alakija’s works – Hakeem Oluwasegun Olaleye, (a.k.a Segungele), a U.S.-based bridal-make – up artist who, is said to busy all year round attending to high profile weddings, charges $650 per tie of gele.
ALAKIJA who said his experience in commercial photography, particularly wedding ceremony, has taken him “across several countries in Africa,” noted that the elaborate character of Nigerian social functions is unequal.
“Kenyans and some other East Africans too also have group dressings, but not as elaborate as what we have in West Africa, particularly in Nigeria.”
And when this loudness is taken to Europe, where, in demographic term, Nigerians dominate the black community, the possibility of other Africans in the Diaspora imbibing the aso-ebi culture, Alakija said, is just a matter of time.
For such a potential culture export, perhaps, the grey areas such as high cost of the fabrics shouldn’t be emphasised but left to choice.
More importantly, the origin of aso-ebi appears to be a challenge to historians as there is no common meeting point. Costuming in some periodic Yoruba TV and theatre production set in the old Oyo Empire do suggest that aso-ebi had been in existence for years.
However, an essay, Dress and Politics in Post-World War II Abeokuta (Western Nigeria) by Judith Byfield which appears in the publication — Fashioning Africa: The power and Politics of Dress, (Indiana University Press, 2004) — edited by Jean Allman, highlights “how the Nigerian elites refused to wear Victorian-style dress introduced by the colonialists.”
The author, recalled Silva, noted that it was a form of protest as well as a commitment to their political and Yoruba cultural value.
“In another paragraph, Byfield narrates tactics of legendary activist, Mrs Funmilayo Ransome Kuti - then an emerging voice for Abeokuta Women's Union — used dress as a tool of political power and protest. To encourage a sense of belonging and communal identification as well as blur the class, educational and economic disparities of her milieu and of the market women, everyone wore the same cloth — usually adire indigo cloth — during the protest marches to the regional colonial office against the imposition of tax levies.”
Silva argued that it would be difficult to ascertain whether this could be considered the beginning of aso-ebi. She made reference to evidences that trace the popularity of this group dressing, among the Yoruba, to the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century.
ALAKIJA holds a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College, London. In 2003, he started his photography career with art and conceptual projects and later began commercial work. Owambe, Aso-Ebi and The Politics of Dress is his first solo exhibition.
Aside his work of commercial photography on social events, Alakija had exhibited in such shows as Nigerians Behind the Lens, Tafeta + Partners at Bonhams, London (2011); Reflections, British Council, Lagos; Reconstruction in Reverse, Omenka Gallery, Lagos; Making Local Governance Work (with The Orderly Society Trust) Terra Kulture and CCA Lagos (2010); Collective exhibition cycle at Camden Art Gallery, London, (2008); Words are not enough, Candid Arts trust, Islington, London (2007).