Saturday 24 May 2014

Tokunbo Pores…Exposing culture imbalance in African lace

By Tajudeen Sowole
Still exploring fabrics of ancient, modern and contemporary periods, in visual context, Victoria Udondian just exposed the undercurrents of the African lace identity via the art space of Switzerland.

One of Victoria Udondian’s works from Tokunbo Pores in Switzerland.

Udondian who was on a two-months residency in the Scandinavian country's Villa Atrauli City has probed into the forces of creativity and trade behind the so-called African lace. In fact, she had a solo exhibition titled Tokunbo Pores, which marked the end of her visit.

African lace as a crucial part of contemporary fashion in Nigeria is not new to a country like Switzerland - where some of the lace fabrics are imported into Africa. However, Udondian's Tokunbo Pores appeared to have inspired quite some knowledge exchanges, regarding the unknown social factors and trade secrets behind the lace phenomenon.                           

The theme of the exhibition was inspired by the origin of the lace fabric and the peculiar holes or perforations characteristics, Udondian explained shortly on her return from the residency. "Tokunbo means from the overseas,” she informed her Swiss audience. “And the pores are among the common features of lace fabrics "

One would recall that clothing in lace fabrics has been christened all sorts of names in southwest Nigeria where it is mostly worn. For example, when the perforations are wider, one of such names given to the lace fabric is Olowo rin ihoriwo (the wealthy walks naked). In the 1960s through the early 1970s when lace was associated with class statement and was very expensive, few people could afford it. And despite being given a bad name after it was made more popular by a notorious, but executed armed robbery kingpin, Folorunsho Babatunde who wore constantly during his trial, lace’s popularity continued its ascendancy till date.

For Udondian, her visits to the factories in Switzerland and Austria where some of the imported lace fabrics were produced was an important part of her "curiousity" into the nearly half a century old lace culture and trade.  Her visits, specifically, included factories in Lustenau, Austria and St. Gallen, Switzerland where the embroidered textiles are produced, largely for the Nigerian markets "My first trip was to HOH Hoferhecht Stickereien Lustenau, and Claudio La Cioppa, the General Manager was very pleasant, taking me round the factory and introducing me to the different departments and their processes.”

Her interaction with the manufacturers as well as her thoughts on the popularity of the lace fabrics among Nigerians informs the concept of the exhibition. One of the works, a near floor to roof installation, stresses the aesthetics of the perforations or pores in the lace fabrics just as the designs are of African origin. And if the fabrics have been borrowed by Africans, it was perhaps expected that the dealers would have used the trade opportunity to promote their African origins by asking the manufacturers to add native designs and motifs. Truly, the Nigerian merchants’ choices, according to Udondian, influence the designs of the imported lace. But such choices, she added, are surprisingly and consciously foreign. 

“I was told that the designs are developed between the Nigerian merchants and the company design team, and that the Nigerians don't buy designs with African patterns and icons,. hence deigns are inspired by global patterns and themes,” the artist disclosed. The manufacturers’ experimentation with African designs had failed, Udondian noted. “They tried once to create African patterns and the 'lace' never sold,” she was told. 

However, Udondian thought differently by building African contents into her work. From an assistance of “a box of textiles” given to her by the factories, she “transformed the textile pieces and introduced African icons.'' And more importantly, the weaving technique she applied is celebrates African culture of traditional “textile making dates back to 15th century.”  And the motifs or icons in the work, she explained, are “inspired by nsibidi ancient signs and writing, combined with Swiss magazine designs and content.” The concept, Udonsisan said was aimed at “broadening the content of this textile pieces.” 
During Udondian’s residency and exhibition in Switzerland…recently

An exhibition on African lace would be incomplete without fashion contents that popularized the identity. This is perhaps where the lace manufacturers have no influence as the native contents are unavoidably visible. From the native designs such as the male agbada, buba and sokoto, Udondian “created 'paper lace.”  

Udondian’s research on fabrics, particularly of African origin spans over four years across Africa and Europe. She has exhibited some of her works created in visual fabric context in the U.K, Italy and South Africa.  At an Open Studio in Lagos, last year, she shared her experience with artists and art enthusiasts.

In 2011, Udondian was one of two artists selected from 145 young Africans who applied for Venice, Italy-based residency Art Enclosures. A South African, Tamilyn Young was the other beneficiary.

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