Saturday 24 January 2015

Aso-oke... Owolabi’s visual narratives of Africa's enduring fabric

By Tajudeen Sowole
 Painting, photography, video documentary, visual and sound installations of Tunde Owolabi for his solo art exhibition titled Aso Oke - The Woven Beauty, at Red Door Gallery, Victoria Island, Lagos stress the resilience of one of Africa's oldest native fabrics. The exhibition is arguably the most comprehensive on Aso-oke in recent times on the Lagos art space.

Aso-Oke, a portrait by Tunde Owolabi.

Indigenous to the Yoruba nation - a people spread across southwest Nigeria, part of Republic of Benin and Togo - aso oke is a cotton-woven fabric made from native textile loom and widely worn at social gatherings. It comes in awe (strips) from the looms and later pieced together according to the pattern or designs. Its origin is not exactly documented, but the popularity of the fabric, perhaps over the past 100 years or more has moved from elitist and royal use to the common people. In fact, it appears that aso-oke is the only surviving African native, perhaps ancient fabric in this part of the continent.

For Owolabi's Aso Oke The Woven Beauty, the story transcends fabric as the images exude fashion statements that are timeless yet native in content. In Yoruba fashion space, styles such as four-piece female of iro (wrapper), buba (blouse) and ipele (shawl) with the gele accessory (headgear) as well as the male agbada (robe), buba and, dansiki (baggy shirts), sokoto (trouser) and fila (cap accessory) are synonymous with aso-oke since the past century. And despite modern and contemporary fashion raves that brought imported fabrics such as lace and Dutch wax (ankara), aso-oke has remained resilient. This much a photography piece inside the immediate entrance at Red Door Gallery explains in a semi-monochrome, brown-toned portrait. In a combined oleku-styled aso-oke with lace as buba and aso-oke as gele, the brownish portrait complements the colour of the aso-oke in a composite that technically derives strength from the creative lighting. 

Processed images of portraits such as How Do I Look series and Oge emphasis the gele headdress in colour over monochrome skins of the models. Also, paintings such as Oloye Akintola, ‘To Match’, Flence and Sanyan bring onto the canvas some of the different names that the diverse textures of aso-oke fabric have been christened.

The strength of Owolabi's show lies in the documentary texture of the concept. For example, the atmospheric sound of weaving process from the wooden tools, captured as the looms replicate the ambience of a profession that has become an industry for some communities over several generations. Adding to the enactment of the loom atmosphere is a sculptural piece lifted from the site in Iseyin onto the floor at Red Door Gallery.

"Aso-oke is 100 percent Nigerian," Owolabi says to the only visitor during a chat at Red Door, a few days after the opening of the exhibition. His initial interest, he discloses, was the aso-ebi culture, which further took him to the Yoruba native female headdress fashion, gele. The gele, he says, "made me more curious and led to my research on aso-oke”. The video documentary shown on a TV screen inside the gallery explains the extensive work of Owolabi on aso-oke, as it features the main aso-oke weavers who are concentrated in Iseyin, a town in Oyo State, southwest Nigeria. 
  Owolabi motes, "The dynamism with which aso oke has evolved over time" from the native content and to the current stage. The weaving process, he adds,  "is an art that leaves no gender out of the fun and experience".

As much as aso-oke has become so popular across many other cultures outside its Yoruba origin, the threat of losing its originality have long been dismissed. For example, about 20 or more years ago, an attempt to modernise it with mass production, which came with the introduction of glittering materials was not so successful. The traditional weaving was later improved on with introduction of a wider awe. While the smaller awe is still very popular, the wider one is equally widely used for agbada and fila. In fact, the most popular fabric for couples at traditional weddings of Nigerian origin - home and in the Diaspora - is the wider awe.

 Owolabi was born in Lagos, and studied painting under the tutelage of Professor Abayomi Barber, a renowned Nigerian artist at the University of Lagos. He obtained a degree in Graphic Design from Yaba College of Technology. After his degree, Owolabi became a freelance artist, a journey that led him to develop a keen interest in photography. He went on to study photography and photo retouching at the University of the Arts, London. He worked as a designer at the research studios in London under Neville Brody, a respected English graphic designer, typographer and art director.

When Owolabi returned to Nigeria in 2009, he worked as an art director at Insight Communications, a Lagos-based advertising agency. He left advertising in 2012, to start StudioMO. He now has Tunde Owolabi Studios, and has since become a full time studio artist, specializing in photographer and designer. He has participated in group exhibitions, including Lines and Colours (2003), Inner Thoughts at Nimbus African Art Centre (2004), Working with Communities, a Guinness group exhibition (2004), and Gods of This Age at Didi Museum.

His first solo exhibition, African Elegance was at the Battersea Art Gallery, London (2009). His commissioned works can be found at the Hungarian Embassy and Nigerian Stock Exchange. AsoOke - The Woven Beauty is his second solo exhibition.  

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