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Scarves of Rare Porcelain: Peju Alatise's Fabric Architecture.

   The orange scarf was my experience at the age of 16. I had
   gone to the prayer grounds with my parents and I wore this orange
   scarf to cover my hair and shoulders. One of the attendants
   was going to stop me from entering the prayer grounds for wearing
   a brightly colored scarf. I was told I was a distraction and God
   preferred me to be in black, grey, brown or dark blue. I was given
   a warning and a book. The book had details of punishments in
   hell for women who did not live accordingly.
                                                --Peju Alatise (1)
   People are the cloth with which I cover myself.
                                                --Yoruba proverb
   Of course, it wasn't as simple and straightforward as all
   Things rarely are. They proceeded in roundabout ways, as if
   through a labyrinth. The message came oblique, in broken
   bits, like shards of rare porcelain.
                                                --Ben Okri (2)

PERHAPS NO CONTEMPORARY AFRICANARTIST has--within the first decade of active practice--found a voice as clearand consistent, or articulated a message as monumental, as Peju Alatise.Clearly none have as seamlessly synchronized painting, sculpture, artinstallation, and architecture as she has. She occupies a commandingpresence in the constantly expanding, incrementally confounding,Africana artscape. Rooted in indigenous theocentric subjectivity anddrawing on class-sensitive radicalism, Alatise has fashioned a creativecultural practice that thrives on the gendered questions ofAfro-modernist ethos. From this creative humanism, she deploys aformidable visual language that addresses the complexity of issuescompelling her creative interests and produces a riveting matrix ofimages.

Alatise began her creative journey several years agoexploring three-dimensional illusions on two-dimensional surfaces. Nowher work is far more questioning and open, and she seems done, at leastfor now, with two-dimensional realism. In Alatise's recent work,seaming is at the forefront, and with it we see the understanding ofanatomy that a sculptor brings to the architecture of clothes. Seaming,an act of collecting and recollecting, of remembering and dismembering,is a mnemonic reference to ancient practice. Seaming, inAlatise's work, brings many things together that were once farapart in space and process.

Alatise's signaturehybridism is the tightrope that she confidently walks betweenabstraction and realism, a confluence that I have come to call"abrealism." In Alatise's abrealism, abstractionand realism couple and cohabit. The real looks abstract, and theabstract looks real. Abstraction and realism share and span the samecanvases as twins. Figurative matters merge with suggestive marks in amelange of pastiche, collage, borrowings, samplings, phrasing,and grand couture. This abrealism, this mixture of the real with a reelof filmic imagination, takes the eye to spaces never before sensed. Thecall to music, poetry, and dance is visually lilting. Washed in waves ofepic splendor often to convey transcendental effects, Alatise'sart is a landscape of clothes as people and people as clothes, in themost vivid spellings of spectacular encounters.

In her recentwork, Alatise humanizes abrealistic images with a gendered vision thattranscends racial fundamentalism. Does this mission then lead her beyondthe aesthetics of Black civil rights advocacy to a more Afro-feministspace of expression? Expanding on strategies devised by Afro-feministvisionaries, Alatise eloquently interrogates the canon and irreverentlyfractures the male mold of modern African cultural productions. Shevisually cultivates a bold body of work with indigenous spiritualvalues, elaborated with global implications and Active extensions.

While exploring an aesthetic that is both mythological andemotional, her work transgresses and walks the secular and intellectualboundaries of transatlantic Afro-feminist practices. She incorporates anempowering perspective of ancestral traditions that circumvents Westernpatriarchal assumptions while challenging Afro-modernist phallocentricimages in contemporary artistry. In her work, values from Western andAfrican cultures converge as warps and wefts, from which she produces adistinctive and brilliant fabric of humanist questing.

Conceptualizing her work within the framework of postcolonialcultural production, her investigations of artistic conventionssimultaneously engage two fronts of artistic advances. First, she ispart of a larger group of artists in the former Franglophoneintellectual colonies initiating a Fanonian discourse that transcendsthe basic resistance of Northern cultural hegemonic pretense.Franglophonic and Fanon post-colonials from the former African colonieshave focused primarily on resisting the habitual definition of Africanmodernity as derivative and subordinate to Euro-American culturalproduction. Second, Alatise's work goes beyond this framing tocontest the treatment of female experiences as a subordinate abyss. Howso?

The creative efforts of many Afro-modernist practitionershave constructed spaces of aesthetic practices where Franglophone ideasrooted in various African emotive cultures have thrived and defiedWestern subordination. Many artists identified stylistic alliances thatborrow from the figurative mimesis favored by Nigerian modernist pioneerAina Onabolu in the early years of the twentieth century. Others,including Ethiopia-born Skunder Boghossian, have built on this resistantrealism by exploring a more intuitive response that encouraged lessfigurative and more improvisational introspections, with open andabstract forms.

Radical as these two modes of ideologicalengagements sound in their confrontation of colonial provocations, thesepostcolonial encounters generate phallocentric contradictions; they alsopreserve imbibed Franglophone religious doctrines and liberal Westernsecular sentiments. The Fanonian postcolonial culture produced a globalrhetoric that has, in its essentialist mode, become itself a colonizingforce. In the former Franglophone colonies, the patriarchal values oflocal political elites have replaced the overthrown imperial voices. Theresult of this transmission of power from the colonial male to thepostcolonial masculine elites has produced new conditions and forms ofoppression reflecting the gender values and biases of the emergent maleruling elites.

Alatise does not want women to sit aroundbemoaning this fate. Rather she wants to illuminate women's workand elevate it. She recently stated,
   I am aware of the influence/bias of gender in art
   appraisal/appreciation. My work will definitely be perceived
   differently if I were a man. But I could care less about gender
   bias. There is no such thing as female Art (if there is, I am not
   aware and do not wish to be aware), so the phrase female artist is
   unusual to me. I am an artist before I am female. I learned to
   paint before I understood the consequences of being female. I
   understand my limitations when it comes to physical strength and I
   compensate in other ways. My advice to "female-artist"
is to put
   gender aside and work. There is so much work to be done, especially
   on this continent. (3) 

From this landscape ofresistance, Alatise emerges with a characteristic aesthetic that ispostracial as well as subsumed in indigenous theocentric cosmologies.Alatise's departure from Judeo-Christian, Islamic, and liberalsecular subjectivities moves her work into an Afro-surrealistic spacethat is loaded with new and palpable possibilities within emergentglobal imperatives.

In Nigeria, members of the emergent,predominantly male, postcolonial ruling class increasingly insulatethemselves with religious values transferred from Christian and Islamicdoctrines inscribing hostile attitudes to women. They simultaneouslycomplicate their positions with a tone-deaf reception of indigenousspiritual values. Their tendencies therefore systematically negatefeminist desires as well as confront and marginalize indigenousreligious positions and homegrown secular dispositions. It is this baseaesthetic image that services a repressed mentality in many postcolonialeconomies. It is also a base that Alatise transcends in her work.

Alatise's images appear free, without gravity, andunburdened with political affections. She seemingly projects the vacuityof commercial consumption, of business, and of hollow adventurism. Thisis because she critically locates her oeuvre in the realm of fantasy andplayfulness, in the landscape of childlike innocence, camouflagingwithin art for forms' sake, though her skill is highly honed,detailed, and technically convincing. Her work translates the methods ofAfro-surrealist play into an aesthetic tool that serves her probe intothe subconscious fabrics of social contradictions and conflicts. Shetactfully opens the fragile stitches of gendered seams with images thatflaunt ornamental flourishes.

To seduce the viewer withabundantly sensual and sensuous surfaces and forms, she rewards the gazewith layers of instantly gratifying spectacles. By lavishing colors,shapes, lines, contours, and tactile textures on the glutinous array ofvisual feasts that comprise her compositions, Alatise takes the audienceon a journey that transgresses the realm of usual or everydayexperiences. The patterns of her imagistic beats recall musicalarrangements in a concert: to more closely peer into the skin of herwork, she metaphorically releases the spectator from the gravity of thegallery floor. Or, sometimes, the compositions mimic the experience of asolitary reclusion in a cool meadow, serenaded by the natural songs ofbirds, chirpings of insects, and the echoes of running water against theconcave walls of pastoral grottos. She seems mired within the mirth ofmaterial pleasure and bodily adventures, with a surrendering tocorporeal aesthetics that subordinates deep intellectualengagements.

Her manipulation of textile materials betraysthe first hint of the seriousness of her primary creative agenda.Textile, an item that is commonly available in the local market, is hermedium of choice. Fabrics of different types stretch, fold, rise, fall,and regale her compositions in varying dimensions. Some of thesetextiles retain the loose qualities of fabric constructions. She usuallymediates these fabrics with other materials, including paint, dyes,glues, epoxies, and plasters, exploring and exploiting their pliablepossibilities and properties.

As the fabrics sustain adialogue with other materials, the viewer receives the hint thatAlatise's work is neither vacuous nor a soliloquy. She isinitiating a dialogue in which the language is disciplined withintextile wefts and warps. Her insistent voice elegantly reads aloud thedifficult subjects of her mission while at the same time casting therole of the player writing a message with a variety of casts.

A theater of tragic proportion opens up inside each piece, thepurpose of which is not to resolve but to complicate and elaborate onthe inherent social contradictions and decay of modern culture. Thecharacters emerge one by one, or several at the same time, deliver theirlines, and exit the curtain into the fabric of the textiles. The colorsbecome a musical cast and the lines are lyrical accompaniments thatenergize and humanize the texts. The textures bring the works alive, andthe folds, curves, and pleats imbue them with three-dimensionalanatomies that inject credibility into the scenery. Suddenly, thefantasy turns around and returns the viewer into reality, where lifeitself is the drama that plays out the conditions of dailyexperiences.

Like the Egungun performance of her indigenousYoruba culture, textiles both conceal and reveal what they cover. Withher investment in gendered surrealism, Alatise recasts the role oftextiles in contemporary art, providing alternative texts for readingwomen in African cultural production. Her decision to use textiles as amedium reinvents a subordinated mode of expression in the process ofhighlighting, discussing, and subverting the secondary roles consignedto women in contemporary Africa. Both material and method seek tosynchronize her technical effort with emotive affect within herwork.

Using textiles as a subversive and gendered material isnot new. In the 1980s, the African American artist Faith Ringgold beganto produce a body of work using acrylic and oil paints on textiles. Oneof her most important pieces is titled Sunflower Quilting Beesin Arles. A feminist critique of the patriarchal location of painting as anartistic practice, the work also explores the tragedy inherent in thefabrication of high art as a solitary occupation. Predicated on thetragic drama of the suicide of the mad master, Vincent van Gogh,Ringgold juxtaposes the aesthetics of group art--located inquilting--against canvas painting established in high art praxis ofgallery painting on stretched canvas. Using textiles, with their looseand supple qualities, as the medium that questions traditional high artmaterials of stretched taut canvas with oil colors, Ringgold succeeds ininterrogating the metaphor of the "master." Where the term"master" also implicates the relationship between theenslaved and the owner, Ringgold uses the medium of textiles to confrontthe gendered hierarchy conventionally inscribed in the practice ofpainting.

Ringgold therefore paves the way for other blackwomen artists to subvert patriarchy and race in their compositions.Notable in this practice is Emma Amos, whose 1994 mixed media workWork Suit, which is based on the self-portrait of one of the avowed masters ofcontemporary figurative art, Lucien Freud. The piece features a nakedking, where the reversal of the nude female model transposes theintegrity of the fully attired master in the empire of his studio. Withher symbolic decapitation and castration of the master of the art world,Amos takes on the task also of symbolic matricide, as she steps over themistress of the canon who, perhaps a victim of domestic violence, liesnaked on the studio floor. The use of the postimpressionist palette ofMatisse and the Odalisque theme of the reclining nude white woman lyingprostrate under Amos's feet elaborate on the sub-texts ofOrientalist fantasies in the Franglophone pictorial imaginary.

At first glance, both Ringgold and Amos seem to practice in anAfro-modernist context, using a loosely defined black aesthetic thatpeaked during the Black civil rights era. The notion of doubleconsciousness that united the Afro-Franglophone cultural production inthe transatlantic traditions guided the spirit of the Black Powermovement of the 1960s, within which Ringgold and Amos matured andcultivated their artistic productions. Double consciousness, however,soon proved inadequate as a theoretical framework to project the voiceor contain the fury and pictures of black women who began to readadditional layers of sexism and sexualities into their creative work. AsDeborah White notes, multiple consciousness better described theexperience of black women in the United States, with its multiplicity ofpressures in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and class, from withinand outside the black experience. It became inadequate to expect a blackwoman artist to operate within a monolithic black aesthetic milieu. Theblack female artist is not simply black, nor simply woman, and her workis only intelligible within the complex polyrhythmic dimensions thatorchestrate her world.

This gendered and racialized globalconsciousness is the pool from which Alatise draws, albeit in herindividual context. It is a context that is immensely complicated by thepostcolonial experiences of Franglophone Africa. Members of thepolitical class, after inheriting the rulership of the specially carvedAfrican nations, also imbibe the privileges accompanying thesepositions. The failure of Franglophone political structures has birthedexploitative attitudes among emergent rulers of Africa and invested aculture of corruption, unbridled fraud, nepotism, and crassinefficiency. The emergence of the military through coups andcountercoups in the politics of Africa has exacerbated alreadydeplorable conditions. To further complicate this landscape ofcorruption, the new African rulers have upheld and reinforced thepatriarchal values that colonial regimes entrenched in the days beforeindependence. These patriarchs justify their rule and their subjugationof women using religious texts in the Bible and the Koran to prove thatwomen are subordinate to men and could not, therefore, enjoy similarliberties and opportunities.

Within this climate, Alatise wasborn in independent Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa and thecountry with some of the most valuable natural resources in thecontinent. She trained to be an artist in a country with only a fewwomen artists and in a society that does not encourage women to bepolitical leaders in the era of independence. Unlike in some parts ofAfrica, no Nigerian woman has become the nation's president oreven enjoyed the position of a state governor. Men dominate theexecutive, legislative, and administrative positions in Africa, with afew women given token authorities after proving their loyalty to andsupport for the patriarchal values entrenched in the fabrics of thenational identity.

As found in the constitutions of severalAfrican countries, the Nigerian legislation provides for the suffrage ofwomen without guaranteeing them the protection necessary for theperformance of this essential national obligation, UNICEF has determinedthat women in the northern parts of Nigeria are among the most ravagedby illiteracy in the world. The south of the country fares a littlebetter, although the education of women is less valued over their malecounterparts, and parents often inculcate a culture of submissivenessinto their female children to ensure that they are marriageable.Domestic violence is not discouraged in the Nigerian legal system, andit is frequently employed as a necessary tool for ensuring the obedienceof wives. The Nigerian legislation regards the wife as subject to thecorporal discipline of her husband. The judiciary and the police are notallowed to prosecute or punish husbands who violently assault theirwives as disciplinary measures. Many African countries have laws thatsupport wife abuse. In the Nigerian legal system, Section 55 (1) (d) ofthe Penal Code stipulates, "Nothing is an offence, which does notamount to the infliction of grievous harm upon any person and which isdone by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife. Such husbandand wife being subject to any natural law or custom in which suchcorrection is recognized as lawful."

Similarly, theNigerian legislature recently enacted laws against the practice ofhomosexuality, castigating it as immoral, corrupt, and againsttraditional values in the country. Unlike in South Africa, whichrecognizes gay rights and which even supports gay marriages, Nigeriaimposes a punishment that includes up to fourteen years of jail for gaycouples and ten years of imprisonment for anyone who assists them. Thepresident of the Nigerian senate, David Mark, declared he was aware thatthe law was contrary to international norms, but that he was notdeterred. "Anybody can write to us, but our values are ourvalues," he has said. "If there is any country that doesnot want to give us aid or assistance just because we hold on veryfirmly to our values, that country can [keep] their assistance. Nocountry has a right to interfere in the way we make our ownlaws." (4)

That this black-on-black cultural violenceand home-nurtured and legalized abuse has become the norm in Nigeriaindicates the difficult snares within which a host of African women aretrapped. Alatise proposes her art as a key to unlocking the trap and asan Underground Railroad from this dungeon. In contemporary Nigerianvisual cultural terms, Alatise performs dual symbolic roles. In hergendered work, she combines the role of a contemporary Sojourner Truthand Harriet Tubman, in a tradition of courageous black women committedto humanistic values. She is the Moremi of lie Ife, together withFunmlayo Ransome Kuti, Fela's mother.

Alatise isprivileged, the daughter of a lawyer who shares her enthusiasm forwomen's issues. Her mother's legal profession has led to aseat on the judiciary, a vocation where many educated Nigerian women aremaking a difference in their interpretation of the patriarchal legalsystem, as judges, to provide some form of protection to vulnerablewomen. "My Mother is a retired Magistrate," Alatiseremarks. "She went back to study law in the university at aboutthe same time as I was enrolled into architecture." (5)

Although court judges areeconomically within the middle class in Nigeria, they hold enormoussocial power beyond the limits of their financial resources. Alatisetherefore grew up with the understanding that women could beintellectually and creatively resourceful, without wielding overwhelmingmonetary powers. As part of her training in materials as an architect,she understands the power of each and every material. She learned thatjudicial and intellectual authority, when disbursed toward humanisticpursuits, outweighs the power emanating from affluence. With herproduction of powerful and energetic pieces, Alatise confronts thecontradictions of the cultures that result in the stereotyping andsubjugation of women as weak, infantile, and docile.

Alatise's experience of religious censorship at sixteen,when she was rebuked for wearing an orange scarf to church, is anexample of a brush against the puritanism and hypocrisy underlying andquestioning theological assumptions and stereotypes about women. Ratherthan accepting the limitations that the church, mosque, and otherreligions place on women, she uses art as a means of launching adialogue, generating a debate to explore opportunities for negotiations,highlighting the contradiction. Art becomes her proboscis for exploringreligious assumptions. Religious bigotry has not stultified her growth;it has sustained her development since her encounter at the church inher teenage years:
   It was my first internal dispute with the god of a religion that
   bear a grudge against a minor for wearing an orange scarf to his
   grounds. I have done several paintings with the title "Orange
Scarf." It
   is a silent rebellion for me that the art permits. (6)

The tradition of rebellion is crucial topostcolonial art, as an element of humanism. Looking back to those earlyformative years, Alatise remarks that,
   I have always been a religiously alert person. But that has never
   me from questioning the obvious contradictions and hypocrisy within
   societies. I started at a very young age to question the society
   me about the status and conditions of the girl-child and women--to
   deep questions about my own role in the context of a patriarchally
   constricted world. Even without radical expressionism, I am bemused
   the typical response-accusations of feminism and abandonment of
   tradition. (7) 

Celebrating life in multipledimensions, the Yoruba culture into which she was born attributes todeath the humble role of a vehicle from one realm to another. With fourhundred and one divinities, many of which are female, Yoruba culturefeeds Alatise with a rich indigenous menu of mythological parables,songs, choreography, mythographies, legends, lore, and performances. TheYoruba female divinities are powerful sources that reinforce herconviction in the role of women as sustaining and leading theadvancement of culture. She draws freely on the empowering core of thesefemale divinities in her daily life. Especially partial to waterdivinities, Alatise idealizes Oshun, Yemoja, and Olokun as ancestralpools of knowledge and support for her cultural production. Oshogbo, theYoruba city within which the shrine for the celebration of Oshun islocated, is the city of her adoption. It is also a city that hasnurtured many important women artists, notably the Austrian-born SuzanneWenger, the British Georgina Beier, and clearly one of the mostimportant figures in contemporary Nigerian art history, Nike DaviesOkundaye.

The range of Alatise's work is robustlywide, and the allusions include African, diaspora, Western, and Asiancharacters, such as Yinka Shonibare, Jane Alexander, and ManfredKielnhofer. Her awareness of international practices lends her work thecharacter of a dialogue across vast times and spaces, ancient andcontemporary cultures.

Alatise sources many of her subjectsfrom daily political events and news, as in her textile labyrinth titledNine Year Old Bride, produced in reference to an international scandal involving Nigeria andEgypt at its center. There was a child-bride case involving a Nigeriansenator and a twelve-year-old girl from a political family in Egypt.While international laws frown upon child-brides, competing localprovisos may be evoked to override such international agreements thatprotect children or women from sexual exploitation.

It isalong a labyrinth of clothes that we walk with Alatise. Her work is aperformed art, an anatomy of the danced human figure. It is sometimes acavernous volume, without the body holding the garment: when the garmentwears the body, and there is neither garment nor body. Whether she ishandling a repeating theme, such as the orange scarf, or cooking up anew line of thought, Alatise experiments with and transforms myriadmaterials and arrangements, endlessly leaving room for a wider, moreplayful, meaningful, and stimulating departure into openness. Broken andsometimes tender, her arrangements may bear the vast sweep of classicalmusic and Greco-Roman seaweeds and detritus. At other points, theyappear as fragile and intractable as the personal voice of the Yorubatalking drum, frail with the turbulences holding together the real livesof humans. They are in the processes of becoming, of evolving. They areluminous glimpses of Ben Okri's Arcadia, as ancient porcelains still being caught in the sun and rain,immaculate stone in luxuriant flaunt, infinite promise, lofty inthought, elegant in fruition, soaring in gait and even keeled.Alatise's hand remains sure and sapient. Yet her gaze, in itsdivine and intellectual burn, is a fathomlessly opaque, inscrutable, andterrifically imploding labyrinth of fabrics.

In AsoIbora, which means "body wrapper," Alatise softly casts thefemale figure in brightly colored textiles. In what has now become asuite of coherent work, the alchemist transforms woven cotton threadsinto spun golden porcelain. The author is performing the model drawingon her own body in a delightful way that combines the spontaneity ofabstraction with the specificity of realism. This performance enablesAlatise to turn textiles into malleable marble and steel, as she shapesinspired images and dreams from the local grinds of daily reality. Herorange scarf is poised on its way to heaven. Her messages, in fragmentedrefrains, are, as in Ben Okri's novel InArcadia, "oblique, in broken bits, like shards of rare porcelain."(8)

(1.) Peju Alatise, quoted in "Greater Virtues:Peju Alatise on Women, Art and Real Freedom," LiveUnchained, October 31, 2011,

(2.) Ben Okri, In Arcadia (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003), 5.

(3.) Comment byPeju Alatise, Moyo Okedeji, "Facebook to Facebook Talk,"April 15, 2012,

(4.) Senate President David Mark, quoted in JonGambrell, "Nigeria Anti-Gay Marriage Bill Approved BySenate," Huffington Post, November 29, 2011, n_1118866.html.

(5.) Comment by PejuAlatise, in "Peju Alatise: Facebook to Facebook Talk," inFace-to-Facebook Artist Talk series, organized by the University ofAfrican Art, April 15, 2012,

(6.) Alatise, quoted in"Greater Virtues."

(7.) Peju Alatise,"WRAPTURE: a Story of Cloth," artist webpage of GalerieBenedict, May 2014,

(8.) Okri, In Arcadia.
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Author:Okediji, Moyo
Publication:Feminist Studies
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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