In this new issue of The Debrief, Foreign Agent's interview series, Wole Lagunju tells us all about storytelling, history, elegance and life in America.
One of our big enjoyments when looking at your work is the storytelling with signifiers from various cultures and histories. How do you go about the composition of your work?
My experience as a graphic designer influences my choice/s of reference images which determine a composition. I recontextualize images from the mass media such as Yoruba Gelede masks, editorial fashion, models and vintage costumes from different historical eras. Thereafter, using digital techniques, I reconfigure and resample varieties to engage at my own kind of storytelling. This involves a lot of research especially on the internet and from books and magazines on Yoruba culture
You seem to have a particular interest for some Western historical periods such as the Elizabethan age, Victorian era or Dutch golden age. If you could choose to live in one of those times which would it be and why?
In contemplating these eras and the historical structure of racism in the world, I will not choose to live in any. If one where to understand the wealth of the Western world and its gains from the trade in African humanity, then the only choice for me is to critique or lampoon these historical periods.
You work often portrays fashion - clothes, postures, accessories - the realm of elegance. How would you define elegance and why is it so central to your work?
I admire the quality and stylishness of appearance defined as elegance wherever it may be found. And also from both men and women of different cultural backgrounds. Elegance is central to my work because I adore beautification and the work of fashion designers, which I aspired to in art school. Unfortunately, all our dreams are not attainable in the way we want. My work presently is however an attainment of sorts. In my work I redefine Yoruba culture by resampling images of models of colour in fashion to reframe the image of the black male/female in contemporary African art and to challenge stereotypical assumptions of power and marginalization. Elegance is both a passion for me as an artist and an inspiration.
How do African/Yoruba notions of beauty and elegance differ from Western notions? And what do they have in common?
The concept of beauty or ‘ewa’ in Yoruba tradition and culture has metaphysical and spiritual connotations which differs from the Western belief in the physical appearance and features of an individual. However, we can see commonalities demonstrated in the classical notions of Greek classical art and Ife bronzes.
Straddling two cultures and continents, what do you miss in America from back home? And when in Nigeria what do you miss from your new home?
In America, I miss the sense of communal identity and belonging which one enjoys in Nigeria. However, as a diaspora person I have learnt to juxtapose the newer experiences of home in the United States where I now reside with home in Africa. On the other hand, what I do miss in Nigeria about the United States are the conveniences associated with making my art.
Your work often performs a critique of racism and imperialism. You live in the US. What is your take on the Black Lives Matter movement?
There have been several incidents that led to a culmination in the Black Lives Matter movement. The extra judicial killings of people of colour underscore the souring race relations in the United States and created feelings of trauma for me and other immigrants. I believe therefore that the Black Lives movement is a welcome and valid agitation to the spectre of white supremacy in the United States.
We all went through the Covid pandemic and the lockdowns. How did you experience this very unusual period?
It was surely an unprecedented time which one had never experienced before which brought about feelings of isolation. It facilitated more work hours for my studio practice and an increase in the number of paintings I produced. It was also a ground breaking period for me in economic solvency which aided my creativity.
Do you have a Gelede mask at home?
No, I do not have a Gelede mask at home. In this context, the notion of home is a duality. Home in the United States or Nigeria.
What does 2021 look like for Wole Lagunju?
2021 hopefully will be a year of consolidation. I look forward to expounding more on some of the themes I have examined in preceding years and to develop more fully my graphic and digital prints.