College of Visual and Performing Arts

Wole Lagunju: The Journey to Artistic Expression


By Liz Connor (’15)

There is a new, emerging diaspora of African artists making strong impressions on the art world of Western culture. On September 22nd, the JMU community had the privilege of hearing Nigerian artist Wole Lagunju speak about his exhibition on display in the Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art. The exhibition is a series of paintings that blend the Victorian Era and pop culture with Nigerian Yoruba Gelede masks to create archetypal depictions that reflect ideas of identity, gender and power.

Lagunju grew up in an actively artistic community in Nigeria where he was inspired to pursue art. He received a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts from Obafemi Awolowo University. After working as a journalist in Germany, he began to explore his creativity through painting and drawing. In 2006, UCLA recognized Lagunju’s talent, and awarded him a fellowship in art. He saw opportunities to thrive as an artist in America, so he decided to settle in North Carolina. His journey as an artist in a new country was not easy, yet through his struggle, he found a haven in Western art where his work was widely accepted.

Lagunju hid the themes of blending Western with African culture while in Nigeria for fear of rejection. He found the Western audience was more accepting of his intellectual discourse. In his works, he combines models from the Victorian Age and Dutch Golden Age with masks from Yoruba Gelede. In the Yoruba tribe, Gelede is a dance men perform in celebration of women’s societal values, like motherhood. He fused cultures and reinvented the idea of women in Western culture in the context of Yoruba Gelede masks. He also used American social icons from the ‘50s and ‘60s as a symbolization of the civil rights movement and rise of feminism. He focuses on women in this exhibition because he believes that women in his native culture, as well in Western culture, should have an elevated societal value.  He wanted to bring attention to imperialistic cultural ideals and women’s roles in society.

Lagunju felt comfortable to create without restriction in America, although he did have some hesitation. He was worried that people may reject his art because he combined the Caucasian skin of the models with the darker complexions in the faces and the masks. He did not want audiences to think that he was patronizing races. Well into his series of paintings, he heard a song by Pharrell Williams titled “Marilyn Monroe.” He saw how the vocal artist was able to combine historical women figures with modern hip-hop music, crossing cultural boundaries. This song reassured him that his work was not in vein and his message would not be lost in Western culture.

He began the series painting pop culture figure and then explored the realm of Dutch Golden Age and Victorian Age figures. With each painting, he was inspired to paint more. The collection is still growing as he continues to work and develop his message. He was hesitant to reveal his artistic process, but did express that each piece requires roughly eight weeks to complete. His background stemming from a strong artistic community drives his creativity. Lagunju expressed his passion for art professing, “I am concerned with the power of images and their influence on the future.”

Wole Lagunju’s exhibition is display in the Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art through October 10th.

(Interview courtesy of Davion Birdsong.)

Published: Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Last Updated: Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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