The Yorùbá Blues – Lagos to Abẹ́òkuta

Abẹ́òkuta is about 100 kilometers from Lagos and is still is one of the major centres of àdìrẹ making. The journey should take about two hours by road except that my first trip took nearly five hours because of traffic congestion and uneven roads. I decided to make my return trip by train, leaving from Lagos Terminus, on Iddo Island, a district in Lagos Mainland. Iddo used to be an island, but following land reclamation, it’s now part of the rest of Lagos Mainland.

When I arrived at the station the engineers were still working on the train but the delay was only 30 minutes. The train was old, most definitely in need of investment, but the train and the station were clean. My fellow passengers were really friendly and helpful and actually, it was a really pleasant three-hour trip. Apart from some new seat covers the interior looked original, possibly 1950s and there was something quite romantic about its faded grandeur.

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It was so nice to take a break from the heavily congested Nigerian roads. The train passed through lots of rural villages and towns where the landscape was green and lush with palm trees, banana trees, sugar cane and bamboo. The historic stations at Kajola and Ifaw Junction were particularly beautiful. I arrived in Abẹ́òkuta just before sunset and crossed the railway track with my suitcase as instructed by the helpful station staff who even negotiated a reasonable price for my taxi to the hotel.

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Ogun State was created in 1976 with Abẹ́òkuta as its capital and largest city. The State is named after the Ogun river. The Yorùbá are the major ethnic nationality in Ogun State, comprising many subgroups including Ẹ̀gbá people. Abẹ́òkuta lies below the Olumo Rock, home to several caves and shrines. It was founded by Ẹ̀gbá people around 1830 seeking refuge from Yoruba civil wars. The name Abẹ́òkuta translates literally as the underneath the rock.

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Abẹ́òkuta is a really interesting town. Not only is it the birthplace of some famous Nigerians including former president Olusegun Obasanjo, Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti and writer Wole Soyinka but it’s also home to some magnificent Brazilian and Cuban mansions built by returning former enslaved. There’s an excellent blog post on the history of Abẹ́òkuta on Fulbright scholar Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s Travel Blog and a wonderful book called Ogun State published by Glendora Books.

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It took a few trips to build up a relationship of trust with the àdìrẹ makers and to convey to them that as an indigo dyer and textile artist I was looking to document and exchange ideas on sustainable practices rather than copy their work. As an embroiderer and indigo dyer, the stitch workshop and dye compound were my favourite spots.

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I also met the traditional àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko stencil maker and textile practitioner. His beautiful work really resonated with me, because of my first stencil àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko cloth.

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The Yorùbá Blues – Adirẹ Techniques

Yorùbá people have enjoyed a longstanding relationship with indigo dye for centuries. “The Yorubas are masters of the indigo dyeing process”. (Gillow, 2012)

Kijipa is the earliest known indigenous Yorùbá fabric, made of local hand spun cotton, woven on an upright single heddle loom or a narrow-strip double heddle loom and dyed with indigo.

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In  C19th Yorùbá towns in south-west Nigeria Oshogbo, Ibadan, Ilorin, Oyo and Abeokuta, Yorùbá women responded to newly imported European commercial woven cloth with a unique indigo dyeing technique called, àdìrẹ. Although the word literally means “that which is tied and dyed”  it is more of a generic word for the indigo dyeing process which has evolved over time and incorporates different techniques which create patterns by resisting the dye. After the pattern work is complete the fabric is immersed in the indigo dye many times to achieve the deep indigo blues prized by Yoruba people.

Àdìrẹ elejo is made by tying seeds in the cloth before dyeing.

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Adirẹ alabẹrẹ is one of the oldest forms of àdìrẹ and was originally made using hand spun and woven cloth. The cloth is folded and stitched to create a resist pattern. The early alabẹrẹ patterns were created with hand stitching with raffia to create very definite strong marks. More modern patterns are created using machine stitch which creates more subtle patterns.

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Àdìrẹ oniko is where the cloth is tied with raffia.

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Àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko comprises intricate cassava paste resist patterns applied through stencils or freehand before indigo dyeing. Stencilled àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko is said to have originated in Abeokuta and freehand àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko from Ibadan. Both were produced from original freehand drawings.

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Àdìrẹ alabela is a more recent àdìrẹ technique, where candle wax is used to create a resist.

One of the most prominent practitioners of àdìrẹ practitioners is Chief (Mrs) Nike Davies-Okundaye. Nike was brought up amidst the traditional weaving and dying practice in her native village of Ogidi-Ijumu, Kogi State, in Western Nigeria. Okundaye. Nike began weaving at the age of six and was introduced to àdìrẹ textiles, indigo dyeing, weaving, painting and embroidery by her aunt, great grandmother and grandmother, who at the time, was the leader of cloth weavers in the community. Nike has taught àdìrẹ workshops and exhibited internationally and created four art centres in Nigeria which continue to offer free training to young artists in àdìrẹ and other art forms including performing arts.

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Nike is also the owner of the largest art gallery in West Africa, Nike Art Center, based in Lekki, Lagos. Nigeria and contains over 7,000 artworks. I’ll write separate posts about the gallery and more about Nike and her own work. 

I am very grateful to Nike who generously gave me access to her amazing collection of vintage àdìrẹ textiles and spent time explaining the Yorùbá names and meanings of some of the patterns.

The ability to withstand adversity is represented in the popular ewé ẹgẹ́ (cassava leaf) motif.

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A motif like olokoto, which means circle of life reminds us that life is circular.  This references the Yorùbá believe that life does not end with death but continues in another realm or another cycle.

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A design called Èégun-ẹja meaning fish bone means “don’t bite off more than you chew”. 

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I’m on my way to Abeokuta and Ibadan, home to àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko. It will be interesting to find out if anyone still practices these techniques and uses natural indigo dye.

References

Books 

Carr, R. (ed.) (2001) Beyond Indigo: Adire Eleko Square, Patterns and Meanings. Lagos, Nigeria.

Clarke, D. (2002) The art of African textiles. United Kingdom: Grange Books.

Davies, A. (2014) Storytelling Through Adire: An Introduction to Adire Making and Pattern Meanings. Lagos : A Davies.

eds. E.P. Renne and Babatunde Agbaje-Williams (2005) Yorùbá religious textiles. Ibadan: BookBuilders.

Gillow, J. (2012) African Textiles Colour and Creativity Across a Continent. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

eds. Simmonds, D, Oyelola, P and Oke Segun (2016) Adire Cloth in Nigeria.

Websites

Adire African Textiles

British Museum

Gallery of African Art 

The Horniman Museum

Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Victoria and Albert Museum

The Yoruba

Yorùbá Birthday Greetings – Kú ọjọ́ ìbí and Ẹ kú ọjọ́ ìbí

I will post a follow up to my first Yorùbá Blues post on Monday. Today I’m enjoying birthday celebrations and sending a big thank you for all my lovely birthday greetings.

I’m spending a lot of my time around Yorùbá people, because of their history and relationship with àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko. I’m trying my best to understand, not just the language but how the language is used. My birthday greeting was given to me in two ways. The first one, “Kú ọjọ́ ìbí” by people of a similar age and the second, “Ẹ kú ọjọ́ ìbí” by people who were younger. I’m also learning the morning, afternoon and evening greetings and it’s fascinating and wonderful how respect for elders is reinforced through the language.

A big thank you to Mayowa and Yemi for helping me navigate the beauty and subtlety of Yorùbá language.

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The Yorùbá Blues – Introduction

For my 21st birthday, I treated myself to a piece of indigo dyed fabric. It has been washed too many times to count and the dye, although still strong has acquired the beautiful variegated patina of age. Years later I discovered it was a Nigerian Yorùbá indigo dyed textile using a starch resist technique called àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko. This fabric provides the initial inspiration for my indigo research and my desire to explore my personal connection with Jamaica’s indigo plantations and Yorùbá indigo textiles.

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This part of my research has been made possible through a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship under the Crafts and Makers category. The award has been made in partnership with the Heritage Crafts Association, the advocacy body for traditional crafts. The fellowship has enabled me to travel to South Western Nigeria to research Yorùbá àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko pattern making.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust is the UK’s national memorial to Winston Churchill. Each year the Trust awards Travelling Fellowship grants to UK citizens in a range of fields to enable Churchill Fellows to carry out research projects overseas. These projects are designed to exchange ideas and best practice, and build greater understanding between peoples and different cultures.

My travels start in Lagos and from there I head to Abeokuta, Ibadan, Osogbo, Ogbomosho and Olusun-Ota. I’m meeting indigo dyers, artisans and academics along the route. Please follow my Nigerian travels and keep a look out for talks and workshops when I return to the UK.

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