Adire not mere fabric, it means so much to us – Prof. Peju Layiwola

Professor Peju Layiwola

Professor Peju Layiwola


Professor Peju Layiwola, a distinguished art historian in the Department of Creative Art, University of Lagos is not just an artist, she was born into art. Her engagement with textiles and design, which she has made to acquire deep cultural and historical significance, began with her early involvement in art workshops led by her mother Princess Elizabeth Olowu (nee Akenzua) in Benin-City.

Aside from being a distinguished academic, Layiwola has been able to unite the town and gown as well as theory and practice by virtue of the many exhibitions, lectures and workshops she has organized both locally and internationally. She has also championed the repatriation of looted art works from Western museums across the globe.

In 2019, she organized a groundbreaking solo exhibition at two venues in Lagos, Nigeria, which lifted adire, a popular local fabric beyond the ordinariness of cloth to acquire a high social significance. That exhibition inspired a major publicationPeju Layiwola’s Indigo Reimagined: Rethinking Adire in Yoruba Fashion and Textile Modernity which was presented to the public in Lagos recently. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH, she speaks about her first contact with art, her interventions in textile and design, as well as the social significance of adire, a fabric she has elevated into an art form both locally and globally. 


Could you speak about how you first had contact with art?


(Laughs) That’s a very good question. I think I have always done art because I grew up under the tutelage of my mother who is an artist. And growing up as a young girl, I was inspired by the things she did. I didn’t even know the value of what she was doing at the time. So, sometimes we would take her materials, use them the way we knew best and sometimes messed them up and she would get upset. What was interesting is that she always incorporated her children into her works of art. I would go with her to the University of Benin, where she was studying and model for her. There was a particular work she did, which is titled Acada -one of the first sculptures that came out of the University of Benin because she belonged in the pioneering set of the art school at the University of Benin in 1976 and was the first sculptor who graduated from the Benin Art school. That work was autobiographical.  As a young girl she was nicknamed ACADA, for always reading. Since I posed as a model for that work, it also represents me in a sense. So, both of us were represented in one singular piece. Though the story is hers, the features are mine.

In the 1970s she assisted the Bendel State government in conducting workshops for market women. I would assist her since I had literally learnt many of the skills she taught. She was always working. Indeed, she was a workaholic! In fact, everybody who knew her talked about that quality. So, at every step of our growing up we saw her art progress, and it was very easy for us to get into the mood of it. She never sat us down to say, ‘this is how to do this’. We saw and did it naturally, although she taught me briefly in the Federal Government Girls’ College as an art teacher So, art has always been part of my growing up.

University of Lagos art historian Prof. Peju Layiwola speaks about adire, a fabric she has elevated into an art form and her other works
Professor Peju Layiwola poses with her book, Indigo Reimagined

 Would you say your mum influenced your art?


Very much so. Growing up in the city of Benin was also inspirational. Benin was a beautiful and amazing space where there were so many artists, so many art workshops and galleries situated along the streets of Airport Road to Igun Street. It was art display and art making everywhere you looked. So, I was inspired by the prolific production of art


How did your love for adire start?


The love for textiles had always been there. I learnt the processes of batik and tie and dye from my mother. Like I earlier said, I attended her early workshops. where she demonstrated these processes of fabric designing. It was only when I moved to Ibadan after I got married in 1994 that I began to see and look at textiles in a more scholarly manner. Otherwise, I had been dyeing fabrics. I became better informed about the value of this heritage to our culture and identity. Adire is a vital part of our knowledge system. It gives insight into gender dimensions, communal living, pre, colonial and postcolonial Nigeria and the philosophical bent of the people. So, I better understand these layers of meaning attached to textiles. I began collecting vintage adire led by my husband’s interest as an avid collector of African textiles. He is even more passionate about textiles than myself. He is from Iseyin, a town very well known for traditional Aso Ofi weaving. My husband was also Director of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan and so he is well aware of the culture, the beauty of textile and other indigenous knowledge system including language and orature. He made me see and understand the beauty of this aspect of the culture. I began collecting textiles from that point and over the years expanded this in my work as someone who teaches in local communities and within the academy. Yeah, textile had always featured In my work in the clamour for the return of looted Benin art. It may have appeared concealed because the message of restitution is very strong.

It was in the 2019 exhibition that I decided to bring it on in full scale.  I wanted something very celebratory and flowery so I turned to textile.


Could you speak on that ground-breaking exhibition of 2019 that held in Lagos. How did that exhibition lead to the book, Peju Layiwola’s Indigo Reimagined: Rethinking Adire in Yoruba Fashion and Textile Modernity and what is its significance?

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That exhibition was actually a time of signing off into new explorations. I knew that people were very interested in textiles in Nigeria, but I didn’t expect the level of reaction and the discourse that it generated. I thought I had exhausted a lot on the repatriation issue. The switch to textile had an amazing response in terms of the questions that people were asking and the depth of interest that people showed. So, guests arrived at the exhibition venue not merely to view but to celebrate part of their culture on their own understanding. So even in the collection of personal textiles that I had in one of the installations, people could identify excitedly saying that their grandmothers also owned similar textiles. Textiles capture historical time. When a particular design comes out on the market, people acquire it. if you buy the particular design, everybody acquires it within that same period. So, people were like, Oh I grew up having this. My mother had this. I have this colour. So, they could relate with you. Cloth is like a second skin. And I think that because of the very presence of fabric in our lives, it’s gained a lot of currency. And it also something to celebrate. Textiles have always played a vital role within African communities and has also been incorporated into proverbs, idioms and all of that, in the importance of communal life, which is also expressed in the processes of the art itself because people talk about Eniyan ni aso mi, which, translated into English means:  People are my covering, people are my cloth.

Professor Peju Layiwola addressing guests at the unveling of her new clothing collection in collaboration with Ashluxury in Lagos
Professor Peju Layiwola addressing guests at the unveling of her new clothing collection in collaboration with Ashluxury in Lagos

Your work is also remarkable in the area of ‘return’, as it relates to Sarah Baartman and stolen artifacts. Could you speak on that?

My entire artistic oeuvre references the story of expropriation as it relates to the Benin bronzes. This is a theme I have been working on since 2003 with a French Anthropologist who requested I carry out surveys in Benin City on what it meant for these treasures that had been taken away from the Edo community. My enquiry became more intense after I visited the exhibition of looted Benin art in Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, which was a travelling exhibition that started off in Vienna, moved to Paris, Berlin and closed in Chicago. I gave a lecture that brought the two year-long exhibition to a close in the Art Institute of Chicago. I returned to Nigeria and nobody was talking about this exhibition and the works. And I felt that I needed to bring this discourse back. I think generally people had despaired from requesting for the bronzes particularly after the request in 1976 for the FESTAC mask which was turned down by Britain. I felt that an exhibition would bring this discourse back to the fore and that was exactly what happened. People started asking questions. So that was the major contribution that I made. And I began giving lectures in different parts of the world about Benin looted art and also tied it up with advocacy. The discussion was enveloped in the general context of expropriation whether of human remains that were taken, bones from Namibia, Sarah Baarthman from South Africa or artifacts.

 How has the fact that you are a Benin royal princess affected your art?

Well, people say I’m Benin because of the strong connections to the Benin Royal family and the fact that I spent my formative years in Benin city.But they also forget that I am also Yoruba. My father is from Idumagbo in Lagos State.

But you were more conversant with the Benin tradition.

Yes.  But I also do not forget my paternal lineage.  Both cultures add up to who I am today. And I think I occupy this very privileged position of being Edo and being Yoruba.

 How has that marriage of two cultures impacted you?

It’s such a beautiful thing for me because I have the opportunity of looking at these two rich cultures and having access to them, which is such a wonderful thing for me. And I think that is the beauty of my art, being able to switch and go both directions. It is not unidirectional and so it has given me a lot of materials to cast my ideas against such a rich backdrop which has helped me a lot.

University of Lagos art historian Prof. Peju Layiwola speaks about adire, a fabric she has elevated into an art form and her other works
Professor Peju Layiwola

You have been known for linking the town and gown. Could you speak on how your work has been able to link the town and gown?

I think I mentioned that in terms of the advocacy work I do working with disadvantaged populations, youths, women, which has been recognized by foreign governments and institutions including the United States. Through Master art classes, which is another teaching platform I run, we have people connecting online from everywhere in the world interested in learning about Africa’s artistic traditions through interactive sessions. Then, we also try to bring in collaborations between industries, between well-established organizations like Ashluxury with universities- to foster connections, and bringing our students to see the possibilities that exist in the creative world. Yes, I’m an academic, I write, but I also I think that all that we do as academics should impact the lives of people in our communities.

You’ve done a lot of works and trainings both within and outside the academia. Could you speak on how you have been able to impart them with your knowledge and art?

Seeing that there is a lot of poverty in Nigeria, we devised a way of passing on skills during hands-on workshops through the Women and Youth Art Foundation which I founded. Over the years it has been very cumbersome. In 1998 we created the first e-learning materials on textiles in Nigeria. this was not restricted to textiles but also beadstringing, goldsmithing, pottery etc. These DVDs went viral because they filled a gap in the educational system . But it’s been able to inspire a lot of people and we get feedback. People call and tell us that, Oh I have set up this cottage industry; I have set up this business; I have got an award here because I use your materials. And I’m grateful for that. I think that’s true development with such a huge impact.

 What are you working on now?

(Laughs) I’m always thinking up new projects. In fact, I was going to announce to the audience that this is the last project for the year. I’m very active. You heard my husband say that I’m always doing one thing or the other. Yes. I’m always busy. You see, if you grow up in Benin-City where people are hardworking and with a mother that is excessively hardworking you are bound to be hardworking as well. I think I’m doing all of these now because in the next five to 10 years, I should be resting from all my efforts. If I’m teaching people to be empowered, I should already know the gains of what I teach. I think I’m getting to the point where I can just coast (laughs).



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