Benin, Hair and a Quest For Identity
Taiye Idahor graduated from Yaba College of Technology in Lagos with a Higher National Diploma in fine arts, specialising in sculpture.
Using collage, drawing, sculpture, and mixed media, Idahor explores layers of themes at once expansive and deeply intimate, expressing identity both female and African within the broader contexts of history, tradition, memory and globalisation. In many of her works, hair is a recurring motif which carries different symbolic elements, as well as the many facets and contradictions of female identity. Across Idahor’s sculptures, drawings and collages, hair grows, blooms and transforms, creating new forms and identities. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her creative process and her forthcoming exhibition at Tyburn Gallery.
Congratulations on your forthcoming solo exhibition at Tyburn Gallery in London. Please tell us about the body of work you will be exhibiting.
‘Ivie’ in Bini language means beads, it also translates as ‘beautiful’. They are hollow portraits of Benin brides as I have taken out the bodies that wore and carried the beads. They now float in empty space like something lost and wandering, trying to find a kind of anchor to stabilise them. To me, that anchor refers to questions about womanhood—who is a woman? How do we occupy and fill this space enough to anchor us and set us within a certain place. And I think it’s a very important question we women need to consciously ask ourselves daily. It’s about adaptation to situations of family, sisterhood, marriage, motherhood and business, all of which form a core of African or in this case Nigerian culture and in a much broader sense, life.
My first and main reference in my research for the series came from the “Iyoba” title in my hometown of Benin City, Edo State specifically examining Queen Idia from whom the title originated. “Iyoba” is a title occupied only by a woman and only for the mother of the reigning King. It is a very important and respected title in Benin. As mother of the King, she is given this position of a high ranking chief of Benin with her own palace, chiefs and every other thing that comes with such a title. I was drawn to the Iyoba because at that time there was no one occupying that one position left for a woman. This empty space put me on this path and made me start to think about what it means for women to occupy positions of power and the consequences if such spaces were left void.
I look at ‘woman’ as a kind of title but wonder if we are really occupying that space as we should. Today, modern brides casually imitate the dressing and bead regalia of the Queen Mother every weekend on their wedding day. Could we also ‘imitate’ Iyoba’s character and demeanor? In summary, it questions how women choose to occupy the space of ‘woman’, trying to understand the important role we play in the world. And that is our anchor.
Can you please elaborate on your relationship with collage, drawing, sculpture and mixed media, and what roles they play in your process?
One of the things I told myself clearly in 2010 when I decided to become a full-time studio artist was that I didn’t want to be defined as a sculptor, by what I studied in school. That’s fine but sculpture is not all I want to do. After 2 years of studying sculpture for my Higher National Diploma, I wanted to try something else new, fresh, and it was collage albeit unconsciously. I also draw and gradually I’m painting in more recent work. I like this freedom and they all seem to do very well together. But that’s one aspect. The other is the collage of ideas and all the things I’m thinking about in one place; collage works for this. I get to play with these different layers of materials and techniques and at the same time, present layers of thoughts and subject matter on one surface.
You had your first solo exhibition Hairvolution in 2014 at Whitespace Gallery in Lagos. What inspired this particular body of work?
The question “Is this your hair”, which was always asked with a facial expression of confusion, surprise or disbelief if I might add, is responsible for that project Hairvolution. It was and still is a very important project for me because that period became a defining time for the rest of my works that followed after. It was a quest for identity, a search; a longing to be accepted within a place that was already mine but to find another that was also mine but wasn’t a part of and knew nothing about. The whole process opened my eyes to many things that I now explore including memory, temporality, change and death. So I would say that my curly, long hair inspired it.
What is your creative process like given that your style continues to evolve and how are you able to develop new concepts and remain relevant?
I do not consciously try to stay relevant because I don’t know how one can really do that. I will say that I am conscious about my reality and as long as my personal stories and experiences change, so will my work. Those changes will also always happen as life goes on; daily encounters, experiences and the rest. I have to be deliberately aware of those changes because what then is art? It’s an imitation of life. Art does not come from thin air, and it’s not magic. It is life taking form either as a painting, sculpture, photograph or in my case at the moment, collage. So I am the starting point of my creative process, then every other thing follows.
You have participated in biennales and festivals within Africa. What can you attribute to the increasing global interest in African art, as well as the rising phenomenon of art fairs all over the world?
I think it has everything to do with the present state of the world where people want information in any form. This is now huge business. Africa is rich in all aspects, from resources, population, culture and my favourite — stories, which is a form of information. It is what social media thrives on; Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat—all these applications are about people sharing real or fake stories and others watching them. The same goes for Nollywood, CNN and so on. Our stories in Africa are unique and because art mirrors reality, they play into our art which then becomes unique and special. People want to be a part of that.
You have joined a growing list of artists who live and work on the African continent but have developed commercial relationships with leading contemporary galleries in other parts of the world. What impact if any, have these relationships had on your stylistic development?
I have had working relationships with art institutions in other parts of the world but not on a commercial basis. My most recent commercial relationship is only new so I cannot comment on it now, maybe I can answer that in 6 months or a year when I will be able to speak from experience.
How would you describe the burgeoning art scene in Nigeria, and how do you think it compares to other more rigorous spaces like South Africa and Kenya?
I don’t think one can really compare them because they are individually distinct in their art and in the business of art. I haven’t stayed in Kenya long enough to speak, however, Nigeria is still growing in the business while South Africa seems to have a working system that benefits everyone. Presently, there’s the largest contemporary art museum in South Africa whereas we barely have a working state museum in Lagos. I think there’s much to learn from them especially from their institutions of art.
As you mentioned earlier, the burgeoning art scene in Nigeria, which is arguably a result of recent global interest in African art, is not enough to take us where we should be in the art world. For now, we just have many well meaning individuals who want good things for our art scene and try in their personal capacity to do what they can. Though the art is available, until people come together to build institutions, we would remain here and not become the power force that we could be in the world
Is there any future project you would like to share with us?
As you already know, I will be holding a solo exhibition of my ‘Ivie’ series in February of 2018 at the Tyburn Gallery in London. I also have new work in progress so it will be a very busy year, but I look forward.
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