In Cut from the Same Cloth, Wole Lagunju extends his long-term interrogation of the concept of Iyami. Described by the artist as the basis of Yoruba culture and a primary theme of his work, Iyami literally translates as “my mother” and refers to womanhood – a kind of essential femininity – more broadly. Drawing on a pre-colonial social structure and often symbolically associated with birds, Iyami figures femininity as institution, unifying the collective by evoking the origins of life on earth.
While Iyami draws on something shared, a source of life for everything that exists, it views chaos as an inherent aspect of that creation. In this realm, where all possibilities are available and all living beings are connected, power and unification are balanced by caution and danger. With self-regulation at its heart, Iyami is as central to matriarchy as it is directly opposed to patriarchy; in Cut from the Same Cloth, Lagunju sought to iterate this dynamic. Beginning with a central diptych, Chronicles of the Past, Present and Future (2022), the artist merged contemporary Yoruba fashion with symbols from Iyami’s philosophical landscape; with the remaining portion of canvas, he developed a series based on the more transcendental dimensions of Iyami.
Among the numerous icons portrayed here, Lagunju’s combs merit particular attention: known as Oya, they hold a special place in Yoruba culture. With each design denoting a particular meaning, the styles themselves have been maintained throughout the African Diaspora. Besides the Oya, much of Lagunju’s imagery is drawn from Gelede, festivals of Yoruba male devotion to female power. Gelede masks – worn by men during masquerades – are divided into two parts: the lower usually depicting a woman’s face, and the upper representing a power struggle within Iyami’s metaphysical domain.
Often including representation of animals like snakes and birds, some contemporary masks also feature renderings of modern devices that impact daily life; always, a strong narrative about the struggle for power permeates the design. Believed to influence human action as well as natural forces over the social realm, one of the names for this concentrated energy is Aye. Translating to “earth”, and sometimes “humanity”, Aye is understood to be an explicitly female phenomenon; in addressing it, the artist questions not only patriarchy but also our relationship to the planet – both as an ecosystem and as subject to Western society’s structure of power. By applying Iyami to contemporary art, Lagunju reclaims the powerful position occupied by such concepts before the worldwide spread of European hegemony.
It is a mistake to restrain the idea of Iyami – as a female force, connected to nature and responsible for moderating societal morals – to its Yoruba context. Before medieval times, boundaries based on nations and countries didn’t exist: at least, not in the way we understand them today. As such, it’s no surprise that concepts like Iyami can be observed across diverse times and places. According to Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop in his 1974 publication The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, Ancient Egyptian culture migrated both north and south of it place of origin, taking on diverse manifestations in each place. Symbolism associated with the goddess Maat, for instance – a female figure equipped with protective bird wings – illustrates a connection between supernatural power and bird imagery, echoed in Lagunju’s depictions of the Yoruba female force.
Questioning plays for power as well as the structures that sustain them, the worldview underpinning Cut From the Same Cloth rejects moral dichotomies in favour of the belief that a single force can produce good or evil outcomes depending on the collective values with which it is applied. Leveraging that theory of collectivity – encircling all living beings and the planet itself – Lagunju dissolves barriers between `local’ and ‘global’. By reclaiming legacies of Yoruba iconography in service of an explicitly ‘contemporary’ practice, the artist’s rejection of a Western perspective is an ethical decision as much as an aesthetic one. Unifying a perception of the world that is shattered, refracted, in Western epistemology, Lagunju’s Iyami gestures instead to a mutual responsibility pivotal to matriarchal structures.
Representing elements of abstracted femininity, the iconography of Gelede masks blur rather than underscore gender binaries. In their public function as part of ritual masquerade, male performers are encouraged to channel female energy and be reintegrated into a power structure that places it near its apex. In Yoruba culture, the king’s power is understood to come from the Iyamis; think of chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti who, after establishing Abeokuta Women’s Union in 1948, led marches and protests of up to 10,000 women forcing Alake (then-king of Ogun State) to abdicate. The dynamic between Cut From the Same Cloth’s central diptych and its smaller works is strongly connected to the idea of Iyami in its literal sense of motherhood, parent and child; throughout the exhibition, Lagunju’s tableaus nod either directly to feminine power or to a man in relation to a more transcendental dimension.
As Achille Mbembe explains in his book Out of the Dark Night: Essays on decolonization (2021), the aim of the anti-colonialist movement and decolonisation itself is to open up the world in search of new ways to inhabit it, belong to it, inherit it and create it. By integrating philosophies long silenced by patriarchal and colonial powers, Lagunju’s individual practice furthers the collective work of resurrecting a broader notion of nothing less than being human. Considering visual art’s long history of depicting one group of people enjoying privileges at the expense of others, Lagunju’s integration of Iyami serves not only its Yoruba heritage but a universal imperative too.
In the wake of a crumbling Western hegemony and its myriad crises – sexism, ecological collapse, racial tension – Lagunju’s Cut From the Same Cloth unfurls new possibilities, re-imagining humankind as a community rather than a host of disparate individuals. From the world’s largest social structures to those who turn their wheels, the memory of a female origin for life is ushered into view: the possibility that we are all Cut From the Same Cloth, after all.