Wole Lagunju has been making works on paper since the beginning of his career. Largely unexhibited until now, the drawings have long accompanied his large-scale (and explicitly political) paintings, serving as a kind of pressure valve for the intensity of working with big surfaces and even bigger concepts.
Canvas, according to Lagunju, is where he composes ideas and poses questions; paper, on the other hand, has been ‘an escape’. Lagunju describes the process of ink drawing, practiced almost daily, as automatic; spontaneous; almost therapeutic. The characters he encounters along the way are ‘at the edge’ of his awareness: only in the act of depicting them do they emerge. Unplanned and improvisatory, the fluidity of their creation can be read in their form.
The effect of meeting the cast of Wole’s crowded subconscious, then, is comparable to walking into a room full of strangers. Some seem related; three young men, for instance, suggest themselves as a trio. While none are painted from life, some look like they could be; others are more surreal, such as Dishabille’s transparently-torsoed protagonist, or the totem-pole chimera of The Angel Guarding The Papacy.
Lagunju’s earliest aesthetic influences can be traced back to Osogbo artists, Adire textile dyeing, and motifs from Onaism – contemporary interpretations of traditional Yoruba design. Describing his work today as something like ‘post-Ona’, the artist’s output entered increasingly figurative territory when he moved to the USA. Explaining that the shift was motivated by a desire to establish a more ‘inclusive’ visual lexicon than one based in traditional symbolism, it would be hard to argue that there exists a more universally comprehensible image than the human face which features again and again in this exhibition.
While the artist's paintings are well-known for their Gelede – ceremonial Nigerian masks traditionally worn by men but applied by Lagunju to female bodies – his works on paper might be understood as the faces beneath those recurring coverings. While the conceit of masking seems mirrored in the very act of applying pigment to paper, Lagunju himself is more likely to read opacity in the countenances themselves. ‘Faces can be masks’, he explains; not all barriers are visible.
Masked or otherwise, Lagunju’s ink drawings are as jewel-like in scale and colour as in their singularly organic origins. Arising from somewhere just out of reach, they’re uncanny in the truest sense of the word – familiar and unfamiliar at once. If you haven’t met them yet, you soon will: after all, we all live here.