CIAD Summer Exchange: The Yoruba Blues

This Friday 28th July I found myself at LCF attending an event I never thought I’d be attending, nor find as interesting as I did. Hosted by CIAD (The Costume Institute of the African Diaspora), it was titled ‘CIAD Summer Exchange: The Yoruba Blues’, led by LCF alumni and Textile artist/ dyer Lucille Junkere. She details her recent trip to Nigeria where she studied the indigo dyeing techniques that are used among the Yoruba people. Here’s the official event description below:

“Join us on Friday the 28th July 2017 for the CIAD Summer Exchange event where we welcome back Lucille Junkere who returns to talk about her indigo dyeing journey since her residency at the William Morris Gallery. She has recently traveled to Nigeria through a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship where she studied indigo dyeing techniques amongst Yoruba artisans. Àdírẹ is the Yoruba word for the resist dyed cloth made in Yoruba towns in Nigeria. The cloth functions both as an aesthetic expression and a means of communication, offering a deep insight into Yoruba religion, culture, folklore, and history. Her talk will be illustrated with short videos, photography, music and Lucille’s own indigo work.”

Before we go further I think it’s best to give a little insight into what Indigo dyeing actually is; it refers to the actual blue pigment used as a dye and also to the indigo plants of the “Indigoferra”. It is the most widely used natural dye throughout history, used by civilisations all over the globe and is still extremely popular today, “as evidenced by the familiar colour of blue jeans”. It is a major part of Lucille’s research, all stemming from the first time she got her hands on a piece of Indigo fabric and simply fell in love with it. She followed along its thread and immediately wanted to know where it came from, she held onto that one piece for a long time and Indigo dye soon became her passion; it’s what fuelled her trip to Nigeria. Funded by the Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, Lucille was looking to explore the following: whether the practice of Adire cloth making was surviving (Adire are “indigo resist dyed cotton cloths that were made by women throughout the Yoruba tribe”); the meanings behind the patterns, traditional patterns and also new patterns the artisans use; challenges the artisans face and generally just any new knowledge on Adire indigo she could find. She expressed her disapproval with the way London museums brand Adire fabrics and techniques as simple and primitive when in actual fact they’re very complex and advanced as they’re done without the use of electricity and water. She also disliked the way most of the fabrics you see in museums are new pieces that had never been used. Even though she still found them beautiful, they lacked life, they lacked history. So Lucille then made it her mission to capture the voice of the people behind the cloths, the artisans.

At the start of the talk, she played for us a song that set the tone of her travels, both visually and aurally. ‘Orente’ by popular Yoruba artist Adekunle Gold :

‘Orente’ translated directly means beautiful woman of small stature, it’s a love song that explains the faithfulness of a Yoruba woman who adores a man despite all the odds against them. It has a very traditional sound, which is why the video suits the song so well. Rather than seeing flashy cars and flashy outfits that we often see in Nigerian music videos today, Adekunle’s video focuses more on the beauty of the Nigerian countryside, the love between the couple and the outfits they’re wearing; showcasing multiple cloths with a variety of beautiful patterns in a range of vibrant colours. This, I feel is why Lucille chose this song, her trip wasn’t flashy or anything like that; but it allowed her to see Nigeria in its simple, most natural beauty, distanced from the fast paced, ever moving Western World.

After the song Lucille went on to unload a wealth of knowledge she picked up on her travels, showing us just how much she learned and took back from the people she met. She showed us many different Yoruba artists she met on her journey, stencil makers, Indigo dyers, apprentices, students and more, and then explained their work to us. She told us of one woman whom she became especially close with, Chief Nike Davis Okundaye a successful Indigo artist, owning 3 art galleries across Nigeria and training centres dotted around the country, teaching old and new techniques free of charge.

What interested Lucille the most about the Yoruba artisans was their creativity: the use of whatever they have to hand; they do everything by eye, taking no measurements and not using any electricity(since the electricity in Nigeria isn’t the most stable, restricting any work being done to the day time). She showed us videos of the artisans describing different types of resist techniques to her and the meanings behind them. For example you had Adire Alabere, which was the traditional method with the needle; Adire Eleso which required one to tie small stones and seeds into the cloth to bind fabric together; Adire Eleko  which was when starch made from cassava flour was used to resist the indigo dye and many other techniques which were all just as innovative. Although it was a lot of information to take in, it really showed just how many creative ways were at the disposal of the Yoruba men and women.



After hearing so much about these artisans, it was a shame to then to hear how the Western world impacted the industry in the past and even now. Adire Eleko, the technique I mentioned earlier, is a newer technique that was created specially for a new type of cloth that was forcibly introduced into the market. It was imported from the UK and under colonial rule this cloth had tax relief, yet their own traditional cloth was heavily taxed. They had to spend more money to buy cloth that they produced themselves. Ridiculous, right? The artisans informed Lucille of how many other people would come to see their work, take pictures and film them and how they would never hear from them again, nor find out what the pictures and videos were being used for. Some are even taking those pictures and making printed versions of the patterns in foreign textile mills, only a few weeks later, reintroducing them into the Nigerian market. You can even find cheap attempts and imitations created by Western companies, doing what they do best, appropriating, without giving anything back to the culture their stealing from, or even taking time to gather the knowledge on the designs they’re selling. It’s a shame really, but I’m not sure much can be done about it. She was telling us how now The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) a United Nations agency, is being asked to bring in ‘effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures” to prevent people profiting from cultural appropriation, so I guess we’ll just have to wait to see how much can be done.

As a first generation British Nigerian man (Igbo, not Yoruba) I really enjoyed hearing about Lucille’s journey. Growing up, going to all the parties and events, seeing the outfits with their beautiful colours and patterns every week and seeing how much the older generation cherished them and how they wore them with pride, really made a lot more sense to me. The older generation took pride in their clothing, not only because we Nigerians are a proud bunch, but because each cloth has a journey and each pattern has so much history behind it. It was a real learning experience for me and it was made so much more interesting because Lucille was so passionate about Indigo dye and the Yoruba culture. You could really see her excitement and her genuine love for it and it definitely captured everyone in the room. Unfortunately due to lack of time, we couldn’t see everything Lucille wanted to show us but she informed us she would be having another talk at the William Morris Gallery, on Friday 22nd September of this year.

Lucille Junkere