The importance of cultural preservation

The multimedia artist Tunde Owolabi brings Aso-Oke weaving to gallery spaces.

Image: Tunde Owolabi.

Tunde Owolabi is the creative force behind the recently exhibited “Aso Oke – The Woven Beauty,” which was on show at Red Door Gallery in Lagos in November 2014. The exhibition is the result of a two year creative research foray for Owolabi, a Lagos-based multimedia artist who sought with the exhibition to spotlight the textile making tradition of the Yorubas. AIAC decided to sit down with Owolabi to learn what drives him on this mission:

What drove you to commit a full two-year, self-funded exploration of this specific textile, Aso Oke? 

My fascination with Aso Oke started a few years ago. I was shooting a lot of weddings and other occasions. The rate at which people were using the fabric, and the creativity involved in the production was intriguing. It was colorful, regal and beautiful. I started to study the patterns, I noticed you could create just about any pattern you wanted. The initial designs were mainly linear but these days, all sorts of designs and motifs are created. So I decided to probe further by finding where they are being made. This lead me to a village in Oyo state in southwest Nigeria called Isehin. The village said to be where this art originated from and where I met the local weavers and some elders who shed more light to my curiosity.

Tell us more about Isehin.

It is a community where almost every household has a weaver or two. Production time frame now is based on the kind of design and its intricacy. In the past, the process was tedious with a six-month time frame, as everything was done from scratch. Presently it takes two weeks to three months depending again on design and type as the materials are now imported. The weavers businesses have expanded so much in the last couple of years especially with the growth in the wedding industry. The weavers are now employed by entrepreneurs with the interest and capital to maintain the quality of Aso-Oke as worn by our forefathers while imbibing the new trends. Like any business, there are low and high demand periods with weaving being their main economic activity, complaints of quiet times abound. If more people invest in them and find a way to mechanize the production without adulterating the tradition, we will have more economic gains for the weavers and the country at large.

What mediums did you employ for your exhibition and why? 

Watercolor, acrylic, oil paint, these are the media employed to create striking colors, texture and form for the paintings exhibited at the Aso Oke exhibition. Most of them depict traditional Yoruba dressing and how it is combined, using Aso Oke.

The paintings exhibited include Aso Ebi Bella, an oil/acrylic on  canvas painting, inspired by trends of uniformed dressing by young and old women and men posting their style on Instagram. This image shows three modern day ladies dressed in the same kind of fabric with a vibrant yellow Aso Oke head tie, each one  tied  to show their individuality. The painting also makes an homage to  another dying Yoruba textile, an indigo dyed cloth produced by women also found in this Southwest region, Adire. It’s patterns adorn as the backdrop.

For the photography part of the exhibition, I wanted to show the beauty of Aso Oke using conceptual art, styled for fashion and also show the audience where the fabric came from and how it is made, using images and sound with purpose of immersing the audience into the space of the weavers in their community. Some of the fashion photography were reminiscent and an ode to the vintage styles of 60s and 70s where ladies dressed elegantly in “Oleku,” a style where the wrapper is tied above the knee, like a mini skirt with a blouse and head ties.

As I did not think 2D art forms were enough to do justice to the subject matter, I went further and created installations, a loom that was adorned with a collage of Aso Oke pieces, and a sculptural mixed media of a Yoruba chief in his cap and his four wives, made from metal, cane, and a combination of sixty-year old 100% original traditional cotton — all fused with contemporary Aso Oke. On the opening night, there was a performance of how Aso Oke is woven on the loom by a weaver, the performance part left the audience in awe.

Lastly, there was a fifteen minute self produced documentary on the history of Aso Oke’s, allowing visitors to learn first hand from those who own the culture and tradition, letting them into their world and sharing with them their heritage.


Lastly, what contemporary cultural concerns do you hold for the future of Aso Oke?

Colonialism in itself already endangered the production of local fabrics in Nigeria, but recently the Chinese started doing more damage by producing more than the wool used to weave Aso-Oke by cheaply reproducing and importing their own Aso Oke which is sold in the Nigerian market at a relatively cheaper price. This affects the local weaving maker as many are not astute on the difference as a cheaper price point is attractive. China has the technology and labor power to produce in large quantity. If we do our part along with state involvement in empowering these weavers, we will win the war against the Chinese [imports] and people will know better to patronize produced in Nigeria for sustainability.

Aso Oke is our tradition, our heritage, and we need to take ownership – having people notably like Maki Oh, Molbaks Alasooke, and others who have taken the art to a new and modern level is a positive step for the sustainability of the art. I hope my exhibition and work is an educative experience that informs people of our heritage and importance of cultural preservation. It is within this theme that I hope to continue in.

To keep up with Tunde, follow his work on


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