‘The Gẹlẹdẹ Spectacle’

Book by Babatunde Lawal

I was in a dilemma when I started this degree…

I have always designed garments, experiences and concepts based on elements from my Yorùbá culture and this helps me to see the world differently. But ever since I started this degree, as I have questioned myself more about my design practice, I’ve found that I’ve been conflicted.

How can I share my work without putting my culture on display as though it were some freak show?

I started reading more into Yorùbá culture, specifically The Gẹlẹdẹ festival and I realised that my people do not shy away from performance…’the performative’. They embrace and embody it when it comes to the Gẹlẹdẹ festival.

From ese Ifá- Odù Iwori Meji [credit: Babatunde Lawal, 1996]

The story goes…

Yewajobi [Yemoja] was unable to have children after marrying Oluweri. This was bothering her because she had many children from her previous marriage so, she consulted the Ifá oracle. Ifá told her to give sacrifices- she was to offer mashed corn, clay dishes and to dance with wooden images placed on her head and metal anklets. After doing this, Yewajobi became fertile and gave birth to her first son, who will grow up to be nicknamed Efe- meaning the humorist. The Efe mask in the festival signifies the joker.

Yewajobi’s second child was a girl. She grew up to be nicknamed Gẹlẹdẹ because of her obese stature. She loved dancing just like her mother and as a result, most female masks are tailored to her characteristics.

The story goes on that both Efe and Gẹlẹdẹ couldn’t have children with their respective partners when they got married and so were advised by Ifá to do the same thing their mother was advised to. They both performed the ritual and were able to have children of their own.

These rituals, because of how effective they proved to be, progressed gradually into the “Gẹlẹdẹ masked dance”. The dance is used to appease the “powerful mothers” citing Yewajobi as the matriarch. [Babatunde Lawal, 1996, p.39]

While the festival seeks to appease Yewajobi so that human living can be pleasant, another way Gẹlẹdẹ festival diffuse conflict in the community is by “staging theatrical performances to entertain and educate the public,” while simultaneously reforming antisocial behaviours [p.79].

This really caught my attention!

Is there a way I can use this framework in my current diasporic context? How can I create narratives that teach and entertain at the same time about issues in my environment?

Will the entertainment side of things allow for people to be more accepting of the existing issues about anti-black racism in Vancouver- their environment?

Gelede Mask [Yoruba] in the British Museum

Defining words through Dance

I had summer classes this year.

In one of the sessions, we got into conversation about defining the words we use so as to avoid our audience misinterpreting our work- because words can mean different things to different people.

While we spoke on this subject, I got really uncomfortable for some weird reason…I was fed up with defining everything with words-which can be limiting. And so I began to question the role of language in my work and I began to think through what kinds of languages I would want to use in my work.

Then I had an idea [some might say crazy]…

What will it look like to define words through dance?

There’s something fascinating about fusing fabric/garment with movement to illustrate a point or to paint a visual imagery of my understanding of a word and what is even more fascinating, is leaving people with that interpretation so that they might experience the word without speech or words.

So what does ‘Freedom’ mean?

[an iteration]

What is Freedom?
What is Freedom?

Poetry: Tribute

July 4, 2020 [9:46pm]

Every time a black person dies to racism in America,
It is plastered all over my social media
And I am reminded that the world is messed up.

These reminders without my knowledge,
Take me to digital burial grounds and obtuaries of people like me
I do not have a choice
As my eyes see bodies laid to rest in hashtags
Wake keeps in shouts of ‘say her/his name’
Reposts as cries for justice…for freedom

I am dragged to burial grounds I didn’t consent to visit
Burial grounds of people I didn’t know existed but valued as human beings
As brother, sister, aunty, uncle, mother, father, friend
And I run because processing the occurrences will mean processing the pain
The pain that comes with the hurt
“That could’ve been me”

“That could’ve been me” is the song of every black person
Bound or free
That could have been my
cousins, my sisters, my friends, me
Black life has become so cheap

As complex but futile as the human body is
The black body is disrespected
And every time the black body is killed,
by hands that are none next to God’s
It is being said to black people ‘that we are cheap’

What is in the atmosphere?
What is so strong in the air that once it is inhaled, it thirsts for black blood?
Black blood on white hands
Why is it so normal?
Why does it seem like black has always equated to victim?
Why?
What song will I sing to soothe their children to sleep
When those young minds are aware that white officer hands took their own
What songs will I sing to soothe their pain, to tell them do not be afraid
What will I say when they grow up and realise that the odds are against them too because of melanin?

For the young child that has to become an adult ever so quickly
For the young eyes that have seen things that the mind is not developed enough to process
I cry, I cry
I weep, I lament
As the earth cries to as she soaks in the blood of a man because he was black
As she soaks in the blood of a woman because she was black
As she feels that man gasp for air because he is being suffocated by a police officer
And she can’t revive him.

Hands that are no where next to God’s taking life as though he were not as fragile as the man he is killing.

//

little did I know…

So summer wasn’t actually what I expected. When I say summer I’m referring to the period between Mid-March to August

*follow that timeline for the sake of this blog ;)*

I had a lot of conversations over the summer about the deaths of Ahmuad Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and about the protests that occured as a result. Some of them were great, empathetic, humbling and others were quite frankly not pleasant. I also encountered a lot of comments on social media that made me question a lot of people and their beliefs.

I hit a wall guys… this wall that left me so exhausted…so exhausted that I avoided doing thesis work because I would have to confront these issues, friendships, schools of thought.

So it was a rollercoaster but that really pushed me to write a lot of poetry…I mean A LOT! I haven’t written so much in such a short amount of time.

So here is a poem…for all the black souls lost as a result of police brutality, racism and ill-treatment, this is for you.

“a moment of silence for all the black bodies we’ve laid to rest in hashtags and buried in the cycle of trends.”

‘Silence please [10:07pm]’ by Sola Olowo-Ake

Conversations with my Dad

Alarina- The Intermediary

A huge part of my practice is centred around embracing oratory practice and oral history as a form of reference in my research as, I noticed while reading more into Yorùbá culture that a lot of our history has been recorded in poetry or stories that are often repeated to generations.

I got into conversation with my dad about different ways we communicate as a people and mainly inquired about forms of communication that are particular to us. He then proceeded to tell me about the role of the Alarina. He explained that it was a cultural practice back in the day for families preparing to marry their children to have an Alarina. If Family A was preparing for marriage to Family D, Family A would hire an Alarina and this individual was responsible for finding out about Family D in order to report it back to Family A.

They did this in case there were any inconsistencies that could affect the child from Family A if they married into Family D. For example, are there health conditions they need to be aware about that could affect their children if they were to start a family? Does anyone in their family have any kind of prejudice towards something that the other family possessed and will it affect relationship development? -and other concerns as such.

If the Alarina ever found any red flags , it was the individual’s responsibility to report back to the family that sent him or her. Family A will then decide if they wanted to go forward with the marriage or betrothal, if they didn’t, they would decline or stop the engagement without giving reason to the children to preserve the other family’s honour.

After our conversation, I started thinking through what it would look like for Gele to be a messenger. What if it’s form when tied specifically spoke to certain issues in the diasporic environment? What will it look like for Gele to play the role of the Alarina.

My thesis exploration question morphed into this: How can the expression of my cultural identity be used as a tool for understanding how to relate better to stories on the black experience and the role of the diasporic environment in conversations about it?

And so what would it look like for Gele [as an expression of my cultural identity] to tell y diasporic environment issues that I have observed that it possesses with regards to black community development?

This is what I hoped to explore this summer.

Gele vs The Gele [3]

I ‘m not finished yet…

I wrote the poems below, ‘Gele vs The Gele’ as a response to a conversation I had with my supervisor about putting an article ‘the’ before Gele when referring to it in writing. We were talking about the discomfort I was experiencing when I put those words together and how they made it feel distant from self. 

Now picture this,

I was my mum’s fashion designer long before I actually got my degree “Sola come and help me pick which Gele to wear to Kunle’s wedding” My Uncle Kunle is getting married “From the guest room?”

“Yes”

I open the light brown wardrobe in the guest room and stare for ages What to pick? Stacks of Gele, all aso-oke on top and all brocade under arranged by pair by my mother, of course She always matches them- the gele and ipele together.

“Oya o Sola!! Bring the Gele now!”

I took two kinds to her “I brought two o, I’m not sure. The Gold one and the Green and Black one” Side by side we placed them together with the wrapper

Then we agreed

“The Green and Black Gele works better” “Oya return”, she hands me the Gold one “Thank you”

Seun, my older sister decides to tie Gele My uncle says “ah ahn, even Seun is wearing Gele” Admiring her style of dressing to his wedding.

Vs

As you can see in this picture, the woman is wearing the Gele

The Gele that the Yoruba people of Nigeria wear as traditional clothing.

//

“…Bring the Gele now!”

The Gele here because it is untied, it is not yet part of the woman but it is still not seen as completely foreign to the Yoruba woman’s experience hence, “Sola come and help me pick which Gele to wear to Kunle’s wedding”. The story of  Gele  in the wardrobe is different from the story of ‘the Gele’ as an object of spectatorship that is flattened to what it is in a context it does not belong to.

Gele sits in my wardrobe
A piece of Ankara [dutch wax] I found in the British Museum.

Gele vs The Gele [2]

I wrote the poems below, ‘Gele vs The Gele’ as a response to a conversation I had with my supervisor about putting an article ‘the’ before Gele when referring to it in writing. We were talking about the discomfort I was experiencing when I put those words together and how they made it feel distant from self. 

Now, picture this,

You are at a party A Nigerian party It is loud, colourful and noisy A very lively atmosphere You walk up to me because you want rice I tell you “go and meet Iya alase to give you rice”  “Which one is Iya alase?” you ask because I have pointed to a group of 3 women dressed in the party dress code, lilac purple and locust beans brown. And I tell you “the lady on silver Gele”

Vs

Now, picture this, A group of art collectors have come together to curate an exhibition of ‘found objects’  The few they enjoy amongst all their priceless possessions They have laid the objects out on different sized tables, and different colours of plinths The ones they think suit the objects best A way to freely express And you get into the exhibit away from the noise, music and pleasant smell of wine You walk over to the side of the room on the right And under 5 different white lights is a long piece of cloth Just one colour It’s called ‘The Gele’ and it’s from West Africa

//

“the lady on silver Gele” The lady on silver Gele because she is putting on silver Gele. ‘To wọ silver Gele’- she is wearing silver Gele. Gele on the head is seen as whole. It is tied, it is full, it is Gele.

She is wearing the adornment. She is wearing Gele

It is now a part of her- not a separate thing.

Sayo taking pictures of masks at the British Museum.
L to R: Me, Sayo & Seun at Uncle Ejeta’s 50th
Lagos, Nigeria.

Gele vs The Gele [1]

March 23

In 2008, my family and I visited Nairobi, Kenya. I remember the trip quite clearly because my Dad was working there at the time and we went to see him and also because my twin and I turned 10 in the beautiful capital city, Nairobi.

On one of the days, my Dad took us- my sisters, my mum and myself- for breakfast and soon after, we were with Maasai. We were invited into their culture and they were really friendly. I don’t remember what we did that day with them but I remember posing for numerous pictures and I remember one of the Maasai women playing with my hair.  

In 2018, my sister and I went to the British Museum, London and we walked into the African Exhibit. There we saw, with many other stolen objects, a shield and spear of a Junior Maasai Hunter (Kisongo, Tanzania)- the spear taller than I was. But that was all I could see. Through the transparent box, rectangle, giant square, whatever you want to call it. My experience with these objects on British soil were different from my experience with meeting the Maasai on Kenyan soil- and I am slightly cautious as I write this because Kenyan Maasai ight have slightly different practices from Tanzanian Maasai but, the point still stays the same, the livelihood of the Maasai people was completely erased by the glass box. In fact, I don’t remember them having weapons on them or close to us when we came to visit- they were quite hospitable and I’m sure they looked at us children like we were theirs.

Junior Hunter Masai Spear and shield from Kisongo, Tanzania

But the only thing I could see through the glass barrier as I stared at the shield and spear in their faces was how equipped Junior Masai hunters were and I could sense that they were agile and fit- which is not a bad observation but, it is only half of the story. The other narrative however that I just told you that I experienced in 2008 doesn’t even show up. What is problematic is not that half the story was told but, half the story was presented as the full one.

If you still don’t understand, get this:

Akii pe e leru ka pe e losoo

One does not call it a burden and also call it an adornment

The thief can never know and experience the value of a stolen object like the owner does.

A foreigner can never know and experience the value of an object that is not theirs.

All they will present to you is what they think it is. 

This is the half truth and when presented as the whole truth, it becomes a stereotype

It is misleading.

It is not the duty of the foreigner to tell someone else’s story.

Even as a fellow African, I cannot tell you that what I experienced with the Maasai is the entirety of their culture because I am Nigerian- not Kenyan or Tanzanian  and even more specifically, I do not belong to the Maasai people. I do not feel obliged; I do not feel a pressing need to tell you their story because it is not mine. And this, I feel like the majority of Africans in general get and people who belong to so called ‘marginalised’ groups- they understand. But, it is something Westerners, from my experience and in my opinion, don’t seem to get especially spaces like the British Museum.

Why? 

When you are used to stealing, stealing is all you know.

Abete le ni n foju oni daajo

It is bribery that blinds a judge

Afoju ajanaku, ko mo igi, ko mo eyaan

A blind elephant does not know a man from a tree

Stealing will blind you to reality.

Tying Gele

I embarked on the project ‘My Mother Taught me to tie Gele’ because I wanted to explore how multifaceted culture is. I had been reflecting on my own cultural heritage and I was drawing on how culture back home is reflective of how many different ethnic groups can exist under the name ‘Nigerian’. Now this goes against the perception people often have of ‘Africa’ [to speak quite generally].

In Nigeria there are over 250 ethnic groups and over 500 languages alone and that to me already depicts its ‘bigness’, not to talk of other African countries. I really wanted to depict this visually so I made a map of my life so far (i’m not that old…in fact i’m not old at all)… and I circled back on a ‘ritual’ I used to do as a young girl- play dress up. Not just with any piece of cloth but with Gele. Gele is a long piece of fabric Yoruba women tie on their heads- it is part of our cultural wear.

My Map
Playing dress up with Mummy’s clothes & her Gele.

I realised that the fact that Gele untied is a reasonably lengthy piece of cloth, I could use it to show how multifaceted culture can be. If you were at a Yoruba wedding, you will come in contact with a lot of women with all their interpretations of how their Gele should sit on their heads but the diverse thing about the adornment is that the variety of the styles don’t make them any less Nigerian- they all still fall under ‘being Yoruba’.

So diversity in that sense is popular and should be celebrated as is.

As I tied my Gele each time, a new visual picture of how else it can be tied popped in my mind [refer to my previous post] and although some of these styles may be considered ‘extra’ by a vast majority of Yoruba women, the styles still speak to what Gele is and can be.

My Mother Taught me to tie Gele
My Mother Taught me to tie Gele

My Mother Taught me to tie Gele

March 6, 2020

My mother taught me to tie  Gele
“Fold it in front first, a little less than halfway
And place it firm on your forehead
Make sure it covers your ears”

My mother taught me to tie Gele
“Take both ends behind your head
Cross them over
And hold them firmly sideways”

My mother taught me to tie Gele
“Take one of the ends first and lay it across your head to meet the other end you are holding
Now do the same for the other”

My mother taught me to tie Gele
“Hold whatever is left in the middle of both ends and knot them behind your head
Tie it twice otherwise it’ll fall off”

My mother taught me to tie Gele
“Now adjust your Gele to the shape you want.”

My mother taught me to tie Gele
Funny enough I’ve taught other ladies to tie it too
She passed down the knowledge to me
Which I passed down to other people already
Which I will pass down to my girl children

Gele is so different
It’s sturdy, bold and noisy
New ones are always difficult to tie but after tied a few times, it softens and becomes more friendly.
Gele has different personalities
I realise that even more so now as I embarked on this project
My mother taught me to tie Gele
But the lessons I received opened up opportunities to see that although, Gele is referred to as just one piece of fabric
So much can be done with it
Wealth of knowledge for knowledge given
My mother taught me to tie Gele
This is what I have gained.

My Mother Taught me to tie Gele 1
My Mother Taught me to tie Gele 2