Yoruba ArtMay 14 2021
The Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa, numbering more than 40 million people. The majority of Yoruba live in southwestern Nigeria, where from the 12th to the 18th centuries, the Yoruba kingdoms of Ife and Oyo ranked among the most powerful states in West Africa. A succession of civil wars and conflicts with neighboring ethnic groups seriously weakened the Yoruba during the 19th century, leaving them vulnerable to invasion and colonization by European nations. Great Britain was the primary colonizer of Yoruba lands and people, starting with the seizure of Lagos in 1861 and culminating with the establishment of the British Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914.
The imposition of British rule affected every aspect of Yoruba society and culture. In the arts, the diminished power and wealth of Yoruba kings and chiefs meant less patronage for artists who produced household furnishings, clothing and ceremonial objects for the Yoruba ruling classes. The conversion of increasing numbers of Yoruba to Christianity and Islam reduced demand for sculptures, paintings and other art forms associated with traditional Yoruba religion. Further, the introduction of imported manufactured goods undermined many of the traditional arts used in everyday Yoruba domestic life, including textiles, ceramics, basketry and metalwork. Yet, despite all the challenges, traditional Yoruba art survived the impact of British colonization, and contributed to a growing sense of Yoruba ethnic pride during that period.
After Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, the Yoruba found themselves competing for power and resources with other Nigerian ethnic groups, especially the Hausa in the north and the Igbo in the east. These ethnic rivalries created a new context in which art became an important means of preserving and promoting Yoruba identity and culture. The first distinctly Yoruba art movement emerged in the city of Osogbo in the early 1960s, and quickly attracted national and international attention. Additional Yoruba art movements arose in the cities of Ibadan and Lagos in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the collective success of which helped to ensure that Yoruba culture remains vibrant and relevant within Nigeria and beyond to this day.
Lamidi Fakeye was born into to a family of traditional Yoruba woodcarvers whose history in the art stretched back five generations. He began his training as a carver with his father and elder brother in the late 1930s, but because fewer people were commissioning the traditional religious sculptures and architectural elements that provided carvers with much of their income, it was initially uncertain if Fakeye would be able to continue in his family business. After working as a sawyer, tailor and bicycle repairman, Fakeye was on the verge of joining the colonial Nigerian police force when he found employment in the Oye Ekiti arts workshop run by Roman Catholic priest Father Kevin Carroll. In that workshop, Fakeye continued his artistic training under the supervision of master woodcarver George Bamidele Areogun, and by the mid-1950s Fakeye had emerged as a nationally recognized artist and teacher in his own right.
In 1960, Fakeye had his first major solo art exhibition at the British Council in Lagos. That exhibition, and a second exhibition in Ibadan in 1961, helped Fakeye win a grant to study art in France and England in 1962-63. Shortly after returning from England, Fakeye accepted an invitation for an artist residency at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. That residency was followed by many additional residencies and exhibitions across the United States and Europe, and by the mid-1970s Fakeye was widely regarded as one of Nigeria’s leading traditional artists. In 1978, Fakeye was appointed to the teaching faculty at the University of Ife (later re-named Obafemi Awolowo University) in Ibadan, where he taught traditional woodcarving techniques to multiple generations of art students. Fakeye also trained several generations of younger male relatives in his own family, who have continued his artistic legacy since his death in 2009.