“IVIE” Work in progress
2015 to date
My first solo exhibition “Hairvolution” in 2014 set the direction for this body of work. The exhibition was an examination of the void created by the absence of my grandmother, who I never knew and who my father scarcely mentioned, I examined the resultant implication of her absence on me and my family. After this experience, I became particularly curious about similar kinds of voids that were a result of the absence of women in different facets of contemporary life as well as in documented African history. I became interested in subsuming women’s stories.
After this, it occurred to me that the title of “Iyoba”, a very important position held by a woman in my hometown of Benin city in Edo state was vacant and it still is today. I became curious and explored more deeply her title.
“Iyoba” in the Bini language means “mother of the king”. In hierarchy, she is the highest-ranking chief in Benin City after the king, who in Benin is called an “Oba”.
History states that the title of “Iyoba” first came about in the early 16th century during the reign of Oba Esigie who was believed to have ruled between 1504 and 1550. This title was created as a form of gratitude by Oba Esigie to his mother Queen Idia, for the support she had given to him. Idia was believed to be a warrior who fought and helped her son ascend the throne of the Benin kingdom and help protect his reign.
After Idia’s death, Oba Esigie commissioned a bronze head of Queen Idia which was placed on the ancestral altars dedicated to the Iyoba, a practice which is still done today.
The Iyoba is the only prominent female figure that is represented within the Benin court art as the female form is rarely seen and this further emphasizes the significance of her title. Objects that have been created to represent her and other Iyobas after, have become famous around the world. For example, the Queen Idia pendant went on to become the face of the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture (Festac77) that held in Nigeria in 1977.
In the sculptures, the queen mother is usually depicted with beaded regalia as a high-ranking chief. It is this beaded regalia that has become my core reference in the Ivie series, hence the title Ivie which means beads in the Bini language. I employ it as a symbolic representation of influence and power; characteristics that are inherent to women in general. I explore what power means today in regards to women and how this is expressed in a culture that undervalues women roles and assumes them to be weaker.
The voids located within the Ivie portraits poses questions on women’s roles in contemporary Nigeria, gender inequality and the objectification of women’s bodies. It explores how women occupy positions of power and leadership, in the backdrop of family roles and cultural expectations.
The Ivie series doesn’t only speak on women’s behalf but is encouraging a dialogue, provoking a response from women about their own sense of place and power.
In Nigeria today, modern brides very casually imitate same bead regalia of the Iyoba during elaborate wedding ceremonies and in order to achieve the same majestic regalia, the use of inexpensive plastic beads instead of real coral beads has become the norm for most people. The practices of imitation and mass-production raise important questions about the authenticity of the power and respect accorded to women today.
The voids present in the works represent the absence of women in positions of influence and the uncertainty felt by women who must define themselves among all of the conflicting expectations, demands, and disempowering realities of society. Cutting out by hand the bodies that carry the beads, the adornments float in space, they appear lost, and wandering, without an anchor.
What emerges are questions about how women occupy their position as women as I see the see the gender of “woman” as a title in itself hence the names accorded to each work are feminine names. I ask whether it is possible to pull together various roles of marriage, family, motherhood, and business, against an increasingly complex backdrop of traditional, religious expectations commingling with the expectations of 21st century life. Iyoba’s story displays women’s power during a time that would have been considered conservative and traditional about women’s roles and similar stories about women exist in Nigeria and in other African history.
In this changing environment, is it possible for the modern woman to anchor herself in a way that gives her real authority over her own identity? And might it be better to look back to the powerful women of Benin history for guidance, rather than looking to Eurocentric examples of female empowerment?
The Ivie series recognizes the status of “woman” as a seat of power, it reclaims the respect that the position is entitled, and is a call to women to boldly occupy their place of authority in the world.