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How to interprete Masqurade, 2024, film still, Judah Iyunade 

Alara

a solo exhibtion by Judah Iyunade

curated by Luther Konadu

March 30 - May 18, 2024

Alara in Yoruba is a word that translates to ‘the performer’ or, in some other understandings, ‘a magician’; someone capable of summoning presences other than their own. In some translations, the word ‘ara’ can mean ‘family’ in Yoruba and is also the suffix for Alara, giving it another meaning: the performer of family, that is, one who represents the family, the head of a family. And in a distant pre-colonial Yewa—a subset of the Yoruba tribe and Iyunade’s matrilineal parentage—a matriarch. These contexts form a backdrop upon which Iyunade’s photographic (and video) assemblage of vignettes emanates. 

 

Further, Iyunade’s images draw on a visual vocabulary from a history of studio photographic practices that proliferated throughout West Africa, particularly in the 60s and 70s. This period coincided with another where several former colonies successively gained national independence from their European colonizers. The rise in studio-based portraiture cultivated a pivotal moment in time whereby a newly post-colonial West Africa depicted and historicized itself by fellow West Africans. These images chart a rich cultural and aesthetic history that countered the anthropological gaze of European explorers whose photography dominated how Westerners perceive that region of the world. Iyunade’s work is in the lineage of such West African artists/photographers that include Samuel Fosso, Felicia Abban, Michel Kameni, Sanlé Sory, Jacques Touselle, Philip Kwame Apagya, Malick Sidibe, Solomon Osagie Alonge, among several others. As Iyunade sets his photographs against this history, he reinscribes and enriches it. In the intimate stage of his studio, he relishes the freedoms of self-determined narration with a sense of imagination and playfulness. He performs the self as plural within his lushly-hued photographs, decentralizing fastened notions of subjectivities like his. 

 

Calling upon Yoruba ceremonial masquerading practices, Iyunade channels and interprets matrilineal ancestral presences. He transforms himself by costuming, traditional helmet masks from his mother’s hometown, face paints, and, of course, inhabits a host of characters informed by family members. The Yoruba masquerade rituals, a superlative affair featuring vibrantly crafted masks, ornate regalia, and dance processions, function to celebrate female deities and elderly women of local communities. These matriarchal figures are regarded as the backbone and knowledge keepers of Yewa communities. While masqueraders worship their presences, their performances are also a means of summoning their spirits as a guide and an energy source as they traverse their respective lives. In his various tableaux, Iyunade becomes an avatar for the familial multitudes that inflect his identity. 

 

Iyunade integrates a series of clips in his video work titled 'How to Interprete the Masqurade'.  Some of the clips are created directly by the artist and others are found documentary footage. One animates the artist's photographic tableaux into video as he inhabits various characters, most of which are informed by family members. Another features the artist as a Gẹlẹdẹ (a Yoruba ritual dance ceremony) masquerade performer, performing in front of a constructed set and his studio camera. Interlaced with this scene is an old-found footage of such performers in an actual Gẹlẹdẹ ceremony in Benin. Benin is one of the areas where the spiritual ritual originates and where Yoruba lineage extends beyond Nigeria before they were bisected by colonial borders. Another footage made by the Manchester Museum in the UK is also interwoven. In that clip, there’s a Yoruba tribal leader and knowledge keeper sharing insights on the ceremonial purpose of the Gẹlẹdẹ masks, which were looted by the British during colonial rule and now hosted in that museum. He discusses the origins of a specific mask, which comes from the Benin side of the Yoruba larger family, saying they are the same people with shared masquerading traditions as Nigerians before they were colonized into independent nations. The masks connect to a long history of spiritual practices before colonization and the introduction of religions like Christianity. Aspects of the Yoruba tribe believe they descend from a matriarchal deity, and the masquerading practice honours the deity’s guidance over its citizens. In participating in the video for the museum, in some ways, a complicated dynamic, the knowledge keeper reestablishes a divorced link that otherwise regards these masks as mere museological props vacant of their cultural identities. Altogether, this video acts as an extension of the photographic work, deepening the contexts it emerges from. 

 

Beyond the artistic contexts they later became situated in, the advancement of studio-based photography in West Africa served a social purpose. Local citizens paid for studio time to have their pictures taken by professionals and amateurs alike. Most of these pictures ended up on living room walls, family albums, used as postcards to loved ones, or as souvenirs of the sitter’s social status. The photos in the show’s installation reflects the intimate sizes of these everyday photos. 

 

Like in Iyunade’s set decors and controlled lighting, these studio photo sessions of yore weren’t a spontaneous transaction between the sitter and the camera person. The subject is prioritized for the occasion of their image being created. Cloth backdrops, often filigreed or painted facades often depicting aspirational environs, are part of the curated set against which the subject is poised. In Iyunade’s version, his facades are ebullient photographic backdrops and carpets, rendering an enveloping set complete with props where disbelief becomes suspended. To amplify its vibrancy and glow, Iyunade stylizes his images in amber hues akin to those of the golden hour or, in cinematography parlance, “the magic hour.” It’s the soft, warm, diffuse light before sunset. A favourable light source for photographers and cinematographers alike for its halo-like effect on various subjects. An echo of the tungsten hues floods the gallery through colour-correction filters. It is an attempt to harness a fleeting moment (not unlike the very act of photography itself), if transcendent for its luminosity. Given the waning daylight's flattering lustre, the golden hour’s radiance satisfies an optimal set of conditions for the ideal depiction of Alara. 

 

The accessories, dress, and self-presentation in Iyunade’s images, like those common in his predecessor’s, become socioeconomic indicators and a conscious signifier the sitter chooses to be seen or remembered by. In a set of wedding photographs, we see the artist with his guest star performing heterosexual courtship. It is a rite of passage, and because it abides comfortably with a general social normativity—especially in the agrarian economy of old with its pragmatism for marriage—also a good measure of character for one to uphold. 

 

Iyunade’s ornate photographic edifice is a store-bought, computer-generated composite which in its own right, attempts a certain ideal through its grandeur. It is willfully gaudy and the preferred stage vista against which he performs his scenes. This façade is collapsed into a mere folded cloth in the exhibition atop of which his regalia, masks and other performance props are arranged into an installation.

 

Like in his baroque backrops or in scenes where he dons tailored suits or Victorian-style button-up shirts, the indelible imposition of Western material culture peeks through, even if slight. It indexes a degree of traditional cultural discontinuity, a syndrome of West Africa’s colonial history. Iyunade’s work, like his progenitors, carries these complexities and contradictions with aplomb, signalling a reality beyond the constructed frame.

 

- Luther Konadu, curator

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