If you attend Tunde Owolabi’s Aso-oke: A Woven Beauty exhibition here’s what you will see:

Inside a loom decorated with a variety of multi-patterned fabric, a seated man performs his task with an air of contemplative industry. Transferred from his home in Iseyin, Oyo state to Victoria Island, Lagos, his loom—‘ofi’ in Yoruba—occupies the centre of the ground floor of the Red Door Gallery. Around him, hanging on the gallery’s walls, are photos and paintings of women clad in same fabric decorating the loom.

A man plays the talking drum as another spins a thread from what looks like a cone made of raffia on a wooden support (‘akata’ and ‘sugudu’ respectively; the man within is the ‘ala-so ofi’). The spinner of thread moves in time with the drumbeat and hands the spun thread to the ala-so ofi, who resumes activity, again with airs of contemplative industry.

It may occur to guests of the gallery that this exhibition occurs originally back at Iseyin in a way that the song and dance routine cannot. Because in Lagos this is performance; in Iseyin it is livelihood.

Iseyin, a village in Southwest Nigeria, is one of three areas where aso-oke making thrives—the others are Ede in Osun state and Okene in Kogi state. And aso-oke (short for ‘Aso Ilu Oke’, literally, clothes from up-country) is the premier fabric in Yoruba land, without which a bride is incomplete, without which a king will not ascend the throne. Such is the fabric’s importance.

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Over the years, its importance and local production has received a rash of diminishing returns. First, several of the old-timers, as they are wont to do, passed. Then in the age of technology and the mass production it makes possible, patronage and loyalty to handmade aso-oke has reduced as the Chinese, it is said, have become interested in the market.

Despite the need to preserve and ‘present [his] heritage through [his] art’, photographer and graphic artist Tunde Owolabi is practical, mixing old locally made aso-oke with the modern in his work. As typified in the Otunba and Oloris installation. The Oloris (wives to Otunba, the chief) have their headgear in a combination of the old and the new.

Three major aso-oke types exist: Etu (Blue), Alaari (red) and Sanyan (khaki-brown). And all three may be varied according to the whims of the designer.

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Just before the opening of Aso-oke: A Woven Beauty—which includes also an installation, a documentary on loop, and the canned sound of a working ofi—Owolabi spoke to Oris Aigbokhaevbolo. Excerpts:

In the brochure for Aso-oke: The Woven Beauty, your colleague Olusegun Adejumo refers to you as a serial monogamist. And he may have a point as you have quite a varied career. Graphic artist, Advertising man, photographer, painter—does restlessness fuel your work?

I couldn’t survive 9 to 5. That’s one of the reasons I left advertising. I like to be spontaneous. If I was still working I probably wouldn’t have been able to put up this project. Being restless is part of it: I could wake in the middle of the night and just start working. And if you were in an office you couldn’t do that.

Why have you chosen Aso-oke for this exhibition? What was the attraction for you?

The first thing that attracted me was the beauty of the fabric. Not until I started research did I appreciate the culture.

But how did I come about aso-oke? (Pauses) Being a photographer, I shot a couple of weddings. I started following the trend of aso-ebi and then I realised it was all about aso-oke. I thought it was something fantastic but I took my mind off it. And then one day, I was thinking of what project to do. I designed textile, I started designing patterns. While I was at it, every time I searched Google, most of the results were about aso-oke and a few other patterns South Africa and Kenya. Then I thought: wait a minute, we have this beautiful fabric. It comes in different patterns and colours; let me do some research on it. What other patterns exist? What colours are used? Are there strict rules in the design?

I started learning about it. And found out Sanya has to be khaki-brown no matter what; the alaari has to be crimson—you can add other colours but it must be predominantly crimson-red. Etu is ultramarine or Prussian unless you want to embellish it with other colours. Getting to know these things I started getting excited. One day I thought, these things I am finding online aren’t giving me what I need. Why don’t I go where the aso-oke is actually being made and find out more? I spoke to my mom and she said, “Go to Oyo.”

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Can you talk about your role in the contemporary appreciation of aso-oke—as I see it your work is partly reflective or probably deflective even since it is showcasing the work of the weavers from Iseyin.

You know the whole process of producing aso-oke is an art. I see it as a collaboration between myself and the weavers. I have used my photography skill to document their activity, to say, “World, these guys did it. This is our heritage. This is how it is done.” A lot of people have never seen a loom. I had never seen a loom until I went to Iseyin.

So do you think of yourself as a Culture Crusader?

I won’t say culture crusader. (Pauses) Yes, you can say that.

I tend to travel a bit and when I get to other people’s countries I see how they have preserved their things. And sometimes not their direct culture. For instance, in South Africa they have a lot of colonial buildings and they haven’t demolished them. Here a bank comes with a few millions, drops it on…maybe not the owner of the house but two generations later, and they look at it as an opportunity to be rich.

Instead of modifying that beautiful architecture, they come with this new material called ALUCO and clamp it on the building, defacing it. How then are we keeping culture? How are we keeping our heritage? If we don’t preserve this aso-oke now and the Chinese are able to penetrate, and find out what they are doing wrong, employ the makers, entice them with some money, take them to China, give them a bit of a good life. They’ll show the Chinese how to do it then they’ll get kicked out. A lot of the weavers would be out of work. Because by then they would have mechanised it. And instead of showing our people how to produce more, they will be making money for themselves. Just as happens with our oil: we get the crude oil, we sell it to the Americans or whoever and then we buy it back. That is what we should avoid.

So your art is corrective?

Exactly. This thing is beautiful. We all like to wear and enjoy it. But are we doing enough to preserve it? I won’t be surprised if I find a full aso-oke attire in the British museum soon.

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Is it possible to see China’s interest in aso-oke as something to be proud of?

I’ll rather guard it jealously. The only thing I may suggest is: you have the technology, we have the art. Can we collaborate?

Who makes this suggestion to the Chinese? The government? Persons with cultural capital?

Yeah, people with culture capital, people who can write. Because I don’t see the government doing this for us. You’ll be shocked at how reading a publication can spur someone to think: that’s true, how about I invest some money into this? What if I can get the materials to the weavers at the time they need? What if I help them with branding—you know, make them look better? What if I make transporting their wares easier? What if we can learn about aso-oke is made in our schools?

Right now everyone knows Nigerians wear aso-oke, but I don’t think we really own it. A friend was telling me about a shop in London where a guy makes waistcoats from aso-oke. And they sell for about 25,000 naira. For a waistcoat! He is white and may not know there is a place called Iseyin. He doesn’t even know there is a place called Oyo State. But he has seen the fabric, seen how durable it is, how beautiful it is. And has exploited it.

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Chinese. London. Isn’t this globalisation?

Well, globalisation. But look at how we wear lace, look how we wear jeans. We don’t own jeans. And if any company does an advert on jeans, it will be made clear that Nigeria doesn’t own jeans.

I have a Maasai blanket and someone saw it recently and asked if I went to Kenya. I am not sure people will see aso-oke and say it is indigenous to Nigeria. We need to own it. we have people with the financial clout but where are we investing it? South Africa is investing massively in design. Cape Town is the World Design Capital for 2014.

Speaking of financial clout and how difficult it is to get sponsorship for culture projects, who is sponsoring Aso Oke: A Woven Beauty?

Only sponsors I have are Laurent-Perrier who provide champagne for guests and Araba’s Homemade provides snacks and light meals. I think Nigerian corporate organisations haven’t found a way to explore these type of projects.

In the past Nigeria used to have a thriving textile industry. Can we consider your exhibition as one step to a revival?

I am hoping it is. Somehow what I am hoping I have been able to do is to show these young weavers…like I brought two of the weavers from Iseyin and when they see the kind of people who come in tomorrow, they’ll go back home, reflect on their work and see that it is big time and that they cannot afford to stop it.

They’ll think: When I do this thing very rough and show it to my own children, who have acquired education, you can do this and make it better. That child would know not to sell his own heritage.

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