So one of the perks with having a Yoruba (Ibadan-born) mother who is a skilled textile artist means you grow up spending your school holidays busying yourself with cassava paste and indigo! Yes, these are the materials required to design wonderful adire eleko textiles.
Adire eleko is a specialist craft that originated in approximately 1910, is unique to Yorubaland in south-west Nigeria and traditionally practiced by women (they designed and dyed the cloth). Yoruba people are known for their crafts and also known for travelling around and trading in their crafts. Today, adire eleko can be seen in other West African countries where Yoruba descendents have settled.
The cassava paste acts as a resist when the cloth is dipped into the indigo dye (the more dips the deeper the blue), allowing for wonderful hand-drawn batiks. Before the cloth is finished and ready for sale, it will be hit with a mallet, softening it and creating a lovely sheen, owing to the indigo dye.
Traditional pattern layouts would constitute 8″ x 8″ squares, or 8″ x 11″ squares, or by measuring approximately two by one and a half hands span. Forming what looks like a grid with differing motifs (some motifs do repeat on the cloth).
The thing I love about adire eleko is that each cloth has a special name which is representative of the motifs and patterns which make it up and although the motifs may seem like abstract symbols to the uninformed, they too have their own name/meaning/proverb. So, people are really telling a story with their clothes. If you are into semiotics then adire eleko textiles are great pieces to study!
Olokun or “Goddess of the sea” is a popular design and consists of two lengths of fabric sewn together; each fabric consists of 2 x 5 large squares with rectangles at each end and smaller squares at the bottom. The squares and rectangles are filled with abstract designs that represent animals, plants and other everyday objects (such as an Ipon “Laddle” as shown in the design above) or phrases (such as Ayed’egbe “The world is on its side” as shown in the design above). With all Olokun designs there will be a central square with the four-legged stool motif. The O.K. symbol is also common within the design, however some consider it lacks sophistication and pay more for Olokun without this motif.
Ibadan-Dun or “Ibadan is sweet or pleasant” is one of the most complex of the traditional adire eleko designs and traditionally made up of 4 x 7 squares (although in my photo it shows 4 x 6 squares).
The cloth gets its name from the Mapo Hall motif (a prominent building on a hill in Ibadan, built in 1945 and acting as a town hall). The Mapo Hall pillars and spoons motif also symbolizes the skill and quality of the piece: 5 spoons being top, 4 good, and 3 least good. The cloth that was created for my mother’s exhibition and now belongs to me has four spoons in its design.
I found it rather interesting that designers often kept the symbolic theme going when it came to their signature, which they would show in the form of a sign at the edge of the cloth.
As you can probably imagine, creating some of these intricate designs freehand can be very time-consuming.
This led to the development of stencils which also saw the entrance of men into this craft that up until the 1930s had been controlled by women.
The town of Abeokuta was renowned for using stencils for their designs, while the people of Ibadan largely hand painted the paste. I asked my mum about this and she said most Ibadan people would not have liked to cross the line of their ancestors craft work, hence why they carried on by hand.
In 1991 my mother held an exhibition and ran several workshops in Manchester, England, dedicated to the art of adire eleko. I found this book she wrote to accompany the project.
It has some great photos of not only the textiles but also people in Nigeria designing and dying the cloth (some I have included in this post). There is also a step-by-step guide on how to do adire eleko yourself (including how to make the natural indigo dye).
There is so much more that can be said about adire eleko and I am sure I will touch on it again in other posts!
*Unless otherwise stated all the images are of textiles and stencils owned by my mother or now in my possession.
As well as speaking to my mother about these pieces and adire eleko in general, I did my own exploration and came across these references:
Adeniran-Kane, Toro. (1991) “Adire-Eleko. Yoruba Traditional Textile and Indigo Dyeing Techniques”
Areo, Margaret Olugbemisola, et al. (2013) “Origin of and Visual Semiotics in Yoruba Textile of Adire”. http://www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/ADS/article/viewFile/7566/7614