Exploring the American West through Nigerian Eyes

Posted by Michael Zimny on

Nigerian artists Dotun Popoola and Jonathan Imafidor are back in Lemmon for an exhibition at the Kokomo Inn. The pair’s Diary of Two Visual Anthropologists is the first show at the newly opened gallery space, a former tavern renovated by friend and frequent collaborator John Lopez. 

Diary is inspired by the Yoruba concept of irepo, or harmony. In the spirit of irepo, Popoola and Imafidor continue to explore the common ground they have discovered between the cultures of their native Nigeria and the American West — particularly between the Yoruba and Edo cultures of Nigeria and Native American Plains cultures. 

“In the course of our traveling to America during the past four years,” says Imafidor, “we have had experiences with a lot of different people, and taken the Greyhound and seen the real America and while we’re traveling documented all these things in our sketchpads. And when we get to our destinations we represent them in other mediums. It’s a collection of everything we have been doing for the past three years.”

Popoola’s Ere Ibeji visit the Ranch is a playful example of irepo. In Yoruba tradition twins— ibeji — are invested with spiritual power. The ibeji depicted here reflect the characteristics of traditional carved, female ere ibeji figures — like large heads (“the head is the seat of wisdom”) and front-facing features (eyes, breasts, hands, feet). They walk the prairie, harmonizing elements of Yoruba, Native American and cowboy cultures. The twins ambassadorial efforts benefit from their ebullience.

Jonathan ImafidorJonathan Imafidor

Opon Ifa and the Dream CatcherOpon Ifa and the Dream CatcherJonathan Imafidor

In Opon Ifa and the Dream Catcher, Imafidor juxtaposes the Native American dreamcatcher tradition with that of the Yoruba Opon Ifa, or divination tray. The hooded Yoruba Egungun depicted in the work is an ancestral being returned to earth. Together, the Opon Ifa and the dream catcher complete a circle. Like Popoola’s ere ibeji, Imafidor’s work opens up a kind of symbolic dialogue between cultures.   

Some of Imafidor’s portraits utilize the Araism technique — an intricate mosaic of color and line — developed in Nigeria, while others deploy a kind of magical realism.    

Diary demonstrates that important confluences of culture can happen in unexpected places, far from the concentrations of money, population and power where the gatekeepers of Big Art hold court. When Chelsea or Echo Park run out of ideas, they could do well to look to Lemmon.

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