Being Beautiful: Conversation With Toluwalope Molake, The Nigerian Artist Awakening African Pride And Identity With Hair by Adeola Gbalajobi

It is seven on a breezy Tuesday evening in Newcastle. The weather has been erratic all day. It would drizzle for a while and then give to a clear sky with a shy, lazy sun. I launch Zoom on my laptop. At the other end is Toluwalope Adebisi Molake on hazel brown, cowries adorned dreadlocks. She is inside her studio at Birmingham City University. Behind her are her artworks. Some hang on the off-white wall of the studio, while others are carefully placed at the corners of the studio.

While some artists make art for the sake of art itself, satisfied with the aesthetic and beatific connotation of what they have created, some seek to make a statement with theirs. In itself, any piece of art is aesthetic, but there could be a didactic function to it. It may be political; it may be a form of protest, or as it is with Toluwalope, a form of confrontation.

When I first came across Toluwalope’s artwork, which she named Imade, I suspected that there could be more to it than met the eyes. And so, my curiosity drove me to the artist herself.

“Can I get to know you?” I ask, after the formality of asking about her day and the erratic British weather.

 

“First, I’m a visual artist. I enjoy making things with my hands. I’m not just a conventional artist who just paints and draws. I make a lot of crafts. I do a lot of mosaics.” She pauses and adjusts in her seat before continuing. “I love intricate arts—arts that have to do with putting little bits together to form something big.”

Toluwalope is a versatile artist who works with different mediums—beads, fabrics, woods, plastic… anything she can lay her hands on. This is the reason she described herself as unconventional.

Also, a hair stylist, Toluwalope believes that her art and her passion for hair are connected. She would tell me more about this later.

A born artist, she had her first exhibition at the age of eight, organised by her father, who was the first fanatic of her work. The audiences were family and friends. The exhibitions were her dolls — which she had styled with different clothing — and the cartoons she drew in her books.

“That exhibition was not documented, but it really boosted my self-esteem.” As she speaks, I catch a glint of nostalgia in her eyes. She is smiling as she recalls being surrounded by her family and friends of her parents appreciating her artworks.

Being the only artistic one in her family, her creativity was met with support by her parents. But she would meet her first tutor and another believer in her art in her secondary school’s Fine Arts teacher, Mr Eneje Louis.

“That man believed in me,” she says, talking about the Fine Arts teacher. “He would take me on extra classes because he saw that I was talented, and I showed more interest than my classmates. And whenever he has a personal project, he would bring me on to work with him.”

She would go on to the University of Lagos to study Fine Arts, which showed her passion for the craft. In Nigeria, most students studying the course do so because the school decided for them, having scored below the requirement for their course of choice.

Back home in Nigeria, she did a lot of mosaic arts, which earned her some recognition and interviews. However, she wanted something beyond the conventional. She wanted something extra. And so, on being admitted to BCU for her MFA, she drew from her passion for hair making; her love for arts and her research into how colonialism has affected us as Africans to create something different. Hair became her major medium. She merges it with other materials that remind her of African heritage — fabrics, cowries, and symbols like Nsibidi (a system of symbols or proto-writing developed in what is now the far South of Nigeria). Toluwalope gives her artworks Yoruba names, connecting them to her roots.

She began to crown her artworks with different hairstyles of African origin to make statements—a call for people to embrace the kinky texture of their African hair.

“Hair is a symbol,” she says, talking about why she began to merge hair with artworks. “Hair tells the story of a culture, of a people. Looking at a person’s hair, you can tell where they come from, their ethnicity and ancestral lineage. As a hair stylist, I have come across over two hundred African women. I have also interviewed Nigerians here in the UK. Every one of them, at some point in their life, has altered the texture of their hair using chemicals. Many do not even get to have a choice when it comes to adding chemicals to their hair. It is just a practice they were socialized into from a very young age. When I asked some why they add chemicals to soften their hair texture, they said it was because they were made to believe that the kinky texture was not neat and desirable.”

To her, this fixation Africans have with hair with soft texture is not natural. She pointed out that before colonialism, there was a way we made our hair, with natural supplements that brought out its beauty. “The tough texture of our hair was never a problem. We manipulated it skillfully and beautifully. Why then,” she asks rhetorically, “do we now think we need to add chemicals to our hair to make it soft just to meet a certain beauty standard that is foreign to us?”

So, by merging hair with her artworks, she is telling a story of what was and what is; the change that has happened to our identity as Africans because of colonialism.

“I am trying to challenge that beauty standard that was created due to colonialism, telling Nigerians, Africans, to embrace the texture of our hair.”

She describes her artworks as confrontational. Arts that look directly into your eyes, charging you to embrace the texture of your hair with pride; arts that challenge that faux standard of beauty that Africans so much try to attain.

“My artworks are also about identity; they are about awakening that pride we should have as Africans. Our culture is rich, but it has been tainted.”

Displaying a brilliant insight into cultural imposition and appropriation from an artistic perspective, she explains that she is not against Westernization itself. She believes that no culture is superior to another and that every culture deserves to be preserved. To her, the only reason any aspect of a culture could be questioned or altered is when it is barbaric or inimical to human rights. To her, the appropriation of Western culture by all and sundry is harming diversity and originality.

Like all creatives, she experiences the occasional drought of ideas. “I have been sitting here all day, making awkward sketches, trying to think about what I will do this semester. But because I have my idea, I know I am going to come up with something.” When asked what she does whenever she is experiencing this kind of creative block, she says she takes a break and takes a walk around the campus to check out the works of other artists. “Every artist experiences a block. Whenever I am having a block, I go to galleries and take a walk around the school of art to see the works of other artists with similar works.” She mentions the likes of Sonia Boyce and an Ivorian artist, Tiake.

Explaining to me what she meant by intricacies, she steps off the face of the camera and gives me a panoramic view of her artworks in her BCU studio. Eventually, the camera settles on Imade and she proceeds to break down the creative process and idea behind it for me; how she puts bits of materials together to form something whole.

On the mosaic were Nsibidis, which symbolized the period before colonialism. The two images in black and white are a metaphor of what was, while the erect figure adorned in Ankara with Western imprints referred to a woman rising from dejection to become proud of who she is, her heritage, as symbolised by the kinky afro hair that crowned the artwork. The name, Imade, means ‘I should be crowned.’

Imade is part of three experimental artworks she made in the second semester of her post-graduate studies under the theme, ‘Being Beautiful’.

 

She chose the theme ‘Being Beautiful,’ because of the artistic influence of the Nigerian singer, songwriter, and poet, Beautiful Nubia. “Beautiful Nubia is a huge part of my art. His love for African culture draws me to him. He is truly beautiful, and he embodies the beauty of our culture. He wears his dreadlocks with so much pride.”

Although I am enjoying my conversation with the cheery personality at the other end, I have to end the interview. So, I ask one last question. What does the future hold for her art? Is she changing mediums or thematic direction?

She maintains that she will still be focused on using hair as her medium. “I am still going to be working with hair. Nothing is going to take that from me,” she says. “I am open to other mediums, but I really want identity to be the major theme of my works. And because of my love for hair, I feel like it is something that tells identity even without talking. When people see a certain hairstyle, they know instinctively that it is African, so yeah, I will be working with hair.”

However, she says because her works are realistic, she could experiment with abstract arts as well.

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