Born Chicago, IL, 1964 / BA, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria ; BFA, Kansas City Art Institute / Lives in Detroit
There is, it’s fair to say, a lot going on in a typical Jide Aje painting. Aje is both a visual interpreter of West African culture, and an interpreter of West African visual culture. If his starting point is fairly traditional, there is nothing conservative in his approach. Instead, his paintings illustrate a worldview in which cultures are dynamic, extensible, and in constant dialog with each other. It is a vision that, perhaps not coincidentally, is paralleled by an open-ended approach to painting that involves constant experimentation with process and media. The result is an immense body of work in which Aje simultaneously abstracts and explodes, constantly working to reduce his source concepts and visual language to their most fundamental forms, while never allowing them to settlIe.
Take, for example, Untitled with Blue Cowries #1, a relatively small work from 2007. The overall structure is a four-by-four grid, and many of the individual cells imply a further division into a smaller four-by-four grid. The work refers to the Ifá, the divination system that plays a central role in traditional Yoruba culture, and which is based on sixteen main books, each of which has sixteen parts (or Odu). The title, and the physical presence of the shells, refers to a method of divination in which eight Cowrie shells are cast, and depending on how they land (up or down) one of the 256 possible outcomes is indicated.
Knowing the relationship between the Ifá and the number base of sixteen gives some context to the recurring presence of groups, or grids, of sixteen in works such as Untitled #1991 B (1991) or Untitled #11206 (2006), but it’s clearly not Aje’s intention to create a literal representation. Identifiable elements of traditional West African culture may be present in these works, but as in Untitled with Blue Cowries #1, for example, it’s just a starting point for Aje to superimpose a dizzying array of collaged figures, threads and cables, beads, wrapped fabrics, and scratched or painted symbols. It’s a working process that can extend to non-traditional media such as in Africa Series Pupa #17110 (2010) where the collaged elements include packaging remnants that form much of the detritus of a global society. Ultimately, Aje’s works draw on traditional West African culture, but don’t have fixed boundaries, or a fixed interpretation – which is kind of his point.
In Yoruba culture there are hundreds of orishas (or deities), but only three words for color – funfun (or cool), pupa (or warm), and dudu (or dark). Aje uses this property of the Yoruba language to guide his palette in paintings such as Pupu, duda ati funfun #2 (c.1992/c.2002). He also uses the fact that each orisha has an associated color in works such as Panel for Orisha Funfun (1991), which, as the text in the painting indicates, is for Osun, the Yoruba orisha for fertility, who, as the title and the overall tone of the piece suggests, is associated with a generally cool temperament. The beautifully realized work Aje (2007) is not, as the name suggests, autobiographical, but actually about Aje, the orisha for prosperity, who, as might be observed, is also funfun.
A major concern of Aje’s paintings is texture. This is reflected directly in the highly detailed layering, scoring, and collaging that is a prominent feature of his work, but also alluded to by his interest in Adire – a traditional West African textile. Aje has used Adire as the primary influence for works such as Aladire (1991), but has also used the starch resist technique that is central to Adire as a part of his own process, and has incorporated Adire motifs as a recurring aspect of his work. As Aje says of his core visual language, he’s been using some of it for so long now that it appears unconsciously in works such as 2017’s Untitled #04817.
One of the beauties of Aje’s work is that it can be viewed rewardingly at any level from his entire oeuvre down to a detailed examination of a small section of an individual work. It may not always be possible for the viewer to determine the exact influences, but the overall tone of the work is always discernible, encouraging us to learn more about the cultures of West Africa, and to think more deeply about the history and future of our own.
Steve Panton, May 2018
Copyright Essay’d 2018