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Peju Layiwola: Like her mother, here’s how she is building generations of women through arts

By Oghoghomena Adediran

Peju Layiwola, a Professor of Art History, is a teacher like her mother, Princess Elizabeth Olowu. The beauty of her being a teacher is actually defined not just in her teaching university students, but how much she has empowered generations of women and youths teaching them the nuances of art forms; jewelry-making, cloth designs, paper art and lots more.

She gracefully sat with our team “At The Marina Today” and opened her world of building women; from very ordinary moments of gathering women to share in their passions, to phases of structuring her community of art trainers and trainees, to awakening the love of arts in young high school girls, and of course, to the times of very significant recognitions and partnerships supporting the capacity to enable communities have a voice , because they are able to make meaning from knowledge they have gained!

Our chat with Prof. Peju Layiwola

We would like to look at some of the things you’ve been doing lately. And our particular interest, away from your work at the University of Lagos, is what you have been doing at the Centre for training women and youths in art. What spurred this interest to bring the art into town, away from the university curriculum of teaching art?

Thank you very much for having me. I have always done community work and I learned that with my mother, Princess Elizabeth Olowu. When I was growing up in Benin city, she was hired several times by the Edo State Government to run workshops for women and I remember that I used to go with her as a young girl of about 11 years old, to the town centre known as Urukpota Hall in Benin city. And the women from the market would come, women from other markets, women who were unemployed, who had little salaries, would come to learn different arts and crafts from her. So, she never really invited me to take part, but she just knew that I knew how to do all the things she did. So, I joined her and began to demonstrate to the women and they were always very fascinated that a young girl could do as much as her mother. Even though those were free workshops, they were somehow paid for by the state government at the time. However, they would compensate me by giving me coins, because they were very happy that I was following in my mother’s tradition of art making. That actually began there and I saw that the women were totally immersed in learning and because Benin is also a very cultural city, you’ll find that the women were very talented, but here was a woman who was teaching more of contemporary arts, teaching women how to upcycle and recycle materials working with paper, making paper beads, using coconut shells to make jewelry and doing tie-dye and batik — so these were things that were new to them, and they were very excited about learning these skills because they knew that when they learnt these skills they would use them for making a living.

And how long ago was this?

I was 11 years old.

So coming from there, it was just planted in me that I could do this when I became more independent. So, it came naturally to me and when I got married in 1994, I was at the University of Ibadan campus. I wasn’t working because I left my employment at University of Benin where I started teaching in 1991. At the University of Ibadan, I had a young child and I was home. At every point in a woman’s life you find that there’s a time where you’re productive, there’s a time where you just have nothing to do much in your professional life because you’re taking care of children and family. So, I was raising a young family and I had a lot of time on my hands at home, so I began to think about what I could do. Incidentally, in the same place, we had many women who were married into different cultures and they were now at Ibadan, they had to relocate from where they were and they were totally at sea in Ibadan; they didn’t know where to buy foodstuff, meat or whatever. So they would come to my house and began to exchange skills, those who knew skills about how to make baby food, different types of meals would exchange those skills for the skills that I had – art making, so they circulated those skills amongst women and found a lot of fulfilment in that. It was back later that I began to think about restructuring this kind of beautiful initiative as it was, because it impacted a lot women who had so much time on their hands, children to take care of, had a new family to cater for and they were not employed. So, we began to think about how to restructure this into a more formal organisation, and I started the Women and Youth Art Foundation, which was now registered in 2004/ 2007. But before that time, because I was on the campus of the university, there was no art school at the university and word went round that there was an artist in the community and they thought that they could learn a lot from me. So I was hired to go to churches for free – it was Pro Bono, and youth groups, and we were teaching these skills I had acquired from my mother in Benin city. It got to a point that I was occupied almost every day and almost every weekend and I wasn’t being paid for it and it was taking a toll on me. So, I thought that the better thing to do was, since these skills were in high demand, to record the sessions into videos and anytime anybody came around for my service, I’d just give them these videos to play and it began to work. They would come back to say “we want the one for batik, “we want the one for bread making” and all of that.

You were still doing those for free?

Yes. They were recorded in VHM, since I was at the university and my husband was the director at the university media centre, I got to know some of the camera guys. They’d just put their tripod and camera and record the sessions — it wasn’t anything professional. It was important that the skills were disseminated without any difficulty, so that served a lot. This was 1994. In 1998, we decided to record into digital videos and change the format, and in less than seven years we were able to sell about 350 copies across Nigeria and parts of Africa. I remember when I started working at the University of Lagos in 2002, people used to come from the West Coast of Africa to buy them in thousands; so I realised that there was a need, it was filling a gap, and a gap in our educational system where we don’t have a lot of art teachers in secondary schools, where children are excluded from learning art very early. So, this was a way of taking art into the community, into homes, outside of school structure. So, children would watch this – parents also watch and sucked into buying materials for the children and in fact it would serve the entire family as a skill. It was a very beautiful way of teaching art and getting people to recognise the importance of acquiring skills. Coming from there, we registered the foundation; Women and Youth Art Foundation, and we did a lot of programmes, and we had a lot of money. At the time we started, we were going about asking for money and we couldn’t run the workshops outside of Ibadan where it was founded. But, when we began the DVDs, making and producing them, we had more than enough money to run the workshops in different parts of Nigeria, centred on the South-western part because then, I had a young family I couldn’t go far. We had to hire people who were also volunteers; it was still the same kind of skill circulation that we organised. We asked them to join us in workshops in Osogbo, Ede, Ibadan, and Lagos. It was incredible how people were picking up the skills and giving us feedback because our numbers were there. Our social media platforms were also there, so people were reaching out to tell us that they had set up their own businesses, they were doing very well and just calling to say “thank you” for the impact we had in their lives. We found that they were doing well and were very happy with the impact we had. It was worth more than money.

So, we set up the centre and people were coming to learn. It was a variety of skills, we were teaching art that was contemporary and also teaching art that was going extinct — art like gold-smiting, it was difficult to learn that unless you belong to a particular family. And it was also very expensive if you found someone to teach you the art or even bronze casting.

But they have guilds?

Yeah, there are guilds. Those guilds are very strong in Benin City. You can’t learn bronze casting unless you belong to them. But gold-smiting wasn’t an ancient art form, because gold wasn’t discovered about the same time as bronze was. So it was more contemporary. But it was still within families; a father would learn – and most of them were Ijebu, goldsmiths – and they would teach their sons, it would be within the family, so it was very difficult for that structure to be changed by bringing in people from outside. Even if you got someone willing to teach you he would ask for so much that you may not be able to afford it. But we had these skills because I learnt jewelry, casting in the University of Benin. So, I felt that I could teach the old processes and also teach the new and updated methods of gold-smiting. We had women, widows who were worried about not having a means of livelihood and those who were very rich but, they were worried so much about the loss of their husbands and so they were using art as a therapeutic form to unwind from the loneliness and the grief they were feeling, and we had testimonies of women that talked about the fact that they never even thought about their loss all through the period of their training.

When did you eventually move to Lagos?

We moved to Lagos in 2016.

How would you describe that period?  Because I know you were leaving a people who had gotten used to you, who had been able to discover a place where they came to and you were off.

That’s interesting. Because we were in Ibadan for a very long time and like I said we made a lot of money from the videos, we were able to run our workshops. Then, all of a sudden, everything dried up because we had pirates, who began to produce these videos and flooding the market with them. So, we didn’t get a dime from production, up till now, if you go to Oke-Arin Market you’ll see our baking CDs – they don’t come from us, the tie-dye CDs all over the place didn’t come from us. They were producing these things and put us out of business. We had to go through a period of rethinking what we could do with the foundation, with our workshops, because I was also subsidising my salary, which was also very meagre. As a university teacher, you don’t get paid very much in Nigeria. So, I had to think about ways which we could sustain this vision, because it was really a loft vision that it was impacting lives of people, and we didn’t want to go begging in people’s offices asking to see them because we needed a grant. But then we got a grant from the US state government. We got the first grant in 2011, which was a huge grant

Did you request for that?

For that one I didn’t have to write a proposal. I was invited to partner with the Bronx Museum of Arts in New York. And it was a US State Department project where they were sending about 15 Americans to different parts of the world. It was a one million dollar grant for this project, for the 15 artists who were selected.

What year was that?

It was in 2011.

So, one of the artists, Brent Cooke, who’s based in Berkeley California, was sent to Nigeria; he opted to come to Nigeria and I was asked to handle his project. It was structured in such a way that he would do part of it in Ibadan — so I didn’t forget Ibadan. We went to Ibadan and did this project with the All Saints College in Ibadan. I also took him to the University of Lagos where I was teaching, so that he could have community engagement with the students and people in the environment. We had this amazing roar that came up with that project because of the façade of the department of Creative Arts building. We did a series of workshops with the children in the school in Ibadan. At the end of that workshop, they wanted him to stay. But this is such a distinguished artist; the applications they got in the US for this Smart Power Project were over 900. So, that tells you the status of this grant and it was just 15 of them who got it. It was a Hilary Clinton project. We felt very privileged to have been able to do that. We were very small, very insignificant, nobody knew about us. We were making an impact in a local community, we didn’t have any international connection and here was this big thing that came to us. We felt very motivated and thought that we could do more so that inspired us to aspire.

Then, in 2017, we had a grant again. In 2016 we had moved to Lagos and we thought to launch our programme; we were going to do a community outreach programme in secondary schools in this area where we are located. We choose about six secondary schools to do art workshops, and we realised that these public secondary schools had no art teachers. So the children were not learning art, except for one school where they had an art teacher who was not very versatile in various arts and crafts. We therefore focused on those schools and thought to teach them tie-dye and batik, which is very well known in this Surulere area of Akerele, because of artisans who are very prolific in batik- making and fabric designing.  And so, we chose these schools and I got volunteers again including the University of Lagos students, to take part in teaching. Somehow, we got the attention of the US State Government again, but I had to write an application for a grant and we got a grant for that the next year, which was 2017, which was for that project.

We were going to those schools, we had 250 students per school, but we ended up taking about almost a thousand per school because we couldn’t exclude them. When we’d start a demonstration with a few hundred students the whole place would be crowded, they’d be climbing to see what they’re doing and say “I can do this too!…” So it was difficult to exclude those children so we decided to take as many as we could; we did so much even though the budget was for about 600 students, we went way above the number, so we also had to subsidise that by buying materials to accommodate these children who were very enthusiastic – we couldn’t shut them out. We had an amazing time with them and it was really incredible; the outcome and the impact it had on those students. We did jewelry, worked with coconut shells making jewellery; we did paper beads, ceramics, tie-dye and batik. It was a broad range of arts and crafts and designs as well.

And at the end of 2018, we got the US Alumni Exchange Award in 2018. So it’s just been going in that way; but you see, these grants come from particular projects. But in 2019, I was away for sabbatical for a year and I had to work at the Crystal Bridges Museum. I think the beauty of it is that, for that programme we did in Surulere in the schools, the attraction was that we used the local artisans here in Akerele, who were very good in what they were doing, but they didn’t have the flexibility of ideas. And so, I also engaged the university students who were trying to hone their pedagogical skills. So we brought those two streams of artists to impact the students who were the beneficiaries of this experiment; not just them, but also the two streams, because the students were honing their teaching skills, local artisans were learning more contemporary methods of fabric designing and so these three groups; there was a circulation of skills and that was really very impactful.

So, 2018, I took a break from the university and I went on sabbatical so I had to pick up employment at the University of Arkansas to teach Art History in spring semester and also was a Tyson Scholar for American Art at the Crystal Bridges Museum which is owned by Walmart in Bentonville,  Arkansas. That one year period was such a great time and then Covid struck. We were all at home; we had to do everything art at home so I began to think about the possibilities of virtual teaching and how it was also structured in the university where I was. It was seamless, the change from in-person classes to virtual and it was as impactful as when you saw your students physically. So I began to think about how it could work, how I could incorporate that in my teaching and so as post-Covid intervention we started the MasterArt classes. Which is also an art teaching platform but in this case we’re working with people who are ready to pay for the services.

As a Professor of Art History, you’ve been teaching art. I want you to explain to us what new experience the Covid pandemic brought into the way you’ll now be teaching art. I know people have had fusion of virtual teaching, in-person teaching. But, here must have been a new experience and what is your take away from that?

For me it was really great because the transition from in-person teaching to virtual teaching at the University of Arkansas was a great one for me. It was seamless, really seamless. And I thought that we could apply that to our mode of operation — you don’t have to bring people into your space and in fact that was the idea which I started in 1994 with the videos. It wasn’t very popular at that time but that was e-learning at that time in 1994. Because I realised that the work we had at hand was enormous, there was no way you could bring everybody that needed to learn a skill into your own space, so what you needed to do was to get the information out to them. And that was a virtual platform for that, also riding on this video culture, already we had this home video culture – we want to see videos when we watch films, and so Nigerians we’re already caught up on that tradition of watching and learning; so I thought that if you put up serous things, serous materials online they do learn. So, coming back to that again and in this case, we are using more recent platforms; social media platforms. I began to think about ways of evolving this; Women and Youth Art Foundation – we can run only when we have grants, because art materials are expensive; when you’re teaching new entrants into the arts, they just waste your materials and if you don’t have the funding for that, it is problematic. Unfortunately, we do not have people who are willing to support this kind of initiatives within Nigeria — which is very sad. All our funding has come from outside, which is a tragedy. I think that people are more given to funding entertainment rather than visual arts.

But this is something that will impact society very positively. You were talking about helping women and young girls learn skills that they can put to use. Rather than just play away their time or bemoan situations, they are progressively engaged; they can make money and they can in turn teach other people.

Yes, it’s such a beautiful idea, but we’ve actually suggested starting some projects, which is also free with a youth group. But the tapism that was involved in that with the organisation that administers the youth group was so cumbersome, I just let it off. We’re not here to gain; we’re just here to see as much as we can do for the society. I also think that it is borne out of the experiences other people encountered, but I let it go because I don’t think we’ve reached that point where we realise the importance of this. But we’re still on at Women and Youth Art Foundation, we just have this as a branch – the MasterArt classes, which is a post-Covid intervention where people come to learn, pay for particular classes. We have our website where the classes are domiciled, the courses are domicile and they just pay to learn. Women and Youth Art Foundation still exists, we haven’t done any programme over the Covid situation; we can’t be teaching art to a large group under this condition, until things improve. So, we have an active website and the materials are still out there. We have our magazines that people can get – two magazines we have on general craft and sugar craft.

So, we think that this virtual teaching is a great thing because you get a wider audience, and it is also much cheaper. We have people now for MasterArt classes also reaching out from the diaspora. It is incredible. People are saying they want to take part in the class; they want to learn about the art. But what we specialise in for MasterArt classes is not just about arts and crafts, but also about the indigenous knowledge systems, looking at African art and culture.




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