Portraiture is an art genre that is traceable to pre-historic times. The main purpose of portraiture is to capture the likeness of the subject. However, it captures more than just likeness. Through realistic, expressive, or symbolic means, portraiture shows the power, prestige, wealth, virtue, mood and other notable qualities of the subject. All these come together to form a visual statement of the subject’s personality. In doing this, portraits have indirectly recorded historical information about past ages because the fashion and other contents that appear in a portrait are pointers to accepted forms or vogues of the past.
In Awodiya Toluwani’s portraits, the art of portraiture pursues more than just statements about the subject as seen in his depictions of Black women in the Victorian era. History has shown that a significant black population existed in Britain before the Victorian era, many of them with African, Indian and Caribbean origins. The history of the black population in Britain is actually traceable to the Roman Empire. Evidences of this fact are available in writings, records and photographs. Black women form a significant part of that population (Ashenden, 2016; Old Bailey Proceedings, 2018). Historical, economic and cultural connections between Britain and America brought the shared experience of Victorianism (Howe, 1975:507-532).
The experience in America brought the “Black Victorians”- Black women who lived luxuriously as their white counterparts (Giacomazzo, 2021). The “Black Victorian” became a new standard for Black women in America; a synthesis that blended fashion ideals from the White society with the tradition of the Black society. Pictures of Black women of this era both in America and Britain are available though not common. While the history of art commonly reflects on the beauty and wealth of this age through the depictions of white ladies, that of the black woman is mostly uncommon.
Awodiya Toluwani’s portraits attempt to capture what portrait painting seems to have missed in history through the black lens by focusing on the black women of the Victorian era. In these paintings, Black women are depicted in the respectable fashion of the Victorian age and imbued with elegance, respect and seriousness such as depicted in ‘Legacy’ which shows a black lady by the window gazing contemplatively as if ruminating on love and prosperity; as the symbols in front of her eyes suggest. ‘Future’ symbolizes heritage handed down to the younger generation with eyes fixed and meditating attentively into the future. ‘Seven Lifes’ not only refers to the strength and indomitability of the Black woman, but is a depiction of beauty, poise and love from the human to the animal. ‘Munachi’ is a show of class, taste and fashion.
Generally, these portraits are painted on grounds textured with motifs, and this forms the peculiar style of these portraits. This symbolic innovation comes from Toluwani’s familiarity with Adinkra motifs from Ghana, Adire motifs of the Yoruba and Nsibidi of the Ejagham, both from Nigeria. These motifs are combined with Christian icons and many other personally generated motifs. Some of these motifs are traditional symbols that refer to knowledge, nature, insight, royalty, longevity and regeneration, wealth, love, coexistence and faith. The readable motifs make Toluwani’s portraits not only a cultural synthesis but a show of the good legacies epitomized by the Black women of the Victorian era. This creative idea is traceable to the study of traditional African art which the artist has received during his first degree in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
These portraits are a blend of two cultures (Victorian and African) that visually link the history of the Black woman in the Victorian era with Africa. Toluwani’s portraits are more than just portraiture; they are a pleasant result of an attempt to creatively and visually express history through portraiture. It is a creative development in its embryonic stage but with future aesthetic possibilities. For now, it is sufficient to state that this is a brilliant beginning, while the World looks forward to more of it and hoping that Toluwani Awodiya will take more steps forward in this direction.
Ajiboye Olusegun Jide (Ph. D)
Department of Fine and Applied Arts
Obafemi Awolowo University
Ile-Ife, Osun, Nigeria
Ashenden, A. (2016). ‘Photographs of black Britons in 1800s unearthed after 125 years reveal ‘rich and diverse black presence,’ Evening Standard https:// www.standard.co.uk/culture/exhibitions/photographs-of-black-britons-in-1800s-unearthed-after-125-years-reveal-rich-and-diverse-blackpresence-a3251531.html (accessed, September 2021).
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (2018). ‘The proceedings of the OLD BAILEY London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913 Population History of London’ https://www.oldbaileyonline.org// (accessed, September 2021).
Howe, D. N. (1975). ‘American Victorianism as a Culture’, American Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 5, pp. 507-532. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2712438 (accessed, September 2021).
Giacomazzo, B. (2021). ‘27 Rarely Seen Photos of ‘High-Society’ Black Women During the Victorian Era’ https://allthatsinteresting.com/black-victorianwomen (accessed, September 2021).