I Claim That Which Was Never Mine

6.3 / Dimensions: Expanded Measures of Textiles

I Claim That Which Was Never Mine

By Bukola Koiki February 26, 2015

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and moved to the United States as a teen. From spending so many years away from my place of birth and returning to Nigeria only twice, I have experienced bouts of intense homesickness that I have only recently begun to explore through my artistic practice. A recent trip to Lagos for my sister’s wedding brought those feelings charging up to the surface again, along with some anxiety about how I would fit into my culture. Would I reenter it smoothly and without incident, like putting on a well-worn glove, or would I be revealed for the imposter I sometimes feel like—an Americanah—like struggling to squeeze into a pair of jeans two sizes too small?1

These questions of cultural dislocation and belonging are at the heart of my project, I Claim That Which Was Never Mine. Developed during my second year of graduate school, this piece explores the possibility of claiming my cultural membership by attempting to master the gele, the traditional Nigerian head tie.

  Bukola Koiki. I Claim That Which Was Never Mine, 2014; installation view, This Could Fail: An Optimistic Exhibition of Works In Progress, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist and the Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, Oregon. Photo: Samantha Estrella. 

A gele can be considered an object in an informal rite of passage for Nigerian women. At some point, a young woman learns to tie this large, unwieldy piece of cloth as a personal adornment worn with the traditional family uniform (aso ebi) for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and baptisms. To some Nigerians, an outfit is incomplete without a gele. It is of such importance to the culture that a whole industry, both in Nigeria and in Nigerian communities abroad, is centered on experts who can help you tie the perfect gele in a variety of styles to match mood and occasion.2

For my project, I watched online tutorial videos about tying geles, looked at old pictures of family members wearing geles, and tapped into memories of my mom tying a gele. I chose to showcase three of the many head ties I have created with untraditional textiles: two Tyvek pieces with different surface treatments—one indigo-dyed and the other created with a spray-coated charcoal rubbing of train tracks—and one indigo-dyed canvas piece. I recorded all of my attempts at tying the head ties in video and photography, documenting the frustrations and occasional triumphs of my journey, which at times has felt quite futile. When this work is exhibited, the wraps are displayed on a table alongside the video documentation.

Bukola Koiki. I Claim That Which Was Never Mine, 2014; installation view, This Could Fail: An Optimistic Exhibition of Works In Progress, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist and the Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, Oregon. Photo: Samantha Estrella.

The choice of textiles is deliberate. The Tyvek is a strange, New World material that is neither cloth nor paper but somewhere in between; it serves my purposes for this reason and that it represents the foreign, American world in which I now live. I don’t necessarily speak Tyvek’s language, but after working with it, I have developed a kind of patois so as to communicate with Tyvek on its own terms. Canvas is another unfamiliar cloth for me, one I don’t remember when growing up in Nigeria. However, its weight and weave structure remind me of the traditional gele cloth of Yorubaland called aso oke (meaning “top cloth”), which are handwoven in strips on a narrow loom and then sewn together to create bigger pieces of cloth for the head or waist. I chose to work with whole pieces of canvas and had to discover through trial and error what I could achieve with them, through many attempts at tying, stitching, and dyeing.

Concepts of memory and cultural displacement have always interested me.

Concepts of memory and cultural displacement have always interested me. In my work, I explore the idea of claiming an experience and rite for myself that I never learned “at my mother's knee,” so to speak. I wanted to represent and remove that distance by using unfamiliar, utilitarian materials as surrogates for the real textiles, which are objects of the domestic space. I use Tyvek as a substitute for the stiff, multicolored synthetic geles and canvas as a substitute for the thick, handwoven aso oke strip-cloth geles.

For each gele, I take approximately two yards of material and tie it in a chosen style; I then remove the material from my head still folded and proceed to stitch all the folded and layered edges of the head tie in order to retain evidence of my attempt to create the gele. It is then tightly cinched and dyed in an indigo vat. I chose indigo, a precious pigment found across Nigeria, specifically for its cultural and emotional symbolism: for the Yoruba, indigo signifies coolness and an analytical, levelheaded temperament. The fact that it is a plant-based dye found around the globe speaks to the transcultural experiences of people of the diaspora. Additionally, the fact that indigo dyeing is a much treasured though slowly fading skill among the Yoruba—one that I learned in America, in a class on Japanese shibori techniques—lends additional poignancy to the idea and experience of learning a cultural skill in absentia.

Bukola Koiki. I Claim That Which Was Never Mine, 2014; installation view, This Could Fail: An Optimistic Exhibition of Works In Progress, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist and the Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, Oregon. Photo: Samantha Estrella.

After the dyeing is complete and the strings are removed from the material, the resultant marks and textures of the cloth resemble deep scars that represent, to me, the peaks and valleys of emotions and memories built up over my years of living between cultures.

At first, the video documentation was a way for me to analyze my tying skills. However, after I viewed the footage with others, it became clear that there was an emotional depth to the performed activity that could supplement the textile objects. The video shows the heroic futility in my attempts at claiming this cultural experience, a rite of passage that I never experienced, one that was never mine to begin with.

Bukola Koiki. I Claim That Which Was Never Mine, 2014; video. Courtesy of the Artist. 

When displayed, the head-tie objects on the table are visual representations of tying attempts; sometimes one object embodies multiple attempts, as with the indigo-dyed Tyvek and canvas pieces. After an initial stitching and dyeing, which preserves the first attempt, the material is re-wrapped; the stitch marks never line up again. This is the same problem with human memory: it’s unreliable. No two people will remember an event in the same way, and my recall of a single event can vary in detail from one telling to another. So, too, is the discrepancy between my cultural memory of what tying a gele entails and my attempts to recreate this rite of passage that I never experienced. This discrepancy reveals itself in the finished piece.

In the year that I have lived in Portland, Oregon, I have come to appreciate the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the friendliness of its people. However, it does not escape my notice that Portland is not a diverse city. Similarly, although many of the professors and artists I work with in my program are very knowledgeable and respected in their fields, not many of them are people of color or immigrants, qualities I find now to be very important as both an immigrant and a woman of color. Looking out into one’s chosen field of work and seeing oneself represented there gives one a sense of place and belonging. When speaking about and showing my work, I have often noticed a strange but palpable resistance from my audiences. Their questions focus on my supposed obsession with a loss of Nigerian culture and their puzzlement over why I do not more fully acknowledge what I have gained in the United States.

Bukola Koiki. Studio shot, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist.

These questions make me bristle, with their implication that I am ungrateful to America. I think they miss my point. I am very grateful for the education and freedoms that I have attained in America, but those things were hardly given to me. I have worked tirelessly to earn every inch of ground that I stand on. In so doing I have had to shed parts of myself that I brought with me from my place of birth, in order to assimilate and progress both personally and in my education as an artist. In addition, I have sacrificed spending time with parents and siblings and missed important cultural events and special occasions. It only makes sense that I have bouts of homesickness, given that I find myself in the strange liminal space of straddling two cultures.

So, by necessity, I find myself returning to Nigeria in my current work even if the journey happens at a geographic, temporal, and material distance. The artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who is of Nigerian descent and whose large collage-style drawings and paintings garnered her the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s James Dicke Prize last year, has said of her work, “My art addresses my internal tension between my deep love for Nigeria, my country of birth, and my strong appreciation for Western culture, which has profoundly influenced both my life and my art…My art serves as a vehicle through which I explore my conflicted allegiance to two separate cultures.”3 It is a sentiment to which I can relate and that I also see expressed in the work of other globally dispersed artists of Nigerian descent such as Wura-Natasha Ogunji and Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze. I can only hope that my work will be someday be mentioned in the same breath as my contemporaries—as work that contributes to the global conversation about the growing generation of cosmopolitan Africans who work to conceptually and materially expand and reinvent traditional mediums.


  1. Americanah is an old Nigerian slang term and the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel.
  2. I believe that the almost magical appeal of head ties for the Yoruba and their obsession with perfecting the art of tying gele stems not just from their love of a grand costume but also from the fact the Yoruba venerate the head as the seat of the soul. Therefore, anything that touches the head must be special itself and is also made special by being imbued with the soul’s power.
  3. Kimberly Foster, “Artist to Know: Njideka Akunyili Crosby,” The Culture: For Harriet, September 2, 2014, http://theculture.forharriet.com/2014/09/artist-to-know-njideka-akunyili-crosby.html.

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