Babajide Olantunji – History of the Yorubas ( Volume I) – Obatala’s time at the forge of Sokoti (Alagbede Orun), 2018

Babajide Olantunji – History of the Yorubas ( Volume I) – Obatala’s time at the forge of Sokoti (Alagbede Orun), 2018 is a premier work by Babajide Olantunji, also his largest work at 4 meteers wide and his first using Acrylic Paint. The Yoruba creation myth tells a tale of how Obatala (the central character in the painting) and a member of Olodumare’s council of gods thought it wisdom to create man. He got Olodumare’s blessings then proceeded to Orunmila, the god of wisdom and knowledge, to ask for advice concerning his proposed enterprise.

The scene in the painting takes from a fictional moment in the Yoruba creation myth. It follows a visit by Obatala to the forge of Sokotí, for an inspection of work commissioned – a gold chain long and strong enough to reach Ode Aye (Earth) from Isalu Orun (The abode of the gods). The artist in executing this piece attempts to capture a powerful and evocative behind the scene event of creation in the Yoruba mythology.

  • Acrylic on Canvas
  • 110 1/5 × 181 1/10 inches
  • 280 × 460 cm

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Hidden Proverbs and Meanings in the Painting

The subjects are arranged to form a triangle with its apex at Obatala’s head. The inclusion of this three-sided geometric shape follows the belief of the Yorubas in the significance of the number three. The Yorubas believe that a man’s sojourn on earth is in three parts: Morning represents the birth of man, Afternoon represents the growth, vicissitudes, and acme of man and night is decline and death.

The triangle is repeated all over the canvas: It shows in the hammer and anvil placed in the middle foreground. As the hammer cannot shape metal without an anvil, so can a man not progress solely by his own efforts. It shows in the arrangement of the two blacksmiths at the anvil on the left; their heads form an apex, and their right feet form the lower vertices of a triangle. Here, meaning follows the proverb; Àgbájo owó ló’n gbérù d’órí (It is with both hands one lifts a heavy load to the head). The muscular arms of the two men at far right also form a triangle, with the top of the narrow anvil as its base.

The wooden bucket lying on its side in the foreground, knocked over earlier and resulting in water spillage on the ground and into the viewer’s space references the Yoruba proverb; “Eni tí ó bá da omi sí iwájú ló máa te ilè tútù”, which translates to “he who pours water forward will surely step on cool ground”. Its contextual meaning being if you sow seeds of goodwill you will reap equally favourable rewards.

Babajide Olantunji - History of the Yorubas ( Volume I) - African painting MoMAA
Babajide Olantunji - History of the Yorubas ( Volume I) - Detail
Babajide Olantunji - History of the Yorubas ( Volume I) - African Painting MoMAA
Babajide Olantunji - History of the Yorubas ( Volume I) - Detail

Color Scheme Painting

The colour scheme, though simple, is important and chosen with care because it bears significance and information. Sokotí wears red, a colour associated with the god of Iron, Ògún. Two other blacksmiths in the painting also wear the colour. Highlighted points and objects are: the colour red, the light at the furnace, the glow of hot gold, and Obatala at the centre of the composition. The blacksmith holding a white feather and green leaf has a white cloth tucked in the band of his loincloth. The colours of these clothes are not at all unlike the national colours of modern Nigeria. The blacksmith with the dirty white loin cloth is an echo of Obatala in the painting. A mortal portend, he wears the colour of the god suggesting that he is the only devotee of the god in the painting.

Obatala: Deduced Meanings Painting

Obatala’s central position is deliberate as it asserts him as a powerful force. He is the originator of life on earth. Obatala alone holds the gaze of the viewer, as if he couldn’t care less about the happenings at the forge, or Sokotí’s gesturing at the magnificent gold chain the blacksmiths are laboring at. It is as if in that moment, the present and the past, long before the time of humans, meet when the viewer gazes at the creator at a time when preparations were being made for creation. The other characters in the forge are not aware of the viewer standing with them, but Obatala, a god, senses man from the future and returns his gaze with a knowing look. When the viewer stands in front of this painting, time shifts and is reconstructed, future meets the past, and the present hangs in the balance in-between.

Obatala is all dressed in white, as legend describes him. The artist decides not to paint him in a ceremonial outfit. Here, his appearance is stripped down to simple garb with subliminal messages in accordance to Yoruba beliefs and culture: He wears a simple workman’s cap with two cowries attached. The number two in Yoruba belief signifies abundance; it is the number of the sacred Ìbejì (twins), for it is believed that two is better than one. In nature, cells multiply in twos. The number of cowry shells suggests Obatala’s intent to create man, and that man multiplies. (It however does not take into account the recurrent presence of the number three and the prophecy it represents; a caution and a reminder that man, though divine in source, is mortal and is possessed of life that is destined to end.)

His shirt, beneath the agbada is a mottled white, unembroidered and simple. It is also a workman’s shirt meant to describe his station as a sculptor, as an artist first. His askew agbada also emphasises this idea. The hem of his garment is dirtied, an allegory to the mortality of a god, a portent of his coming fate as the creator of all things imperfect. He is barefoot, as if though a god is to be elevated beyond touching any impure mortal plane, he chooses to connect with the tool of his art.

In his left hand, he holds the Opa Osooro, an iron staff associated with his worship. A bird above a bell sits on top of the staff with six rings on either side. The bell chimes with his movement. On his shoulder is the chameleon, one of his companions, which tested for the earth’s firmness before he dropped to earth. In his right hand is a five-toed chicken, his companion that spread the earth he poured to form mountains, ridges and valleys. His cat, a companion to discourage loneliness, walks before him.

Babajide Olantunji - History of the Yorubas ( Volume I) - Obatala’s time at the forge of Sokoti (Alagbede Orun), 2018
Babajide Olantunji - History of the Yorubas ( Volume I) - Detail
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