2021 LSA Distinguished Scholar Award Nomination by Ayobola Kekere-Ekun (PhD Student at the University of Johannesburg/Lecturer at the University of Lagos)
It is my pleasure, privilege and honour to nominate Professor Peju Layiwola of the Department of Creative Arts, the University of Lagos for the 2021 LSA Distinguished Scholar Award. I first met Professor Layiwola as a newly enrolled undergraduate student of the Department of Creative Arts in 2009. I went into my first ever interactions with her trailed by the whispers of her reputation as a highly capable force of nature and several years later, I can boldly say that while said rumours were true, they did not begin to scratch the surface of this incredible scholar. For over two decades, Professor Layiwola has gracefully donned a dizzying array of mantles. She has and continues to be a teacher, scholar, artist, administrator, mentor, activist, and collaborator. Upon the completion of her M.A. in Visual Art History at the University of Ibadan, Professor Layiwola began her illustrious career at the University of Benin. She soon moved to the University of Lagos where she has spent the majority of her career, attaining her PhD in 2004 and her professorship in 2017.
The oeuvre of Professor Layiwola’s scholarship as an art historian can broadly be divided into two clusters. The first is her dedication to exploring Benin and to a lesser degree, Yoruba artistic legacies. Her research unpacks relevant and timely postcolonial themes such as memory and cultural imagery, repatriation and restitution, and gender and cultural heterodoxy. The restitution question remains a thorny and complex issue in contemporary Africa, the solution to which continues to be hotly debated. Professor Layiwola’s calls for the return of looted Benin artefacts and her contributions to this body of knowledge have been of grave import to the intellectual discourse surrounding the issue. She positions the looting of the Benin Kingdom in 1897 as an act of violent commodification, a perspective that contributes significantly to a body of knowledge contending with pressing issue of post-colonial cultural identity. She also highlights how the absence of these objects creates a form of ‘cultural amnesia’, a subtler, but no less devastating form of violence in its own right that transforms the rightful heirs to a culture into strangers dependent on second-hand knowledge of their heritage.
The second cluster focuses on exploring largely utilitarian and deceptively mundane craft traditions connected to her dual Benin and Lagosian heritage. Professor Layiwola’s research positions the ‘ordinary’ within complicated historical and socio-cultural contexts, uncovering the inherent richness and density of everyday traditions. By intellectualising the study of artistic traditions often broadly dismissed, she has played an instrumental role in reclaiming the importance of practices and traditions that many would argue are also undermined and dismissed as ‘women’s work’. Her research highlights how the threads of daily customs feed into an overall tapestry of empathetically considering one’s history and identity. Professor Layiwola’s approach to scholarship, in my opinion, exemplifies the inherent spirit of one of my favourite quotes, “the personal is political.”
Her dogged dedication to rigorous scholarship makes her successful practice as a studio artist all the more remarkable. Her artistic practice is characterised by a flexible, multi-disciplinary approach and a particular affinity for working with metal that situates craft-based techniques within the weighty themes she unpacks in her research. Her art also emphasises the process of production. This approach underscores how the often time-consuming techniques she works with can be read as art forms distinct from, yet connected to the resulting art objects she produces. Till date, there are over nineteen exhibitions to her credit home and abroad in prestigious venues such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, Abuja, Kunsthaus Dresden Municipal Gallery of Arts, Dresden, Goethe Institute, Lagos, Raw Spot Gallery, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of art, Lagos. Critical essays exploring her artistic practice have been penned by authors such as Antawan Bryan, Barbara Winston Blackmun and Tobenna Okwuosa. She has also participated in several residencies including the 2017 Goethe Institute Grantee, Artist-in-Residence program and the 2018 Residency for Artist and Writers (RAW), Arts of Africa and the Global South Research Programme.
It is also important to highlight Professor Layiwola’s commitment to community service. Her non-profit initiative, the Women and Youth Art Foundation was established in 1994 to facilitate economic empowerment by providing training in arts and crafts production to youth, women and disenfranchised groups. The foundation democratised and optimised access to its lessons on craft production by creating and distributing DVDs of tutorials. Over three hundred thousand copies were disseminated within seven years. Through strategic partnerships and funding from various institutions, the Women and Youth Art foundation have also been privileged to widen the scope of its community outreach programs. In 2012, a partnership with the Bronx Museum led to the Foundation hosting the Hilary Clinton Smartpower project in Lagos. The project facilitated a series of workshops and a community-supported public art project at the University of Lagos, led by American artist, Brett Cook. With the aid of the US Consulate Small Grant awarded in 2017, the Foundation spearheaded a series of art workshops and sensitisation schemes concentrated in sixteen secondary schools in Lagos State. The project aimed to bring an awareness of craft production as a well as the viability of creative arts as an area of study to youth who are less likely to have access to this information due to socio-economic barriers.
In addition to a career marked by participation in over forty workshops and conferences, and close to three dozen published articles and book chapters, Professor Layiwola also has taught in many institutions including the University of Benin, the University of Lagos, the University of Ibadan and the University of Arkansas, for twenty-nine years. Professor Layiwola continues to enjoy a well-earned reputation as an educator dedicated to excellence and fostering a sense of genuine curiosity in all her students. It would not be amiss to assert that she has an enviable career by many standards. Based on this meritorious track record, I hereby nominate Professor Peju Layiwola for the 2021 LSA Distinguished Scholar Award. An honour so well deserved would be an important signifier of respect and acknowledgement for a woman who continues to relentlessly pave roads where none existed.