Carolyn Cooper | Alao Luqman, Nigerian diplomat promoting Jamaican textile art
I met Alao Luqman at the Grosvenor Gallery soon after he arrived in Jamaica in 2017. Enith Williams, a social and economic activist, introduced him to me. She’s the founder/executive director of the Reparations Finance Lab. Alao came as a cultural diplomat in a bilateral arrangement between the Governments of Nigeria and Jamaica. He was recruited to teach batik and tie dye. As fashionistas, Enith and I welcomed Alao, an authority on Nigerian fabric and design. Soon after, Enith hosted a gathering at which Alao engaged with several Jamaican textile artists.
Alao was first attached to the Tourism Product Development Company from November 2017 to April 2018. Then he moved to the Jamaica Business Development Corporation (JBDC). In 2019, the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport collaborated with the JBDC in support of Alao’s innovative projects. I suppose the technocrats didn’t know exactly where to place him. Alao’s expertise is applicable to tourism, culture and business development. At the JBDC, Alao established a wide range of training programmes in batik and tie dye, leather craft, beadmaking and metal art. He is also a lecturer at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.
A few years ago, I took a batik workshop with Alao at the JBDC. I had absolutely no expectations of producing anything that could reasonably pass for art. I was just following back a my sister Donnette who is a bona fide artist, practicing law on the side. Or so it seems. One of her art quilts, “River Mumma,” was recently featured in the 2022-2023 issue of Portal, the annual publication of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS) at the University of Texas at Austin.
Donnette’s quilt was used to illustrate the article, “River Mumma: Fluid Crossings and Mermaid Spirits in Revival Zion Religion,” by Khytie Brown, a Jamaican scholar in the Religious Studies department. Needless to say, Donnette created a brilliant batik piece at Alao’s workshop. Mine was certainly not at her level. But it was quite respectable. I even made stamps for my design. I was highly motivated by Alao’s patient encouragement of my amateur effort.
Alao is multi-talented. His primary field of creative practice is metalwork, not textile art. He shapes magnificent hammered-metal sculptures that document his Yoruba heritage. In 2019, he had a solo exhibition titled “Stories with metal.” The Nigerian High Commissioner at the time, Janet Olisa, launched the exhibition. She declared, “Alao has brought to us this important connection, and if we continue to understand the connection between us, it means that we are on the right track, and the right track is to always remember, no matter the ocean that separates us, we are still one people, and that, I must say, is the joy of tonight.”
River Mumma is one of those connections we must understand. West African religious ritual crossing the Middle Passage and transformed in Jamaica! Another is our cultural ties to India. The name of the printed bandana cloth that has become such a feature of Festival costumes in Jamaica is of Indian origin. It comes from the Sanskrit verb bandhna meaning to ‘tie.’ Authentic bandana cloth is tied and dyed.
At Alao’s solo exhibition of batik and tie dye textiles in August this year, he launched the ‘Jadire’ brand. That word, which he coined, signifies another important cultural connection: the Jamaicanisation of Adire, a traditional Yoruba textile art. Adire means tie and dye. Indigo is the primary dye used. The centre of Adire production is Abeokuta in Southwestern Nigeria.
In the 1830s, indentured labourers came to Jamaica from Nigeria. Some of them settled in Westmoreland and named their new home Abeokuta. Over time, the name became Bekuta. There is another fascinating Jadire connection. Jamaica produced large quantities of indigo dye as early as the 17th century. The precious pigment was known as blue gold.
Alao’s vision is that a cottage industry in textile art can be established in Jamaica. To mark Global Entrepreneurship Week, a group exhibition of work by four of Alao’s students should have opened on November 17 at the Regional Headquarters of The University of the West Indies. Because of bad weather, the opening had to be postponed to November 21. Charmaine Brown, Simone Natashi Gordon, Jacquline Mason Reid and Nella Stewart have done their teacher proud. They have created exceptional work, demonstrating the potential of textile art as a driver of economic development. The exhibition runs until December 9.
The JBDC shares Alao’s optimism. In September, the Ministry of Industry, Investment & Commerce posted a report on its website, “JBDC bats for a Jadire cottage industry.” Executive Director of the JBDC, Valerie Veira, who spoke at the launch of Alao’s solo exhibition, is quoted: “‘We want our textiles to be walking storybooks, telling our story, telling our history, et cetera,’ Veira said. Thus, the JBDC is working with Alao to develop a story bank of Jamaican symbols. . . . Jadire is a registered trademark, which is an indication of the ‘seriousness’ of the intention to establish a Jadire fabric cottage industry, she also revealed.”
In six short years, Alao Luqman has certainly made his mark in branding Jamaica as a producer of Jadire textiles. Before being appointed as a cultural diplomat, Alao was a PhD candidate at the University of Benin, the city that is the home of the world-famous bronzes. Many of them were stolen and are imprisoned in museums around the world. Alao has demonstrated that African creativity on the continent and in the diaspora is boundless. African art can be looted, but not the capacity to keep on creating.