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Adire - The History Part 2

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Adire eleko - paste resist

In the years after World War II when American tourists began visiting Nigeria, adire eleko makers introduced a new overall pattern they called Amerika, an overall pattern similar to the "leaves" design. Although no Yoruba could explain its meaning or origin, it bears a striking resemblance not only to airplane propellers, but to the American "Double Wedding Ring" and "Orange Peel' quilt patterns. Rather than adire eleko motifs having inspired early 19th century American quilts (as Wahlman and others have ahistorically suggested), something American - if only tourists who preferred this design - appears to have inspired an adire eleko motif.

Another popular design derived from a modern outside source combines images of Britain's King George V and Queen Mary, taken from the 1935 banners celebrating his silver jubilee, with images from a popular Moslem devotional picture printed in Egypt and sold at most Nigerian markets, and various mottoes. Sometimes the king and queen are replaced by Adam and Eve; sometimes the Moslem flying horse is replaced by a lion. The complicated design is produced with a stencil rather than by painting, but because many of the stencil makers are illiterate, the letters in successive stencil generations often look more like symbols than letters. The cloth is calledOloba, "owner of a king" - the owner of the cloth "owns" the images on it.

Moslem image of Mohammed's flying horse; details from post-1935 Oloba cloth picturing horse and Jubilee motifs; Jubilee magic lantern slide.

What sets adire eleko apart is its witty, often humorous depiction of items of 20th century material culture, including sugar cubes, matches, car parts including tires and radiator fans, and sewing machine pedals - all of which are the designs' actual names.

Although some parallel exists to the Euro-American fashion for "conversation prints," eleko makers unhesitatingly juxtapose unrelated objects in a single block for graphic impact. In one block, the Moslem Koran board (similar to the European hornbook) is alwaysflanked by European dining forks; the two objects' only common feature is a similar basic shape. Likewise, in Opo ilee Mapo, "Pillars of Mapo Hall," spoons alternate with stylized renditions of the columns on Ibadan's town hall, built by the British in 1925. This sort of artistic license suggests that while the objects depicted may have some basic cultural reference, their selection is determined at least as much by aesthetics, familiarity, and ease in depiction as by symbolic meaning; such cloths are, after all, made for resale. (Notably, the value an Opo ilee Mapo cloth is determined by the number of spoons in the column block, more spoons evidencing a greater degree of skill and labor involved in making the cloth.)

This is further indicated by the way many adire eleko cloths are named:

  • Some derive from an obvious theme (such as eyepe, "all birds").
  • Others are more stream-of-consciousness. Olokun is the name of the god of the sea, but when Atlantic trade with Europeans (often in the form of slaves) brought wealth, Olokun also became the god of prosperity. The adire pattern called Olokun always has an unusual format (two strips, 2x5 blocks each, plus a narrow border of smaller blocks), but its blocks may consist of any of a number of motifs which somehow relate either to the ocean or to prosperity.
  • Still others get their name from a single motif that must appear among the many patterns it contains. Ibadandun ("Ibadan is sweet") must be made on a grid 4x7 squares long, and must contain at least one of the spoons-and-pillars pattern just mentioned; otherwise, it can include any blocks the maker chooses (typically the same ones her mother did). Notably, the same pattern is made in Abeokuta, but there it is referred to as Egba gbavi, "Egba is a popular place". Classifying or naming a cloth's design by the single motif it must contain rather than by its overall effect is uncommon among European cultures.

(culled from www.hartcottagequilts.com)


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