Greater Virtues: Peju Alatise on Women, Art and Real Freedom Monday 31 October, 2011

What the f***!

Of her least satisfying work, Peju Alatise has said: “Nobody will ever see it. I’ll pour white paint on it and start over. So that does not exist.” The paintings, writings and sculptures that did make the cut illustrate ideas of love, femininity and religion. Most importantly, Peju’s art reflects her own lived experiences. When […]


Peju Alatise

Of her least satisfying work, Peju Alatise has said: “Nobody will ever see it. I’ll pour white paint on it and start over. So that does not exist.” The paintings, writings and sculptures that did make the cut illustrate ideas of love, femininity and religion. Most importantly, Peju’s art reflects her own lived experiences. When I look at her paintings I feel like I’m seeing (and sometimes confronting) a piece of myself and a piece of Peju–a woman bold, sensitive and self-reflective. Here, Peju discusses what freedom means to her, the importance of it for African women and how her experiences growing up in Nigeria inspire her artwork. Her criticisms of the challenges facing black women are as impassioned as her hope that we can make things better and that art can help. Although Peju considers optimism her “weaker virtue,” her pieces remind me that hope is not always naive. Peju’s art inspires me to reach for my highest self–and, for artists everywhere that’s just practical.

African women, their enduring strength and beauty, are central to your visual and literary works.  How did you come to value your womanhood so much? 

Africa is a continent with so many issues derailing its progress in development. There is civil war, corruption in government, poor health care systems, apartheid, famine, poor management of resources–the list is near endless. Amongst the issues seen as least pressing are feminism and equal rights for women.

Only Woman

But, it has not always been this way, not in all tribes and ethnic groups. I belong to the Yoruba tribe from the western part of Nigeria. The precolonial traditions held back then held a noble place for the woman. The economic and trading power was her’s alone as men were prohibited from the market place. You had to respect the one that spent the money on behalf of the household–she was the caregiver in her community and traditional education was her forte.

All that changed with the western ideas of monogamy, the influence of foreign religions and the home-economics education. Vanity has replaced nobility. The caring for one another is replaced with suspicion. There is a disheartening loss of self-identity and the confusion of which gods to please. I wish I knew how it all went wrong because I only know that it is wrong.

I am of the opinion that if given the right choices, the woman can completely change her environment to a better one. The desperate need for change and improvement make me value my womanhood, knowing that “who and what I am” is critical for this change.

Can we talk about the creative process and inspiration for the pieces I’ve selected…

  •  Orange Scarf-First — I like the look of her looking and I wonder why she’s gazing up; I wonder, was she challenged to or was she invited to…

Orange Scarf-First

The orange scarf was my experience at the age of 16. I had gone to the prayer grounds with my parents and I wore this orange scarf to cover my hair and shoulders. One of the attendants was going to stop me from entering the prayer grounds for wearing a brightly colored scarf. I was told I was a distraction and God preferred me to be in black, grey, brown or dark blue. I was given a warning and a book; The book had details of punishments in hell for women who did not live accordingly.

It was my first internal dispute with the god of a religion that would bear a grudge against a minor for wearing an orange scarf to his prayer grounds. I have done several paintings with the title “Orange Scarf.” It is a silent rebellion for me that the art permits.

  • Just One Night — Well, I like what I see as the irony of it. The title is “Just One Night,” but from the look of the characters, it seems more than that. It made me wonder, even when we think we do, do we ever have “Just One Night,” with someone? Also, the woman seems to be in a position of power and confidence, it is the man who looks vulnerable in this piece. She is the one enveloped in the bold colors and his are cooler.

Just One Night

Just One Night is an illustration of an affair I had in the past. It was never meant to be more than that–so I thought. Once I was over my inhibitions of getting intimate with this person, I allowed myself to feel every emotion in the experience we had.

Well, he was not supposed to be with me at all, having a lot on his mind–I guess that is why he has the troubled look on his face. Just One Night is a story of an illicit affair.

  • What the f***!–I was drawn to this because of the imagery and the title. I liked that it showed her “what the fuck!” moment not as outward rage, but internal.

What the f***!

What the f**k! is in three parts. It is the same woman painted in three zoom in ranges. It is the story of an introspective journey. If I had the opportunity to see my entire journey and experiences in this lifetime before living it, this would be my reaction. And when I look back on all that I have seen, said and done thus far, this would still be my reaction–it would be a story very familiar to thousands of other women.

Of your story, Orita Meta, chronicling the interwoven journeys of three women, you’ve said: “The greatest challenge they face is being African Women.” What would you say are the most pressing challenges facing African women?

Orita Meta

Within my continent, I think the most pressing challenge will be that of “The Right to Choose.” The right to choose your life, to choose education, to choose health, to choose love, to choose her governmental representatives, to choose who and when to marry, to choose how many children she wants, financial independence, self-improvement, faith, what to wear…and, I could go on. The right to choose is the first step to consciousness/awareness. The right to choose is the path to accountability for with every choice there is a consequence of responsibility. Free will is exercised by making choices.

I must say that I live in a part of Nigeria where a girl can become an architect, doctor or engineer–and, for this, I am forever thankful. But, there is still an unhealthy relationship between men and women, where a boy child is more valuable than a girl child. The role of a man is an oppressive dominance in most aspects.

In general, in a world where inequality of the races and ethnicities is tolerated, the darker the skin the more difficult your journey of acceptance will be, the more challenges you face. The disparity does not end with the skin color alone. There is discrimination amongst black people where the closer you are to the origin of Africa the less consideration you get.

What do you think art has to offer in terms of healing and solutions?

Art can be used as an instrument of change. Exposure to the arts is exposure to a type of education, knowledge of history, perceptions of the mind and spirit, an understanding of the world and advancement in culture. They say an artist is a reflection of the society in which he or she lives. They also say humans are often too myopic to see the bigger picture of life. Unfortunately, humanity is not myopic enough to see him or herself, hence the need for an artist. The people get to see their true nature in the message of an artist. Sometimes I think that art can save the world because it saved me, but optimism is my weaker virtue.

Your compatriot, Chimamanda Adichie, has said that while she’s not committed to a particular religious faith, the process of creative expression is when she feels connected to a spiritual source. Would you say the creative process is similar for you?

Convert of a Jagged Cross

I do not belong to any religious faith–this displeases my father–and I blame the dogmatism of religion for many atrocities committed. But, I am spiritual.

Yes, my art comes from a spiritual place, I just cannot articulate the process. I am fortunate to have the ability to see ideas even with my eyes open. I dream a lot about my work. I get a lot of solutions to my ideas just at the moment I am about to be fully awake.

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

Living unchained means “the freedom to be me,” as I live an unchained existence.

There are people chained by their own thoughts! I am thankful that my thoughts are to me a tool to work with, so is my body. I am fully aware of myself and I accept me most times. But, with freedom comes a responsibility; I am learning to live a balanced life.

Written by Kathryn Buford



  • Spectra says:

    Can’t believe I “just” stumbled upon this interview. Thank you so much for this beautiful interview, along with the sharing of images of Peju’s work. As a Nigerian woman, who is similarly “spiritual” (but not religious), and who is also an artist, I relate to much of what you say about having your art inspired by your vision of humanity and role of women. I found myself nodding throughout the interview. Peju, you are a gift to us, thank you.

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