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Installation view of Hybrid Spirit, 2020, featuring Adejoke Tugbiyele, Work Wife (2019) (image courtesy the Melrose Gallery)

Adejoke Tugbiyele manifests a “hybrid spirit” in her work, creating soulful, resilient sculpture-costumes, some of which are now on view in her online exhibition via the Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg. Tugbiyele’s works reference the formal qualities of umchayelo — Zulu grass brooms. These brooms conjure associations with the labor of women, who both craft and use them for domestic work. Umchayelo also evokes the pan-African religious practice of cleansing evil spirits, which are sometimes associated with queerness. Tugbiyele, a queer African feminist, repurposes the brooms in service of her eclectic perspective, embracing queerness alongside Indigenous African religions without separation.

Fittingly, the artist describes her Work Wife sculptures as “women who love women in solidarity, mission, and intention.” Painted black, the curvaceous, yet abstracted umchayelo forms gesture to Yoruba women standing and rhythmically pounding yam, or others turning their backs from their cooking in resistance. References to weaving abound, materially and metaphorically, through their forms and the intimate entanglement of queer feminist politics with pan-African traditions.

Adejoke Tugbiyele, “Olam (Male Nude) – Psychic Self Portrait” (2019) (image courtesy the artist)

Tugbiyele often performs wearing her sculptures in the tradition of Yoruba Egungun masquerade. One such performance, in Nirox Sculpture Park, is documented by South African photographer Clint Strydom. Tugbiyele blends in with the forest, camouflaged by the sculptures. The verticality of her body parallels the trees, while the grass of the umchayelo mirrors the environment. Tugbiyele transcends her own body, playing and dancing in nature, as opposed to conquering it.

In “Olam (Male Nude),” Tugbiyele repurposes the umchayelo to form a “psychic self-portrait” on an Ihiya cloth, used among Xhosa healers. The design is appropriated from the logo of Olam, a Senegalese grain manufacturer. Tugbiyele channels what she calls her “inner masculinity” through the form of the male nude, invoking the hybridity of her gendered experience while simultaneously alluding to erotic desire between men.

With Hybrid Spirit, Tugbiyele proposes a visual language through which the intimate connections between embodiment, spirituality, and queer African feminism can be explored.

Installation view of Hybrid Spirit, 2020, featuring Adejoke Tugbiyele, “Bull and Eagle” (2019) (image courtesy the Melrose Gallery)

Editor’s note (11/5/20, 5:28pm EST): This review has been updated to list the correct spelling of photographer Clint Strydom‘s first name, which was previously misspelled as Clynt. We regret the error.

Hybrid Spirit continues online through November 15 via the Melrose Gallery (10 The High Street, Johannesburg). The exhibition is curated Ruzy Rusike.

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Alexandra M. Thomas

Alexandra M. Thomas is a PhD student in History of Art, African American Studies, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Her research interests include: global modern and contemporary...

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