PhillyFolk Artists

Yekini S. Atanda

Nigerian Textile Artist

Yekini S. Atanda was born in Onitsha Nigeria, in 1947, a Yoruba omoba, or son of a king. While he studied advanced art formally in high school from 1962-1967, and at the University of Ibadan from 1967–1971, Atanda mastered batik-making skills through intensive training from traditional artists, elders, and divination priests, babalawo, over three decades. Teachers included Jacob Afolabi, and local iyas and babas, mothers and fathers, trained in the textile arts of Oshogbo, Osun State, as well as artist and olorisha Susanne Wenger. He was given the post of curator of traditional arts at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1976 because of his skill and eagerness to learn, preserve, and sustain traditional Yoruba and West African visual art forms. Atanda’s continuing close relationship with Oshogbo’s resident griot or singing divination priest, Babalawo Kayode, is a constant source of cultural inspiration for his visual art work, both in Nigeria and in Philadelphia where he now lives.

Living in Philadelphia, beginning in the early 1990s, Atanda created batiks (working both back home and locally), fostered Yoruba cultural groups, and acted as a mentor for African and African American artists, but with limited time and resources. Atanda continues to work in the traditional style, using a bird feather, iro, to make a design or depict a scene with melted wax onto plain cloth, and dying with indigo on the knotted cloth. (The indigo, cloth, wax, and feathers he currently uses are either purchased from local African merchants in Philadelphia or brought back from Nigeria.) The scenes depicted in Atanda’s batiks originate from the mythology and folktales associated with the Odu, or Ifa divination corpus, which consists of over 268 liturgical verses memorized by the babalawos. These verses provide much of the framework for aesthetic and ritual life.

Atanda’s exploration of these motifs in his art illustrate an ongoing active engagement with the intellectual and artistic aspect of traditional and folk Yoruba culture. During the annual Osun Festival in Oshogbo, as a prince, Atanda is responsible for making a cultural contribution for the deity Osun, as well as to the larger community. His training in creating Adire Oje or traditional ‘Golden Cloth,’ has been his personal ise, or work towards this important cultural contribution for over three decades. He is a welcome guest in the sacred grove, or the Igbo Osun, of the principal deity of the town. These continuing connections nourish his work. Atanda’s batik work was exhibited in numerous important exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s in Oshogbo, and Ibadan, Nigeria, as well as Ivory Coast, Republic of Benin, Togo, Niger Republic, Mali, London, Paris, Chicago, Los Angeles (the African Arts Center, UCLA) and New York, where, in 1990, he was commissioned to create magnificent batik curtains for the National Black Theater. Atanda was included in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art Library’s Nigerian Artists: A Who’s Who Bibliography in 1992. In the early 2000s, he has taught Yoruba music and dance at the local Yoruba Cultural Summer Institute of the Yoruba Development and Cultural Organization of the Delaware Valley. He has had only a few exhibitions here, at the Painted Bride Art Center in 2003, and at the Folklore Project (Community Fabric) in 2006-2007. He began working with PFP’s Technical Assistance program in 2002, hoping to open a studio here and to resume the scale of work of which he is capable. In 2004, he received a fellowship from the Independence Foundation to take on some students. In 2005, he received a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.