At a time when Nigerian filmmakers are increasingly telling epic African stories in their truest form, innovative costume designers who are great arbiters of character transformation on screens with an understanding of the times are in high demand to help bring the characters from screenplay to life.
Just like the popular saying ‘manners maketh the man’, in filmmaking, the clothes make the character. How do you transform Bimbo Ademoye, a 21st century movie star into a Queen in the 19th century Oyo Empire? Through the work of a costume designer. How do you explain to viewers that Saro in Anikulapo is a young merchant who went through different stages of life without saying it? A film costume designer.
Although there are hundreds of designers in the Nigerian filmmaking industry helping to transform stars into a more confident and appealing character on screen, only a few have a deep understanding of styling for epic movies, and at the top of this niche industry sits Dr Oluwatoyin Bifarin Ogundeji.
This is the story of the woman working determinedly behind the scenes to transform Nollywood stars on screen and give us a view of what fashion looks like in the 19th and 20th century.
The meticulous work of Bifarin in any film is consistent. The deployment of Aso-Ofi in Anikulapo which portrays the rich culture of the Yoruba people from time immemorial. The styling of Peter Fatomilola in Afonja, and the young Olori Arolake (Bimbo Ademoye) in Anikulapo all bear her consistent signature.
“When I told my parents I wanted to study dramatic arts at the university, they disapproved because at the time, it was not easy for people in dramatic arts to get a job,” Bifarin told me when we got on a Zoom call on Friday, November, 4, 2022, to talk about her work and journey.
When Bifarin joined the WhatsApp call at 2 pm on that Friday from the theatre of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Osun state, where she was a student thrity seven years ago and now a lecturer, I could hear her students practising in the background, they had just returned to campus after being shut out of school for eight months due to ASUU strike. Amidst the ever-present internet network issues, her calm yet assertive nature protruded as she took me on a deep dive into her life, journey and career.
In 2002, when the Abiodun Ibitola-produced film Afonja was released, it enjoyed rave reviews for its brilliance and execution of the story on how Afonja’s excesses led to the end of the Yoruba reign in Ilorin. That was the world’s first introduction to the endless possibilities Dr. Toyin Bifarin could offer as a costume designer in the Nigerian film industry.
With the epic film marking the start of her career in the industry, Bifarin has been part of the success stories of several epic movies that has come out of Nigeria as a costume designer and actress in over two decades, with the recent highly acclaimed film ‘Anikulapo’ being the latest addition to the fast-growing list.
Diji Aderogba, a Nollywood film director attested to this in a tweet talking about the film. He said, “I just finished Anikulapo and this is it! I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Thank you Kunle Afolayan for another masterpiece. Great casting, performance, production design, costume and everything.”
Born in Ilesha, Osun State, to a high-achieving middle-class family, her father was an educationist, and her mother was a nurse and film patron. “My father was a principal, one of the first set of students in the University of Ibadan, number 75 precisely, he was always quick to tell me he was number 75, and my mother owned her own hospital,” she fondly told Netng as she spoke about her parents.
The dramatic arts doctor hails from Ilesha, specifically, a native of Imesi Ile, an ancient town in the northeastern part of the Obokun Local Government in Osun State, known for its high hills and mountains, which were instrumental during wars among the Yoruba nations. Like the Kiriji war, in which the Yoruba nations fought for freedom from Ibadan’s dominance in 1877.
Bifarin was just in her early years when her family moved from Imesi Ile to Ife in 1971. It was in Ile-Ife that her love for arts grew.
Toyin Bifarin was five when her mother, a keen follower of the Yoruba family theatre tradition, introduced her to the Ori Olokun theatre tradition at the University of Ife back then now known as Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU).
“My mum was a patron of the theatre. She was a keen follower of the Yoruba family theatre tradition and watched virtually all the productions in her vicinity, and she wasn’t watching alone. She would take any of her available children then, especially me because I was the last born.”
At the time, the late Professor Ola Rotimi, one of Nigeria’s leading playwrights and theatre directors, who produced highly acclaimed plays like, ‘Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again’, ‘The Gods Are Not to Blame’, ‘Ovonramwen Nogbaisi’, handled all the performances. ‘Those memories influenced my interest,’ she said.
“What really got me enthralled is the backstage. What do they do backstage? If they act as husband and wife backstage what do you do when you now leave the stage? Are you continuing in that act of husband and wife? How do they get into their costumes, and what do they do to prepare for their play? I was just inquisitive, that’s why I picked dramatic arts.”
Those simple yet profound thoughts of a five-year-old propelled her to pick dramatic arts multiple times when she was seeking admission, although this was to the disapproval of her parents. At that time, dramatic arts was not seen as the ideal course for a child looking to find a ‘good job’ after university.
“I did JAMB for two years, each year I would pick dramatic arts, and they would fight. At that time, it was not easy for people in dramatic arts to get employment, so they were actually trying to help me out. The first year I couldn’t enter the university, and the second year I was supposed to go to the College of Education because they felt as a teacher I would get employment on time compared to when you say you’re a product of dramatic arts.”
After her third year trying to gain admission, with the help of her uncle, she was finally allowed to study dramatic arts at the University of Ife, where she majored in Technical Theatre. Technical theatre is typically the study of scenic design, lights, sound, properties, costume, and makeup.
“Then they didn’t stress costume and makeup as a separate entity in technical theatre. They taught us everything under technical theatre as a special area in theatre studies.”
Not only did it take her years to appeal to her parents to study dramatic arts, but it was also seen as an anomaly then for a woman to major in technical theatre, ‘We were very few in Nigeria then, we were not up to seven,’ but she felt she needed to know that area of dramatic arts.
After graduating from school in 1989, she started working at the Ondo State Cultural Centre as a cultural officer where she directed performances, built costumes and managed other costume artists as the performing arts sectional head.
A decade later, in 1999, the knowledge she had acquired came in handy. Abiodun Ibitola called. To Bifarin, Abiodun was not a multi-award-winning producer, but she was a friend, a friend that led her to take a big step that would eventually change the course of her life.
“I would say I was fortunate to have a friend then who wanted to test working in the Nollywood space.’ The founder of Remdel Optimum Communications, who is now late, visited Dr. Bifarin, who had just started working at OAU then, and said, “It is high time we theatre artists try and get into the film space.”
During their discussion on movie production, Ibitola picked ‘Afonja’ and asked Bifarin to decide whether she wanted to be in charge of makeup, set design, or production management on the film. At the time, Bifarin was running her master’s degree at the University of Ibadan, Theatre Arts department, majoring in Arts Management and Administration.
“I decided to pick costume design as it was a part I have come to love while working at the cultural centre at Ogun State as the sectional head.’ The play went on to bag two nominations at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Costume Design in 2005.
Since then, Dr Bifarin’s credits as a costume designer have become expansive and impressive, from Sawo-Sègbèrì, to Basorun Gaa, Moremi, Mnet’s Edge of Paradise, Ayikale, Aditu, as well as Abobaku and Aramotua which won her the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) for Best Costume Design in 2006 and 2017, but her recent work on Kunle Afolayan’s Anikulapo continues to marvel many fashion enthusiasts.
Although she describes her meeting with Afolayan as divine, the duo has gone on to work together on three films since their first encounter.
“He came for a recce at OAU where ‘Citation’ was shot, and he just sent someone to meet me to tell me that I’m playing one of the major roles there. Thereafter we had to drop our resume, which I did, and he found out I won an AMAA for costume design in 2006. He invited me later on and said he had some project to do with Netflix, and we were going to work together. When I asked him which one, he said everything, that’s why I said it’s divine.”
Aside from the fact that Kunle Afolayan is well known in the industry for his stand-out films, Bifarin saw something people in the outside world are not privy to, his trait of giving his cast and crew the creative freedom to do whatever they deem fit to make the film better.
“Kunle is a producer who allows creativity. So if we don’t do it right, he would call you to say, are you okay with what you’ve done? If you have a way of defending what you’ve done, then you’re making the change. This is the third time I’ve worked with Kunle Afolayan. I’ve worked with him on ‘A Naija Christmas’, ‘Swallow’, and ‘Anikulapo’. I love his stories.
“I don’t only love his stories, I love the way he picturizes the story. It is a different thing for you to have a story, and now putting it across in the cinema, it’s entirely different. I love the way he tells his stories, I love the way he directs his films. I love the way he synergizes ideas and designs from all sections of film production.
“There’s a way he makes everybody that works on his sets gel. So the other person working on the set will know the mind of the person doing the makeup. There’s a synergy of design, there’s a synergy of concept, there’s a synergy of shots, so even when you see your work at the end of the day, you will be happy as a designer now or as any part of the production team.”
This synergy has led to the production of Anikulapo, a film she contributed to as a costume designer and cameo. While working on the project, she mentioned that a lot of things were put into consideration while working on the project as they tried to avoid making any mistakes with the designs.
“The story has a period. We discuss the period, era, and style. Because you have two towns represented in the film, we look at how we are going to make a clear demarcation between what is worn in one town and what is going to be worn in the other. Even when an auditory impaired person watches the film, they would know that they’ve left one town to the other.”
On multiple occasions, the costume designer has made a special appearance in Kunle Afolayan’s films. She has featured as a cameo in Citation and Anikulapo. She has also acted as a lead character in the Yemi Adegunju historical film, ‘Ogun Idahomey’; Jaduade Waheed’s ‘Ayanfe’, and Bukky Wright’s ‘Dugbe Dugbe’ (2008).
“I love acting more than costume designing. Anytime I tell my people they are not giving me roles they start laughing. I love acting, I’m passionate about it,” she told Netng.
Aside from costume designing, she is also a lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University in the Department of Dramatic Arts. Although she loves teaching, she is not a big fan of conventional teaching.
“I love teaching people, I love imparting knowledge. When I went to the College of Education, I realised that I could not function well in that formal environment of writing lesson notes, doing lettering, and the way they treat them. I wasn’t caught out for that, but I still had that innate thing in me to impact knowledge but not in a straight jacket way. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m in the theatre because you could lecture and you could teach by doing hands-on learning.”
Her passion for teaching has led her to speak in various capacities on filmmaking for change and costume design to upcoming and already-established professionals. She believes that the Nollywood industry needs to take costume design seriously, as there is this erroneous belief that costume design can be done by anyone.
“There was a time when the Theatre Arts and Motion Pictures Association of Nigeria (TAMPAN) Oyo State did a workshop training program, and they invited me to lecture on design. When I got there, the chairperson, Rose Odika was complaining bitterly, that she’s been saying people should come and sit under training so that they can know what to do. They won’t come.”
Although there are designers who do this leisurely, there are some who have done outstanding work with the films that have been released lately. Aside from the designers, film producers are also a problem as Dr. Bifarin shares that some just want to cut costs at the expense of delivering quality.
“There was one of the epic films I’ve worked on that we were discussing what the warriors will wear, and the warriors form like 80% of the characters in the film, and I had the particular material fabric in mind that I was going to use.
“I was going to manipulate fabrics to create different pictures for the generals in particular war zones, but before I could get to the set the producer just said ‘mo ti ba eh ra’ (I have bought it for you). She had not only bought the fabric, but she had also gotten a tailor, and they had sewed the fabric to their own style, and the pieces of costumes made were like 450 pieces.”
While working to attain her goals in the film industry, she met her husband, Ayodele Ogundeji, a now-retired banker from the United Bank of Africa (UBA), through an aunt, friend, and sister and has gone on to have three kids. Although she is committed to keeping her family’s details private, she spoke quite fondly of them.
After a decade of acting and costume designing in the Nollywood industry, Dr. Toyin Bifarin has proved to be one of the most thorough and talented acts in the film industry with the intent of making a difference. Over the years, She has done this by imparting all she has gained to the younger generation to ensure better films are produced.
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Dr Toyin Bifarin ‘what’s next?’ and she laughed saying ‘I’m in my department lecturing but I’m looking forward to any other great work that comes my way.’