11 October 2017

Yinka Ilori: Finding the intersection between art and design and London and Lagos

Artist-designer Yinka Ilori talks Afropop and hunting for discarded furniture.

Yinka Ilori spends a lot of his spare time wandering around London, looking for abandoned chairs.

Two or three finds provide the raw materials for one new creation, which is painted in vivid colours and re-upholstered. The fabrics, sourced from London or Lagos, are inspired by the bold patterns his Nigerian mother – ‘the queen of colour’ – wears to church and weddings.

‘Every chair has a narrative,’ he says. ‘The furniture I see around London is to me representative of the city’s diverse people.’

While the original chairs have their own back stories, Ilori attaches new imagined stories to the upcycled final pieces. Drawing inspiration from the parable traditions of the Nigerian Yoruba tribe, each has a deeper meaning. Growing up, every ‘lecture’ his parents gave to Ilori and his siblings would end in hour-long parables, he says.

In one collection, titled ‘If Chairs Could Talk’, Ilori created five chairs based on different real-life characters from his school days. ‘Some went through the education system, some ended up in the criminal justice system. Some have emerged triumphant whatever their path,’ he says.

Although Ilori trained in product and furniture design, his chairs now straddle the worlds of design and fine art and are often exhibited in gallery shows. It’s up to the new owner how they interact with each piece; they could hang it on the wall or sit on it at the dining room table – although it may not always be that comfortable.

Ilori says his work is a vehicle to express and celebrate his intersecting Nigerian and British heritage. ‘In the outside world, I’m British. At home I’m Nigerian. I speak Nigerian, I eat Nigerian food, I watch Nollywood. It’s like a double life but I love both. The chairs are a celebration of being both African and British.’

He adds: ‘When you take two found chairs that belonged to two different people from different backgrounds and merge them, you merge their lives.’

Despite being made by a British man in the UK, the explicit exploration of his Nigerian background in both meaning and aesthetic, has led to Ilori’s work being branded ‘African design’. His work has been featured in an African art fair at Sotheby’s, is currently touring as part of a exhibition called ‘Making Africa’ and he’s spoken at South African design festival Design Indaba.

It’s something Ilori has undoubtedly benefitted from, but can nevertheless be a source of subtle frustration. ‘I hate being put in a box of ‘British’ or ‘African’ design, I’m inspired by both,’ he says.

The ease with which Ilori fuses his dual identities also feeds into what he calls his first love: music. A huge part of his background is, he explains, the pop music his parents played around the house. ‘When I hear the words sung in Nigerian, it goes into my veins,’ he says. Grime, on the other hand, has served as the counterbalance. It’s a genre he first discovered in secondary school and one he continues to love today.

Ilori’s defining tracks

King Sunny Adé – Ja Funmi

Each Christmas my mum will play King Sunny while cooking Jollof rice and spinach and drinking wine or Guinness. The music and aroma make my Christmas. Every one of his songs tells a story. The lyrics are a source of inspiration; Ja Funmi means ‘fight for me’ and I find it particularly motivating.

Kano – P’s and Q’s

When Kano’s Home Sweet Home (2005) came out I was living in a flat in Islington. I still remember going and buying it in HMV in Angel, putting my speakers out of the window and blasting it to the whole estate. P’s and Q’s was played on repeat. I refused to let mates burn it, I was like: ‘Fuck you I just bought it!’

Fela Kuti – Water got no enemy

Fela Kuti was an activist as well as a musician. He spoke his mind and didn’t give a fuck. It often got him into trouble, but he was a man of the people. I like to think that how music gave [him] his voice, chairs and stories allow me to connect to people. Water got no enemy – it doesn’t get much more true than that.

Nas – You’re a damn man

I’ve always thought of Nas as not just a rapper, but a bit of a philosopher. He crosses genres and is very intelligent. The ‘you’re da man’ refrain always sticks with me. To call it empowering probably isn’t quite right, but whenever I listen to it I’m like ‘yeaaah’; it gives that boost.

Orlando Owoh – Any song

Owoh is a real old school Nigerian. My mum was in tears when he died. He’s a story teller and a life teacher. From the minute the lyrics kick in you’re hooked. The stories also contain important lessons. In one he tells how if you’re jealous of a neighbour’s new shoes, remember that they could be hurting his feet!

First appeared in issue 17  Jun/Jul

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