Tunde Owolabi is an artist, a photographer and designer. He is the founder of Tunde Owolabi Studios. As an artist, he has participated in group exhibitions, including Lines and Colours in 2003, Inner Thoughts at the Nimbus African Art Centre in 2004, Working with Communities, a Guinness group exhibition, 2004, and Gods of This Age at Didi Museum. His first solo exhibition, African Elegance was at the Battersea Art Gallery, London in 2009. In this interview with Tosin Clegg, he talks about his new collection, Ethnik, his career, future projects and more
I have been able to express my creativity in different ways
call myself an artist because I see everything I do as an art. I studied graphics design and photography but I have been able to express my creativity in different ways, which has led me to designing fashion accessories.
What constitutes art
For me everything is art. Graphics design is art. Fashion is art. Architecture is art. So, being a creative person, I feel it’s easy to do other things based on what you want to do and that’s the best way you can express yourself. I don’t think I have any limitations, to be honest, except I don’t want to do it.
How I went into fashion designing…
I never thought about going into fashion, and I still don’t see myself as a fashion designer. Fashion for me came as an interest more in textiles; my interest in Aso-oke, which is a traditional fabric. It’s an interest in textile design and in sustaining these fabrics. I make other good use of the fabrics rather than the traditional use. Another thing about fashion for me is that it can be expressed in different ways and with individuality. For me, that’s art as well. Those things really inspire me.
My latest collection
I am into culture and I enjoy culture as I love to protect the tradition we have. These are things I take inspiration from. Folklore in Africa means people telling stories; in some villages, you see people gather under moonlight and tell stories.
These are ways the younger ones are inspired, educated, taught morals and more. That myth that goes around is what it is. As young people, we enjoy the story and get educated by it. I got my inspiration from there and I have had other collections. The one before this is ‘Skirified’ and my first collection was Oriki, which in Yoruba means praise poetry. Our culture is very vast and very rich having so much to explore.
That was when I was living in England. It’s called Research Studios and I worked on a couple of brands like Nickelodeon and a host of them. Moving back to Nigeria, I worked with Insight Communication on advertisement for a bit. While I was doing that, I was still doing painting and photography which was like my day job. That’s basically what I have been up to.
Exhibitions and Auctions
The exhibition that led me to designing Aso-oke happened in 2014 and that was after about three years research in Aso-oke that inspired me to make fashion with it. I have had a couple of exhibitions and participated in workshops. Adekunle Gold, Kemi Adetiba, Sound Sultan, Bez, Waje are the few artistes that wear my pieces. I have been part of a few auctions with Terra Kulture and you never know who is buying your work, because whoever is bidding for it may not necessarily be the person buying; so you can’t tell where your work is going.
I look for challenges and try new things a lot, because one way or another I get bored easily and when I do I constantly look for new things to explore and how well to express myself. So, that’s what drives me basically. I won’t say I am exceptional because everybody is special in their own way. For me, I take inspiration from my environment and people.
It’s really tough being a creative person. Especially where we are and it’s getting some attention even though it’s still not getting that much attention as it should. It’s been tough but you live through the time and let the challenges inspire what you do. That’s how I live through it.
Sometimes, you create work and don’t know if it would sell, but a lot of times if you let money drive what you are creating, then you would probably not do anything. But when you create things because you are passionate about them, then money follows and people would see the trueness in the creation and you get the exposure in what you do.
Everybody has their own style. I can decide to tap from so many people and not just one person. But, one person I quite like is Bez; also Asa because her music is my kind of music. Talking about international act, I listen to a lot of Jazz music like Ray Charles and all those type of guys.
If I have to start picking, then I have a lot of hard work to do. I’m more of the old school and I love good music. If I have to look into music then I’ll probably have a long list of people to look at.
One minute I’m designing shoes and fashion accessories and I don’t know if the next one would be furniture or cars but it depends on what wind of inspiration is blowing at that time.
I want to see Nigerians wearing my shoes and designs that are made in Nigeria. I want to create sneakers that people can buy and wear comfortably and these will be of good quality, even better than that of international brands. In five years’ time, I want to see a lot of growth and collaboration, because there is a lot of work to be done.
Fela as his Icon
Although he is late and though he has been over-flogged, will still choose Fela. He embodies creativity, a lot of it. Another person is Asa; I see a lot of style and artistic personality in her. Also Sound Sultan; I quite like him and he is original.