“As a designer trained in Europe, I was taught that design was one of functionality, form and a polished finish. Moving back to Nigeria and immersing myself back into my city, I quickly realised that the way design was consumed was far from the European standard that I was trained in,” explains Nifemi Marcus-Bello about his current approach to design. The Lagos-based artist uses his surrounding context – including people, material, and place – to shape his pieces, which speak of migration, emotion, identity, and materiality. Until December 10, he’s presenting two pieces at renowned Design Miami fair, which tackle the migratory crisis in Europe. Today, we speak with him about serendipity, the importance of design, and his future projects. 
Hi Nifemi, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. How are you feeling today and where do you answer us from?
I am okay, a bit stressed answering emails on the go but also in high spirits about how the year has turned out. I am currently in Accra, Ghana, on my way to Miami via London.
First of all, congratulations on your upcoming exhibition at the Design Miami entrance! The 2023 title is Where We Stand: Reflections on Place & Purpose, could you tell us about how your piece Omi Iyo mirrors this theme?
When I got sent the curatorial write up, I was excited and realised very quickly that this was a theme I wanted to engage with as these are themes that pop up in my work, and Omi Iyo is no different. I wanted to create a piece that spoke to the now and had more of emotional dialogue that sparks a broader dialogue around the pressing issue of immigration on the African continent, touching on the when, why and how.
This upcoming installation is a response to the journey of undocumented migrants from Africa to Europe. Can you explain to us how Salt Water portrays this terrible experience and why you chose to represent this human tragedy in your artwork?
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit Venice twice to see the Architectural Biennale and also be a critique at the Biennale College. On the first visit, while sitting on a park bench, I was greeted by a warm ‘bonjour’ by a Senegalese gentleman. He spoke French to me and I quickly let him know that I was an English speaker. To his surprise he asked me where I was from, and I told him I was Nigerian. We exchanged pleasantries and spoke of our admiration of each other’s culture. He asked me what I was doing in Venice and I explained to him that I was here to see the Biennale. I asked what he was doing in Venice, he became hesitant and drew back a bit, but after a long sigh and watery eyes, he told me he had come into Italy a few months ago via a boat from Libya, a journey he was hesitant to embark on but due to social economical issues in Senegal was pressured by friends and family in hopes to find a better life for himself. He told me how he missed home and we both reminisced on Senegalese dishes that I was familiar with.
The thing that stood out to me was the horrific story of seeing a friend drown and the sharp taste of salt that he couldn’t get rid of for weeks after arriving in Italy. We exchanged pleasantries and I told him I was actually putting a proposal together around this topic and that faith had brought us together. So with Omi Iyo, which translates to ‘salt water’ in Yoruba (my mother tongue), I wanted to represent the element from the earth that isn’t seen during this journey but plays a prominent role in the memory of it.
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The exploration of identity, materiality, and craft production are the heart of your exhibition of functional sculptures. Can you tell us more about the meaning of these questions for an artist, and if you found or are still looking for answers through your designs?
Materials and crafts exist for a reason, and my thing is to find out these core reasons and figure out a way to document and archive these findings through designing of product. This is why I am very conscious of documenting the design process. With this doing, I think my idea is to find out and communicate the how, why, when and who. Through doing, I am still searching for the answers and hoping to communicate them as effectively as possible through the products showcased, but most importantly, I hope these products spark a dialogue around the evolution of modern-day African materiality, which is a lot more complex due to globalisation and the juxtaposition of local craftsmanship across West Africa.
Socio-economic and human crises are integrated and questioned in your designs. What is the message that you would like to convey, if any, with your artistic language?
I am not sure if it is a constant question, but I think with this specific piece I am trying to spark a dialogue and emotion when it comes to migration in general. I am happy and fitting that Omi Iyo will be showing in Miami as it is a city built by migrants.
The sculptures and wall installation we discussed are not the only works you are presenting this year. The first act of your Oriki series, Friction Ridge, was presented by Marta gallery in Los Angeles and you are now showcasing the second half, Tales by Moonlight. What is this exhibition about?
The exhibition came about after a visit to one of the biggest metal markets and scrap yards in Lagos, called Owode Onirin. I was visiting after purchasing a second-hand car that needed to be repaired and went looking for spare parts. After my first visit, I was hooked and intrigued with the ingenuity within the community, so every opportunity I got I would visit and just walk around.
After a great deal of observation around the source of various metals from second-hand products from the global North, I thought it was important to document and spark a discussion around why certain materials are prominent within my city. I did this by creating these objects, which have acted as research by doing. With this, I’m hoping these objects pose a personal interpretation of whoever interacts with it.
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In this series, there is a personal element echoed by the title which recalls a Nigerian children TV program. Would you say that your private life and personal experience influence your work?
As a designer trained in Europe, I was taught that design was one of functionality, form and a polished finish. Moving back to Nigeria and immersing myself back into my city, I quickly realised that the way design was consumed was far from the European standard that I was trained in. Design to me now is one that can be functional and considerate to forms and materials, but just like the designed objects from home, they can tie into an emotion, act as a documentation of the times and create dialogue with makers, users and the wider community. To achieve this, I use nostalgia and common ground to engage my community for greater dialogue and interaction with the product.
Your design is multifaceted and polyhedric. We talked about sculptures and installations, but there are several and diverse pieces that make up your body of work and collections. How would you describe yourself and your art?
I would describe myself as a student of contemporary African design, and as for my art/design, I would rather leave that to interpretation.
Going back to the origins, how did you first approach industrial design and what led you to pursue this career?
I always wanted to be a maker but going to school in Nigeria, I didn’t think there was a career. I thought it was something that would remain a hobby as I had been making objects from a young age. When I had the opportunity to go to university, the plan was to study History of Art and then major in Architecture, but then stumbling on to industrial design as a practice caught my attention and felt like an extension of my childhood. And as they say, the rest is history.
You are based in Lagos, Nigeria. How does this country rich in tradition, history, and art inspire your daily work and practice? Do you look for integrating Nigerian designs in your own pieces or is your art looking outside of and beyond traditional patterns?
I couldn’t exist as a designer without Lagos, it has morphed my idea of what design is and how I think of design, which is one of context in people, material and place. So wherever I find myself creating I feel like I take a bit of my city with me.
Your 2023 has been intense and successful from a professional point of view. Are there any new projects you are working on for 2024? If so, can you tell us something about them?
2023 has been a very productive year, I wanted to get back to work this year and do a lot more and learn a lot more. 2024 will be a good year.
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