Unharvested Dreams, Cultural Heritage and the Symbolism of Color - In Conversation with Yinka Ilori

The British-Nigerian artist and designer credits his grandmother as the originator of his distinctive color palette, his parents as the inspiration behind his love of community, and his West-African heritage as a source of energy, creativity and sun. ILORI’s work is an ode to the cultures which shaped him, paving the way for other young dreamers to flourish. He has the unique ability to fuse cultural values, aesthetics and stories into art which brings people together and generates a sense of belonging, even in the most difficult of times. In the simplest (but also most powerful) terms, Yinka ILORI creates joy. To celebrate the launch of his first collaboration with THE SKATEROOM, Yinka brings us into his world of dreams from which he’s been sharing the visual messages of love, hope and unity. The full collection is available now.

You refer to yourself as an Architect of Joy. What do you mean by that?

I was in Miami a couple of years ago, by a bar, and this woman asked me to explain what I do. I said I work in public spaces, I bring joy to the world, I tell stories, I try to shape landscapes and change the way people think about certain situations. She said to me, “you do more than that - you’re an architect of joy.” Now I use this title everywhere I go. Essentially, what I do is try to construct joy in places which may be dark or unhappy, and I inject them with pockets of light through architecture and design.

This joy has to be brought out from somewhere. How do you find it and make sure to keep it at the forefront always?

What I try to do when working on a project is to engage in communities. I’m a product of my community, I was raised by it through my family in North London. One of the things I took away from that is, belonging is something we all yearn for. Belonging to a specific culture, identity… We all want to feel part of something. When I work on a project, I try to tap into the richness of heritage within those communities and evoke moments of joy. This joy can be found in the conversations I have with people, the way they move, the way they laugh, the architecture of their environment… I try to document this feeling of joy and elaborate on it through any medium I think is most appropriate.

Is this a conscious process that you go into before embarking on each new project? Or are you always “on” - always collecting information and getting inspired?

I’m always on. I was in Nigeria a couple of weeks ago with my family and I spent quite a lot of time in the car, driving around Lagos, going to markets and sightseeing. I was just obsessed with looking at how people interact, how they play games… There were people playing an unconventional version of table tennis, for example - and it allowed them to dream and play. How do people make their dreams a reality by using what is around them? How do people make joy in the smallest or toughest of situations?

You are of Nigerian heritage but born and raised in London. How do those two very different cultures influence your work and creativity?

In a number of ways. I haven’t lived in Nigeria but I do try to visit once or twice a year. When you’re born in London, you are told that this is your home. But you’re Nigerian, so you’re living between those two worlds. One is very colorful and energetic, the other is multicultural with brutalist architecture. You’re still going to church every Sunday, you wear Nigerian clothes, you speak Yoruba, you eat Nigerian food - but you also eat Fish and Chips and Bangers and Mash… it’s kind of this cultural exchange, which I love. I have two cultures that I adore and I’m able to fuse them into my work. They allow me to explore ideas around joy, dreaming, community, identity, love, hope, togetherness and belonging. That’s what made me the artist I am today. This also ties in with my use of color, which is very prominent in my work. It comes from my Nigerian side - my parents used color as a form of expression, a form of celebration, a form of response to the oppression and racism they encountered when they moved to London. I look at all those ideas and try to weave them into one commodity, which is then outpoured within my work.

It’s interesting that you mention the significance of color because it is undeniably a very strong element of your work. How do you build your palette and what is its unique symbolism to you?

My palette definitely comes from my late grandmother. It’s been passed on from her, to my mother, to me. It consists of blue, lilac and pink - I’m obsessed with pink. With all my projects you will see a heavy use of pink, orange and yellow. Colors that make the body feel good. They make you feel energized, like you’re a part of something. There is this condition called SAD (edit. Seasonal Affective Disorder) resulting from a lack of sunlight, and when I don’t get sun I feel very, very low. When I was in Nigeria, I had the most energy, I was inspired by everything. That richness of sun is what I try to bring out within my work. I try to stay away from colors that are dark and unhappy. You may see red but you may not see black in my work. My parents had always associated black with something demonic and red with something like death. When we were going to Nigeria, I gave my mom a suitcase and it was red - can you believe she refused to use it? She bought a new one. I was like, “Mom, it’s just a suitcase, your clothes go in there - you’re fine.” Then, we get to the airport and I was like, “Mom, where’s your suitcase?” She didn’t use it because it was red. That red triggered something in her. It doesn’t equal joy, positivity or good luck. Certain colors are deemed as bad luck.

There’s a strong conceptual aspect to your work, but at the same time it’s also very functional since your background is in product and furniture design. Could you explain this approach?

Growing up in my parents’ household, our door was open to everybody. Everyone was welcome, every neighbor, every race, every age. Even animals were walking around my house. I understood the value of letting people in and creating a safe space for them. I wanted to make that a priority within my work. How do I create spaces that can foster people who are dealing with sadness, oppression, mental health issues? How can I be a beacon? That’s the power of community within my work, and I wanted to bring that out through architecture as well as product - whether it’s a chair, a cup - whatever it was that I designed as a student, I wanted to bring people together. And I think you can bring people even more together in a public space. Through a playground, a pavilion, a pop-up shop… it creates this shared experience of memories. I’m obsessed with making memories. For me, it was a natural progression from creating objects to creating large scale installations. What also happened along the way, is that commissioners were pushing me and giving me briefs to create public work. I think people saw the impact that my work had on a small scale and wanted me to upscale it. It happened very organically.

You once mentioned that the household you grew up in was a small space which had to accommodate a large family. Was this natural progression to upscaling and “taking up space” also a certain answer to being limited by physical space in the past?

There’s elements of that. We grew up in a really small flat in Islington. Two brothers, one sister, mom and dad - and two bedrooms. Imagine my brother and I sharing a room with my sister, which she loved and also hated because she lacked her privacy and was not as boisterous as we were. But I loved the intimacy we had there. I loved how we did things together. We used to eat together, sit on the floor or at the table, watch TV, have long discussions… We were such a close-knit family. There are definitely elements of being “close-knit” that I want to expand on in the public space. Making it more inclusive and available for people who want to be invited. Making architecture, galleries and museums accessible for everyone. I want people to find a point of reference in the things I create. I discuss my upbringing and experiences, my parents’ experiences of coming to London, immigration, sexuality, violence… All of those things that I’ve witnessed growing up, I now re-tell in stories. I try to find pockets of joy, even in moments when it’s dark and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I try to celebrate those moments. And that’s come from my parents - they left Nigeria and started with nothing. They had to build this new reality. I use them as inspiration to stay positive. Within my studio, I’ve created my own reality of what I want my dreams to look like. I try to do the same for people and force-feed them the medicine of joy. I want to help them to lay-out their dreams and reach for them.

One of the artworks within the collection says: “If you can dream then anything is possible.” Is this something that’s been an important affirmation to you personally?

It’s everything to me. My whole life, even now, I’m living my dream. Everything I do is about manifesting my dreams and making them a reality. I always questioned why my parents decided to leave Nigeria. It’s because they both had dreams of coming to a new place, a new country, starting a new life and dreaming about the life they are going to build for their future kids. They made that a reality. It’s this idea of dreaming, of manifesting things you cannot see and projecting them out into the world, to the spirits and upper powers that are listening. Actually, that message of “if you can dream then anything is possible”, is something that was born during the pandemic. It was a really tough time. The most difficult thing for me was not seeing my family and not being able to actively work on my dreams. I could think of them but I couldn’t do anything about them. I also saw an influx of people who were just really feeling low. That’s why I painted this mural around England and it went viral. It gave people hope. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been looking at this idea of unharvested dreams. I see myself as a farmer who plants seeds and then has to wait. You have to wait for your crop to grow and then you harvest. Essentially what I’ve been doing, especially during the pandemic, was planting seeds. Then, after the pandemic, I was able to harvest those dreams and serve them to the people. There’s something about keeping dreams safe and putting them in a box. My mom is a great example of someone with unharvested dreams. She has been in the UK since the 80’s, and now has gone back to Nigeria to do something new for herself. Now, there are dreams she’s had for the past 30 years that she’s slowly ticking off and achieving. To me, that’s really inspiring. There’s something powerful about keeping unharvested dreams for when they’re ready to be let out and shared with the world.

It must be very special for your mom to witness your journey and success as an artist.

Nigerians always have an idea of their kids being a doctor, a scientist, an engineer or a mathematician. I was not going to be any of those things. I tried.

You tried?

I was going to study civil engineering. That was the plan. I enrolled into one of the courses. I did like a day or two and it wasn’t for me. Then I went on to do my foundation in art & design. My mom is very proud. She sent me a video actually a couple of days ago of this woman at a market in Nigeria, wearing one of my bag designs. To see someone in Nigeria, West Africa, seven hours away, have something that has our family name on it… she’s super proud. She’s always praying for me and telling me to come back and do some work in Nigeria. I think in the near future I’d love to build a playground or some kind of skatepark there. There are so many things in the UK that we take for granted. We take play for granted. Meanwhile there are kids, not only in West Africa, but all around the world who've never ever seen a playground before. Play spaces are areas where you are able to dream, learn about different cultures and different people. It’s such an important part of a child’s development. That’s how they start to see the world - through play. There is a long-term goal of me going back to Nigeria to do some work within the community and give back to it. Help the youth to understand the importance of play and dreams.

You’ve mentioned playgrounds, parks, open spaces - does nature play any role in your creativity?

It does, yes. In the projects I’m working on now, there’s a lot of conversation around nature. Water, seashells, soundscapes, birds. These are all things I’ve been obsessed with from a young age. The way we grew up, we had a communal back garden and a fairly okay-ish playground. Sometimes we would go to the park, feed squirrels. During the pandemic, we were often going to the Kew Gardens and Richmond Park - cycling, watching deer… just being obsessed with nature, especially with listening to it. Not being the one doing the talking but letting nature take control of my soundscape. If you’re at home, you can put on the TV, listen to music, there are sounds that you can control. But you can’t control nature. Birds will sing when they want to sing. Water will flow when it wants to flow. It’s about respecting nature and letting it do what it does best. Within the work I’m doing now, we’re definitely exploring water, the power of it and the interaction between nature and architecture. Nature and objects. Nature and people. What relationships do they have and how does that change over time?

This is further testament to the fact that you’re always actively collecting inspiration from the world around you.

I always say that my studio is like a gallery. I collect objects, things I’ve found, things that have inspired me. I think each object is worthy of a page within a book. If I don’t travel, meet people, see things - I’m just not inspired. I need to go out. When I was in Nigeria, I came back the following week and sat down with my team like, “Guys, I’m inspired.” I just felt energized and I learned new things about my culture that I didn’t know before. I think traveling is very important. This past year in particular, I found myself thinking, “Wow, most of my work is inspired by my heritage, my culture, my roots.” But it’s really hard to be inspired when you’re not on the ground. You have to be there to really integrate with the community, people and culture. Sitting here in my studio, I have to look at Pinterest or do Zoom calls and it’s just not the same. I have to go there, talk to family, to fabricators, to really understand the processes and stories, because that’s where all of my stories are coming from. I need to make it a priority to go there and be inspired. I love going to Nigeria, to Morocco, to Greece, to Spain. I love going in the sea - there’s something so calming about water, the color blue, the sun, the culture, the community. It’s quite special, traveling.

And it does sound like you really gravitate towards the sun.

Honestly. I came back to the UK and immediately I was like, “I feel low.” I was grumpy, I got ill. But there’s something about the sun that just uplifts my soul. If someone said to me, “Yinka, can you stay in the sun - obviously provided that you use sunscreen - with a sketch book and sketch out a thousand ideas in one hour”, I could do it. My mind just flows in different areas. I look around and I’m inspired by how a bird might fly, or by someone’s conversation, or what they’re wearing. I was inspired by the most unexpected things in Nigeria - a fan, a jewelry box… random things like that.

Did you channel any of those inspirations into your collection with THE SKATEROOM?

Some of the artworks are previous artworks that you might have seen in London. A couple of years ago, I was commissioned by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to create some public realm murals on the floor. That project was the first one I did after the pandemic, essentially to try and bring people together. I wanted to encourage people to come out of their houses and into their community. Skateboarding has a strong element of community, of being outdoors. People coming together to express themselves through this object - a skateboard. UNITED WE FALL UNITED WE STAND in particular, was very fitting for THE SKATEROOM. To me, it was about the power of togetherness and what it can do. It can move mountains. That’s what my parents always said to me - if you come together, you can change the world. I think skateboarding has changed the world. It has definitely changed lives.

Are you a skater yourself?

I’m not a skater, but for me - skateboarding is an artform. You watch them skate, the tricks they do, the way they move, the way the skateboard interacts with the skater. It’s an artform that I highly respect. Working with THE SKATEROOM has been such a special project, because there are elements of dreaming within skateboarding. Being free. Freedom of expression. There’s also this idea of building dreams within a community. Dreaming of perfecting tricks, of being a professional… There are so many things within skateboarding that are just magic.

Through this collection you are also supporting social skate projects around the world, tangibly helping some of those dreams become reality. How important is it for you to give back through your work?


It’s very important. I think - as artists, creators, visionaries - we always have to give back. If we don’t give back to the generations coming up, how are they going to be inspired? How are they going to understand the importance of dreams? If I’m giving back to a particular community, I know that I’m actually investing into the future architects, artists and young dreamers. I try to do a lot of community projects and charities.

What else should we be on the lookout for from Yinka Ilori?

One of the things I always try to remind people of, is that I’m a storyteller. Stories can be expressed through poetry, writing, singing, dance, photography. This year, I’m doing something with Art on the Mart in Chicago, where I will be previewing my first stop-motion animation film. It’s a fifteen minute work which will be projected on a building. It’s my first time working in the space of film, so I’m really looking forward to that actually. And, hopefully, I can continue to make more films and tell stories through different forms. There’s a lot of other exciting projects in the works, but you’ll have to keep an eye out!

Discover Yinka ILORI's Collection