Patterns, Play and Contrast in the Work of Nigerian Visual Artist and Designer Damola Rufai

As part of Africa Month on 10and5, we had the pleasure of chatting with Nigerian-born and based visual artist and designer Damola Rufai. With an educational background in architecture, Rufai creates handmade and digital pieces centered around his belief that art and design pervades everything we do. Through a holistic approach, he aims to create a dialog between his work and the audience.

Damola Rufai

You studied architecture at Washington D.C’s prestigious Howard University and Miami Dade College. Tell us a bit more about yourself and your journey leading up to this point in your career.

Although most of my higher education has been outside Africa (the US for undergraduate studies and recently Norway for graduate studies), the beginnings of my journey started in Lagos, Nigeria where I was born, bred and currently live. So far I’ve worked professionally in some capacity as a visual artist, architect, graphic designer, pattern designer and furniture designer. These days though I am more in tune with the visual artist and pattern designer facets of myself.

When did your love for art and design begin and what sparked this interest?

As a kid, I developed the ability to draw by drawing the characters in the story books and comic books I read. These fantastical characters and worlds helped breed my imagination and creativity. The decision to pursue architecture in my undergraduate years was inspired by this drawing ability and my father’s profession (he’s an architect). At the time architecture seemed like the logical, practical choice for a young person seeking a professional career that required drawing as a skill. I had never really considered art as a possible career path, that came later.

Early in my university days, I began to wonder if architecture was for me, a feeling that would re-emerge once I started working professionally. But that feeling changed when I began to learn about classical architectural history and then contemporary architects like Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava amongst others. These architects and their studios were (and still are) pushing the boundaries of what architecture could be, creating very expressive buildings that weren’t just functional and utilitarian, or engineering marvels (which they are), but they sparked the imagination and made spaces for people to dream. They were art. This encouraged me to stay the course and inspired the approach to a lot of my work.

Once I graduated in 2010, the global economic crash happened and there weren’t many architecture jobs available so I decided to develop myself and started working on some of my first furniture prototypes that were made out of cardboard. Eventually I started working professionally as an architect in Lagos, and after a while found that I began to grow a bit uncertain with architecture. I realised that the parts of architecture I loved, coming up with the concept and designing, were just a small fraction of what I’d be doing as an architect at the level I was and there were other phases of the profession that I didn’t feel as passionate about. Fortunately the firm I was working with at the time was open to some experimentation and I got to develop some more furniture prototypes. This and other subsequent events gave me the confidence to make the decision to further explore the potential in a career that straddled the line between art and design.

You have an impressive portfolio showcasing an array of colourful designs and patterns. Can you tell us a bit about the work you create?

Thank you for the compliment. The work I have made over the years has been in different media (from physical to digital) and different realms of art and design (from furniture to prints), but in all of them my main aim has always been trying to find a way to connect with people and to create a space within them that some of my favourite creatives have given me over the years: a space to dream, reflect and imagine possibilities.

Evidently, patterns, colours and textures play a huge role in your craft. Talk to us about your relationship with pattern and why this is an important element in your work.

Well for most Africans, pattern is unavoidable. It’s all around us almost every day, usually in the context of traditional attire, so for me that’s probably one of the first places I encountered pattern. I also encountered pattern in my architectural work (usually with ornamentation of building facades) and graphic design work (usually with book covers, invitation cards and backgrounds for posters). This ability of pattern to be able to adapt to myriad contexts and media is a big part of why I find working with it so appealing. Pattern also has this ability sometimes to draw out in people that part of them that looks for meaning in symbols and images, due to pattern recognition being an important part of how we as humans process information and make our way in the world.

Talk us through your creative process and where you draw inspiration from when creating.

My creative process is very much tied to who I am as a person, it’s a very internal thing that doesn’t necessarily have set rules and pulls from all my stored visual and thematic references from different places that range from pop culture to architecture. For example, I consume a lot of media (I love movies and TV shows), so sometimes I might be inspired by the composition or color palette of a scene in a movie that’s communicating a certain mood or atmosphere.

What are some of the themes you enjoy exploring within your work and what message do you intend to communicate?

I think I like dichotomy and tension in my work. I like when contrasting ideas are juxtaposed to create something harmonious. For example, in some of my earlier furniture prototypes, I designed lamps and tables that were made by hand but inspired by an aesthetic that was digital.

In more recent times I have made pieces that reference handmade beading and weaving practices but were created completely digitally. In my Reclamation series that deals with the idea of reclaiming the broken pieces of oneself, I tried to find a way to visually represent and balance the idea of a person having a hopeful outlook on life despite having a fractured inner self by juxtaposing the melancholic visual of a cracked/incomplete face with bright colours. My aim is to hopefully leave room for people to see something they recognise of themselves in these different or contrasting ideas and to possibly make them consider the possibility of beauty or harmony existing in the space where they meet.

Your work gives off a very fun element, and there are a few I’ve picked out as some favourites. What is your personal favourite piece you’ve worked on to date and why?

I’m quite glad that you perceive an element of fun. That’s something I try to imbue in my work. I never want the things I make to come off as self-serious or esoteric but I also don’t want them to be perceived as lazy, so I try to strike a balance. Hopefully, that’s evident. Hmm, favourite piece… that’s a tough one! I love all my work for different reasons but if I’m going to pick one right now hmm… well… I’ve found myself revisiting a digital piece I made recently from my Reclamation series called ‘Folasade’. As for why, I just genuinely enjoy the balance of colours I used in that piece and the way light and shadow interact with the patterns etched in the surface of the face. Now I’m curious what your favourites are.

As we are celebrating Africa Month through various forms of creativity with a number of creatives such as yourself, we’re interested to know what being an African means to you?

Being an African to me means being resilient and hopeful. It means history, culture, and kinship. It means existing in many worlds. It means progression. It means the future.

What is your take on spreading African cultures and introducing them to the rest of the world through art and creativity?

I think it’s a beautiful thing when cultures are put on a world stage, in a way that feels authentic yet new, in a way that doesn’t pander or depict a narrow perspective of what that culture is. It’s a way of building bridges of understanding and appreciation between different people in contemporary society. So I’m always glad when I see African creatives showcasing their cultures in new and refreshing ways that add to existing narratives.

Follow @damolarufai on IG.

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