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Interview with Yinka Ilori

The Man Who Gets Color to Grey Neighborhoods

Yinka Ilori's passion for colour and his kaleidoscopic art in public spaces can bring communities together. Ilori's uplifting murals reading 'Better days' are coming and 'Everything will be okay' bring hope and optimism to passers-by.

AC
I understand that you have a mixed relationship with art spaces, museums, that maybe before you felt like these were exclusionary places. Do you think these spaces are changing to become more inclusive? Are you more comfortable stepping into that space now?

YI

I do yeah, I feel a lot more comfortable stepping into such spaces. We've had some incredible shows over recent years. I designed a show a couple of years ago at Somerset House called 'Get Up, Stand Up Now', that celebrated Black creativity. It was an important show, not only for London but for the world. To see and to celebrate Black creativity in a way that it's probably not been celebrated in before, to have all these artists under one canopy, was just really special. It's really important for young artists to see themselves in these spaces. When I go to certain museums, all you really see are artifacts or objects that have been stolen from African countries and are then celebrated for all the wrong reasons... what I see is pain and grief, and torture. But now we're seeing an influx of artists celebrating Black joy, and Black creativity, in these spaces. This is what I always feel when I go back to Nigeria. This is what I get from being around Black people: it's joy. And joy is really powerful. That's why I try to celebrate the joy in the work that I do when given the opportunity.

AC

And that joy is tangible in your use of colours, can you give me a little more background in how colours function to give meaning to your work?

YI

That comes from a place of me trying to get back to my old memories of Nigeria. Colour is a tool to tap into my senses and my memories of joyful and happy moments, whether it's me going to a wedding or church, or a party. When I think about being in Nigeria for a particular occasion, color is my first point of entry to remember what I did, what I wore, and how I felt. Colour makes you feel like you're approachable like you're open to a conversation. When I wear color, people wanna speak to me all the time, and when we have a conversation, nobody feels uncomfortable. Colour makes you feel comfortable, safe, and free. When I remember people wearing colour I remember them feeling free.

AC
And that's quite a contrast with London.

YI

Yes totally. London City isn't the most colourful and vibrant city. My parents have this saying, it's part of a song by a Nigerian musician called King Sunny Adé. He says: 'People are my colours that I paint myself with.' The way he values people, they become his fabric, his cloth. That's how I see London: the people, the cultures are the fabric of this city. There are so many people from different backgrounds, they bring in that color. So the city isn't necessarily that colourful, except maybe in Notting Hill you don't find colourful houses here like you do in Nigeria. But its people are.

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AC
How does your work connect to and express local issues?

YI

I did a basketball court in Canary Wharf. That's a business area, it's got loads of banks, people in suits that probably earn quite a lot of money. It's a place that I felt I wouldn't really go to because I can't connect to that type of space. So I created this basketball court in an area where people felt it couldn't belong to. And now, it has opened doors for people: they come down from different parts of London to play in this court. It's really powerful.

AC

That's quite subversive, to put that in Canary Wharf.

YI

Yeah, exactly. I want to make those spaces that people feel they can't step into, accessible to them. When people feel like, 'l can't, I don't belong...' I want to change that narrative. Because no one should feel like they don't belong. We are the fabric of this city so we could belong anywhere, you know?

AC

MOCO believes that art can change the world. Do you agree?

YI

It can, yeah. This whole year, we've all gone through a pandemic. No matter where you're from, or how much money you have, whatever you do, this was global. It did show me that we're all human, no one is tougher than anyone. What I saw throughout the year is that art did really bring people together. I created lots of murals throughout London this year that said: 'Better days are coming' and 'If you can dream, anything is possible' and there's one 'Everything will be okay'. They brought hope and optimism. That's what the whole world needs: hope, optimism, and togetherness. If we look at what's happening now, and what is to come in the future, those are the things that we will continue to need so I do think art can change the world. I create work based around what I think people need. All I know is that the work I create is centered around love, community, joy, and positivity and I think that's something that we all need. My work revolves around memory, around creating memory, and creating experiences. We've got a whole year of memories we've missed out on. It's up to me now to create spaces and environments where we can catch up, and make new memories that are twice as impactful as the year we missed out on.

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