British-Nigerian Artist Yinka Ilori Unveils Projects From Chicago to Berlin, Plus Has Streetwear in the Works

This early summer has been a very busy one for Yinka Ilori — and it has only just begun.

The British-Nigerian artist debuted “Omi Okun,” an art installation at Art on The Mart in Chicago on June 6, a day later launched “Reflections in Numbers Pavilion,” a project at House of World Cultures in Berlin funded by the Euro 2024 Football and Culture Foundation and the German federal government, and on June 10 unveiled a new line of textiles with Momentum Textiles + Wallcovering at NeoCon in Chicago.

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A look at Omi Okun created by Yinka Ilori.
A look at “Omi Okun” created by Yinka Ilori.

All the activity comes on the heels of the artist’s signing with IMG Models last November, which the 38-year-old Ilori says has been great.

“We have a quite heavy focus on the U.S. this year,” says the 37-year-old multidisciplinary artist.

Much of Ilori’s work has reached the far corners of the world — partnerships with Pepsi, Nike, Adidas, Lego, Bulgari House and Kvadrat, among others — but his focus on the U.S. begins a new chapter in his story that began with an obsession with objects during his childhood in London.

A look at Yinka Ilori x Bulgaria’s Afternoon Tea.
A look at Yinka Ilori x Bulgari’s “Afternoon Tea.”

Yet objects, specifically architecture and furniture, are only half of his passions — the other half is his Nigerian heritage. “I travel to Nigeria at least once or twice a year, but the first time was with my family at 11 years old,” Ilori says, adding that the trip was “life changing.”

“[The trip] answered many questions for who I am,” he continues. “My parents in particular were open with the info they were giving up for our lineage, history, our use of textiles, how we consume food. Everything I create does come from a very personal place or love for Nigerian culture and it’s very relevant in the use of color, pattern, and words and affirmations. Nigerian parables are heavily embedded within my work, so for me all of the work I’ve been creating over a decade has come from my experiences around the Nigerian community.”

A look at the LEGO + Yinka Ilori, Laundrette of Dreams.
A look at the LEGO + Yinka Ilori “Laundrette of Dreams.”

Ilori drew inspiration from his heritage for his film “Omi Okun,” which is Yoruba for “Ocean Water.” The 10-minute film draws from Ilori’s experiences in the Pentecostal church, traveling with a congregation from London to Margate, England, in white garments to enter the sea and collect seawater to be blessed, prayed over and later bathed in. The film is being projected twice nightly on the 2.5-acre riverfront-facade at The Mart on Marshall’s Landing and River Park in Chicago and will run until Sept. 11.

“Omi Okun” is deeply spiritual but intentionally open-ended. Ilori explains that he kept the main character’s motivations vague, as this was the case for the congregation he was part of. They would pray in private, and kept their dreams and warnings in their hearts. Despite the private intentions, the congregation would pray together as a community and share any pain collectively.

“When we talk about God, it’s always quite ambiguous because some people are atheist, Christian, Muslim, so many different faiths, but the bigger picture here is we strive to be part of a community,” Ilori says. “We’re all working towards the same goal. When I listen to music in church, I feel cleansed and light. I want tears of joy, laughter and healing when people watch this.”

In addition to the film, Ilori turned to his native culture for his collaboration with Momentum, which debuted at NeoCon at The Mart. The collection, Ilori’s first foray into commercial textile and wall covering designs, nods to his parents, who used to travel to buy textiles, as well as themes of community and the power of affirmation, a recurring theme in his work.

He hopes to inspire people to dream and keep dreaming with this collection, which will be available via Momentum Textiles’ showroom.

Meanwhile, “Reflection in Numbers Pavilion,” a project commissioned by Professor Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the director and chief curator of House of World Cultures, coincides with HKW’s exhibition “Ballet of the Masses,” a series of performances, films and installations.

A look at Yinka Ilori x Bulgaria’s Afternoon Tea.
A look at Yinka Ilori x Bulgari’s “Afternoon Tea.”

This mission continues Ilori’s ongoing mission of creating safe spaces through architecture and product and to make art and design more accessible. Still, there are six more months of the year to go and it appears he will remain busy with a confidential collaboration with a streetwear brand that will launch in September.

Ilori says he strives to be a “beacon” that encourages inclusive architecture and design, which bodes well for future creatives seeking safe spaces in art and design. “I felt we didn’t have that coming up,” he says.

“My parents are immigrants that moved to London in the ’80s,” he adds. “My parents and folks of that generation didn’t really celebrate themselves. I’m a first generation born in London and I’m looking for ways to celebrate my heritage, whether it’s through fashion, art and architecture. I see my work as a prophecy to spread the good word and good message and always find pockets of joy within pockets of community even when institutions fail.”

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