In the Mix
Nifemi Marcus-Bello’s first US solo show is a layered reflection on family, heritage, and craft
“Growing up in Lagos in the late ’90s and early 2000s was a mixed bag of emotions,” Nigerian designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello recalls. “But in my household, one thing remained constant: the words of affirmation, imagination, and encouragement of my mother. These affirmations—known as oríkì—touch on my lineage, what I am, and what I will become.”
Oríkì are personalized, spoken poems of praise common among Yoruba speakers in West Africa, often delivered by mother to child. The voice of Marcus-Bello’s mother, Folake, delivering his oríkì can be heard within the designer’s first US solo show, on view now at Los Angeles gallery Marta. Her spoken words are played above a background of abstracted musical elements; together they make up a soundscape that complements a new series of handcrafted, sculptural bronze benches the designer created in collaboration with artisans in Benin City.
Entitled Oríkì (Act I): Friction Ridge, the exhibition is the first in a planned series of “acts” investigating identity, materiality, and craft production, presented by Echo Park based gallery Marta—which, for this special occasion, has opened a temporary satellite location in a light-drenched space in Culver City.
The new works are marked by the unique imprints of both the designer and the artisans who made them—the surface pattern is the result of the collective, physical acts of the makers manually pressing into the mold. The title, Friction Ridge, refers to the skin of the same name—the ridges and valleys present on the skin along the lengths of the fingers and the palmar surfaces on the hand (“the skin we often use to create motor-skills-driven craft works,” Marta cofounder Benjamin Critton explains), which are as unique as (and including) our fingerprints—making them perfect symbols of identity and, when combined in multiples, collaboration.
The benches were produced using the same techniques once used to create royal portraiture in the Benin Kingdom, much of which was looted during the 19th century. Prompted, in part, by the recent repatriation of a number of Benin bronzes from European institutions, Marcus-Bello found himself inspired to craft contemporary forms using the same rich, historic process.
Marcus-Bello tells us his aim was “to create objects that are not only designed to be used, but spark an emotional connectivity.” He wished to collaborate “with Benin Bronze casters, well known and admired for their lost waxing technique, to create a piece to act as a dialogue between the maker, designer, and community.”
Further, according to the gallery, Marcus-Bello cites among his inspirations “a tradition of the Surma people of Ethiopia, who paint themselves and one another using the repetitive imprints of their finger pads—an artistic expression as well as one of camaraderie.”
Over the past few years, the Lagos-based, rising star has made a splash on the international design scene, thanks to a practice rooted in empathy and ethnographic approaches that consistently celebrate his West African heritage. Marcus-Bello’s recent honors include the 2022 Hublot LVMH Design Prize; the 2021 “Life-Enhancer of the Year” Wallpaper* Design Award for his “For the Community by the Community” portable handwashing station; and the 2022 acquisition of his LM Stool by the London Design Museum. Marcus-Bello’s ongoing research project, “Africa: A Designer’s Utopia”—funded by a grant from The Graham Foundation—investigates anonymously designed, quotidian objects on the continent.
Gallerists Benjamin Critton and Heidi Korsavong, who launched Marta in 2019, note: “We love Nifemi’s works for a number of reasons, but part of our general admiration for them is the ostensible site-specificity of their creation…Nifemi’s output frequently celebrates local communities of craftspeople or fabricators, and often seeks to highlight and recontextualize regional craft techniques in Nigeria and neighboring countries in West Africa.” They’re also particularly excited by the concept behind the new “Acts” series, as these “will be a part of his practice that runs parallel to traditional commissioned projects and will provide an outlet for un-briefed, personal works that are presented as unique pieces or small editions.”
Asked about plans for the next installment, they tell us: “The as-yet-untitled Act II of the series will likely take place in London in 2024 and speak to the extraction of natural resources from Africa for use in European markets. This focus on excavation, removal, and quarrying will act both as a metaphor—an ‘unearthing,’ in the archaeological and anthropological sense—and also as a means of material research.”
For now, there’s plenty to consider—and enjoy—in Marcus-Bello’s beautiful presentation in this sun-filled corner in Culver City. “I added [the oríkì],” Marcus-Bello says, “as a way to bring comfort not only to me but to extend the comfort to visitors coming to the show.” As his mother’s oríkì plays on a loop—approximately four and a half minutes of Folake’s hopes and praise for her son, followed by a silence of the same duration (“almost like Nifemi’s listening time,” Korsavong observes)—and the light through the windows dances on the makers’ polished thumbprints, visitors are gifted space to reflect on the beauty of a parents’ wishes for her child—and an artist’s own poetic offerings, audible and tactile, to craft, family, and community.
Friction Ridge is on view at Marta Satellite in Culver City through March 4, 2023. Learn more here.