Transforming Art to Design with Tunde Owolabi

Tunde Owolabi is an artist first and foremost. However, he channels this art into design through his latest venture, Ethnik. Ayiba’s Eyitemi Popo interviewed Tunde about his new fashion brand, which draws inspiration from the Yoruba culture of Nigeria and other African cultures to create narratives through patterns and colors woven into beautiful fabrics.


We at Ayiba first saw your work with the Aso Oke: The Woven Beauty exhibition in Lagos. Are you planning any upcoming exhibitions?

The Woven Beauty gave birth to Ethnik because without that project, I may never have thought of Ethnik. Yes, I am back in the studio working on my next project, and you will be hearing about it when the time is right.

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Image from Tunde Owolabi’s Aso Oke: The woven beauty exhibition

How do you personally see the relationship between art and design?

The relationship between art and design is dependent on the viewer and how they perceive them. Art can be a finished work with just the sketch while design goes on to be communicated or end up becoming a product or service.

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What led you to turn your art into design with the Ethnik brand?

My love for design first of all, as well as my appreciation and interest in culture led me to creating Ethnik. I never thought of venturing into the fashion industry, and I still don’t regard myself as a fashion designer. I am a creative and I believe I have that blank canvas to create whatever I can imagine.

What inspires you to work with Aso Oke?

I stumbled upon aso oke when I was researching for headgears to paint for my art project. The history, the different types, the process of production, the versatility, the flamboyance, and the regality of the fabric fascinated me.

Can you tell us about the creative process behind your most recent collection, the Scarified Collection?

The Scarified Collection was inspired by scarification. Scarification is common in Africa. It is an incision process of creating patterns and marks on the skin using a sharp object. This tradition is usually to create an identity, or done during an initiation process. We wove these patterns into our fabrics. The end result was a beautiful linear repeat pattern.

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What has been the most challenging part of launching this brand?

The three greatest challenges are:

  1. Erratic artisans.
  2. Lack of raw materials in steady supply.
  3. Terribly bad power supply.

Despite the challenges, we remain steadfast knowing it can only get better.

What is your next milestone with the brand?

Having a fully functional studio where we can train and mentor young entrepreneurs is our next goal.  Creating sustainability for the weavers, as well as an environment for them to thrive and develop young weavers who will take over after them, is really important. That way we ensure the art never dies. Our ultimate goal is to break into the international market.

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Images courtesy of Ethnik