‘I have always been a person of two worlds’
Interview with Kacey Femi Ajayi, Nigerian artist and founder of Femi Creatives
Tell me about yourself and Femi Creatives. How and when did it come about?
I am an artist and designer living in Sussex, UK with my wife and daughter. I was born in London but aged six moved to Lagos, Nigeria, with my family. My great-grandfather JAGUNOSHIN was from Ekiti which is a Yoruba state in Nigeria. He was a warrior, herbalist and ‘Babalawo’, which means ‘Father of the mysteries’ in the Yoruba language. Yoruba people are very creative and that inspired me.
Femi Creatives came about three years ago, not long before I was invited to showcase my work at a House of Fraser Afro-centric event in Oxford Street, London where I showcased my Orisha Collection. Femi Creatives is a design studio offering unique African art prints and homewares inspired by and celebrating Nigerian Yoruba mythology – a core part of my heritage and ancestry.
Femi cushions. All pictures are courtesy of Femi Creatives.
Kacey and his family.
What role has migration and mobility played in your life and, specifically, in your art?
When I arrived in Nigeria, I was hit by an intoxicating world of heat and noise, colour, knowledge, tradition and history, spirits and ancestors, ritual and etiquette – which hugely influenced me as a young artist. I made comics for the locals, I made shoes, I drew every day! I was art-obsessed! I was deeply inspired by my experiences both in Ekiti and in Lagos, where I lived until my 20s before returning to London. I love London too, it is a fantastic city, a melting pot of many people and many cultures. England is as much my home as Nigeria.
I am a migrant in both my homes. In Nigeria I was a British who was different from those raised there from birth. In the UK I am identified as Black and African, something that makes me ‘other’.
On both occasions when I migrated – first from the UK to Nigeria and then from Nigeria to the UK, it was not my choice. My family decided this for me and I had very little warning or time to adjust. Migration is traumatic and complex in terms of how you form an identity, learn to adapt and fit in. It is also something that enables opportunity to see the world from multiple angles and this is a gift that I will always be grateful for. My art is centred in my expression of the pre-colonial Yoruba culture but from the perspective of being part of the African diaspora. The journey I have had through my experience of migration is exactly what has enabled me to see and value the power of my culture and how I can use it to develop pride in myself as a Black African in the UK. It enables me to stand up and hold my head high in the face of discrimination, without being compelled to try and blend in or ignore my cultural ancestry. This is what my art is about.
Kacey in his studio.
The Femi Creatives motto is ‘Art of our Origins’. What do your origins mean to you?
The art I produce stems back to the Ekiti state and Lagos, Nigeria and is directly influenced by the Ifa spiritual pathway of the Yoruba Gods. One of the reasons I emphasise origins is because I am interested in looking at the belief systems and culture that we lived by before the colonial era, the transatlantic slave trade and the introduction of Christianity to our country.
I believe that we should go back to explore our origins as a way of rediscovering our identity as people who come from a sophisticated and interesting culture that we can take pride in. Something that was largely taken from us during the colonial period. My collections represent my journey of reconnection with the Yoruba Gods which enable us all, regardless of background, colour or religion, to re-engage with the elements in and around us through the eyes of Yoruba spirituality and culture as a means of celebrating African pride and identity, knowledge and history.
A key part of your work, the Orisha Collection, is inspired by and celebrating Nigerian Yoruba mythology. What is the mythology about and how does your collection celebrate it?
Orishas are the names for deities following the Ifa pathway of spirituality of the Yoruba people. They originate from a time before the colonial encounter with Africa, when missionaries and colonialists came to our lands and made it illegal to practice the worship of our own Gods. I am in my own way bringing the Orishas back to our consciousness through my art, on behalf of my ancestors.
We believe that Orishas are the power behind our universe and our world. They are a representative of the natural world and are worshipped as the force of power in front of, within and behind the elements. If we are guided by them then we must learn to live again in harmony with our environment. So the Orishas are topical not just from an identity perspective but from a human global perspective and how we fit into the Earth. Listening to them connects us to our ancestral past, it is about slowing down, observing, returning to natural skills, simplifying our lives and respecting our planet and loving everything in it.
My designs celebrate the Orishas by telling the story of each Orisha through the traditional symbols that represent that Orisha, but also using imagery and symbols that I have developed as an individual creative person. My Father comes from the town of the Orisha Ogun (God of Iron) so I am the son of Ogun. I have been lucky enough to see how my people celebrate our Orisha, Ogun, in Ekiti state during the Ogun festival celebrated every year in the last week of August. It is a beautiful scene, where our ancestors are called upon and the masquerades are their messengers. Ogun is about change and balance and I am always evolving with the changes that happen in my life and re-balancing. Ogun is one of my favourite Orishas to depict in my artwork.
I try to include messages through patterns that depict my tribe, and by using patterns inspired by and derived from the symbolic and mythological stories of the Orishas. Telling a story or representing a message in an image is what I love the most about my design work.
Kacey at work.
Kacey and his wife on their travels.
You say your work and you have travelled a lot. Tell us a bit more about the travels.
My works have always been with me wherever I go, I take inspiration from the origins of all peoples – we all derive back to one mother, we are all one people.
I have travelled extensively in Europe and been part of arts collectives in Spain and Morocco. I was telling stories with traditional storytellers from Cafe Clock in Marrakech and I was a market arts trader for one month in Cádiz, Spain. I want to do more in Nigeria with my art, this is the next journey for me.
What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?
My biggest achievement is marrying my soulmate, my wife, for so many reasons. She is my steady, loving, guiding, navigator.
What are your favourite pieces from your collection?
I love my work and what I do for every piece. It has huge sentimental importance for me, for I strongly believe in what I do and what it stands for, so all my works are of fundamental importance to me.
My bestsellers are cycle of life, the Goddess of the rivers Yemoja, and the spirit of the iron Ogun.
Kacey with his work, with his Cycle of Life YEMOJA print on the left.
Margaret grew up in a small town in the Czech Republic. Her time in academia started at Charles University in Prague with a degree in International Area Studies, she also spent one year in Leeds as an Erasmus exchange student. She graduated from the University of Oxford with an MSc in Migration Studies in 2018. She is currently working at a non-profit in Somerset. Apart from volunteering and reading on (post)secularism, she spends her free time looking for J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpieces she has not yet read. Margaret is communications and selection coordinator and an editor at Routed Magazine.