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Material Messages: West African design.

The Nigerian designer who is bringing contemporary West African design and a critical perspective to global audiences.

Portrait photographed by Kadara Enyasi; Images provided by Nifemi Marcus-Bello

Nifemi Marcus-Bello exhibit of sand dripping from ceiling

portrait of West African designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello against blue background

Nifemi Marcus-Bello’s steady contemplation of West African design, as explored through a contemporary lens, has garnered the Lagos, Nigeria–based creative a recent influx of global attention. With significant projects in Los Angeles, Miami, Sharjah, Milan, and London, and an upcoming solo show in Amsterdam, Marcus-Bello’s output is injecting the industry with a fresh, forward-thinking and critical perspective. 

One of the few installations at this year’s Milan design week to tackle politically sensitive subject matter, Omi Iyọ (shown above) highlighted the plight of migrants undertaking the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Southern Europe. Debuting at last year’s Design Miami and was inspired by a conversation he had with a migrant during Milan design week 2023. The imposing dark blue stainless steel sculpture, a reference to migrant-filled ships, filtered salt slowly through a small hole, like an hourglass, and was intended to inspire a moment of reflection and calm in the dual chaos of the week and the world.  

After returning from Leeds, England—where he studied product design—to his hometown of Lagos, Marcus-Bello has honed his focus on commercial and collectible objects in which local culture, materials, and manufacturing intersect with personal narratives. In 2017, he started his namesake studio; now, the 10-person team includes highly skilled long-term collaborators, like the welder to whom he was an apprentice at age 13. “I feel like I'm a kid in a candy store,” Marcus-Bello says of the insatiable curiosity that drives him. 

What is different about design in Africa compared to in England?

I realized very quickly that there was a lot to learn when it comes to design. A lot of humility is needed to design on the continent [in Africa]. I know that, because we live in a global world, many people tend to think they are going to create a solution and everybody should get it because everybody lives this way, works this way, or talks this way, but there are still cultural nuances. The way someone would sit in London and interact with certain materials is different from the way people would interact with certain materials or perceive certain materials or forms [in Lagos].

Asking questions is an important part of your process and your work. What kinds of questions are important to you?

I have these questions because I realize there's a shift in mindset, even discussing materiality, when it comes to Africa. In Lagos, for example, there's heavy globalization, and material history is changing because of the introduction of new materials. I try to pose questions along those lines, like: Why do these materials exist? Why do we have to interact with them? Do we need to avoid them? Who's working with them? Why should we work with them? I think a lot of these questions tend to surround certain themes—especially materiality and identity. 

How do you balance your conceptual output with your commercial design?

Two years ago, I really had to reflect on the best way to push forward with the studio, and that's why I've split it to the commercial side that collaborates with clients and creates objects, and the artistic outputs where I can still stay curious, propose and ask questions. What I've been doing is proposing questions. Eventually, the idea is to have answered a bunch of questions, and then show them as a solo show, hence [his titling structure] Act One, Act Two, and then Act Three. The commercial side is a business entity on its own, designing objects for clients, and designing objects that we sell in North America.

Editor’s Note: Marcus-Bello has just released a 25-piece limited edition “Selah Lamp 2.0” with Madrid-based fabricator Caliper.

Held together by a backdrop of African mahogany, the M2 shelf mimics the 19th-century Igbo wooden sculpture, Ogbom, which plays with qualities of lightness and weight.

Why do you put materiality first?

I feel like a maker at heart. I'm curious about why certain materials are so prominent. I'm also curious about the fact that in the West, a lot of people are talking about sustainability. But in Africa, sustainability has always been part of a culture where we reuse, and reuse, and reuse. Materials in certain parts of the world mean [one thing], and in other parts of the world could mean something else. For example, there is a tribe in Guyana where only the king can wear gold. A lot of people don't buy gold in that tribe, but gold exists within that city. 

How do you approach collaborations and build trust with people, especially in traditional craft communities? 

I let them know that I'm not coming in as an expert but as a student—I'm willing to learn and deep-dive as much as possible, have conversations around production, and not propose an idea too early. For example, it took me a year to get to know the sand-casters [with whom Marcus-Bello collaborated to produce Oríkì (Act II): Tales by Moonlight, a functional sculpture collection for Design Miami 2023]. I first came to them asking for help to fix a secondhand car that I brought in from North America. As a result of this project, I was allowed into the community, with them understanding exactly what I was trying to do. For me, that's the approach I take—a human approach. 

LEFT: The LM stool is produced in Lagos by a local manufacturer working with sheet metal. In developing the stool’s simplified shape, Marcus-Bello challenged himself to see how much of the form could be removed without affecting its stability. Photographed by Guy Ferguson. RIGHT: Last year, the LM stool was added to the permanent collection of design at the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado.

Where does identity fit in?

I find it fascinating that certain materials exist within specific communities like the Benin bronze casters, who have kept this [craft] tradition for years but haven't found a way to make it contemporary. Within that material, they have an identity. How do we treat the material as contemporarily as possible and introduce new ways of making? With Friction Ridge [Marcus-Bello’s first solo US show, held last year at Los Angeles’ Marta gallery], we introduced a silicone mold [to the bronze, which had previously only seen lost-wax casting] to add new textures and forms.

What do you like about practicing in Africa? 

The beautiful thing about practicing in Africa is that there's no line between art and design—it's about making sure that there's an emotional attachment to a functional object, regardless of what it is. And that emotional transfer, that spiritual tightness, is crucial to any work—even the work that I always propose and show. So, I think for me, it doesn't really matter what [or where] it is, as long as people are practicing.

textured Benin bronze bench by designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello on terracotta tiles in sun-filled window

Oríkì (Act I): Friction Ridge, exhibited at Marta Satellite in Culver City, California, is an edition of bronze sculptural benches accompanied by Marcus-Bello’s oríkì—the multi-generational practice of praise poetry and spoken affirmation amongst the Yoruba people and Yoruba-speakers of West Africa—recited by the artist’s mother.

To create new textures and forms, Marcus-Bello introduced the process of silicone molding to the Benin bronze casters, which had previously only undergone lost wax casting.


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