Many Nigerians view art and fashion as two separate forms of expression — the former a luxury and the latter a necessity. Both are also considered a form of identity for the collector or wearer. However, the contemporary world and emerging talents have established a connection that makes art and fashion processes inseparable, a fusion that promotes art appreciation among different social classes. Babalola Ibrahim, our creative for today, is in the league of remarkable Nigerian artists combining fashion processes and materials to create art that portrays diverse themes and preserves Nigeria’s cultural heritage.
Babalola Ibrahim is a versatile Ibadan-based fashion designer and artist who adopts textile and embroidery painting as his medium of artistic expression. His background of having a fashion designer for a father and an embroiderer for a mother contributed to his adoption of this medium. At age seven, Babalola Ibrahim started learning the art of stitching designs on different textiles, and after frequent observation of the ise owo (handmade) embroidery technique used by Hausa embroiderers in his local community in Mokola, Ibadan, he already knew he wanted to be an exceptional fashion designer.
Combining art and fashion happened later for Babalola Ibrahim when he decided to study Textile Design and Print Technology at the Polytechnic of Ibadan, Oyo State, and he has since then participated in several group and solo exhibitions, including the Life in My City Art Festival (LIMCAF), and IMPART exhibitions. His most recent body of work, Ala n Takun (the spinner), was showcased in a group exhibition at the Thought Pyramid Art Centre, Abuja, in 2022, where the participants of the TT Creative Hangout also had a chance to view some of his pieces.
On The Big Showcase today, we explore the motifs and influences behind the creative works of Babalola Ibrahim and celebrate his determination to make his unique fashion-art fusion style renowned in the Nigerian art industry.
Days of Humble Beginnings at Mokola, Ibadan
“Some of my most memorable and enjoyable childhood experiences were the ones I spent in my dad’s tailoring shop because my journey today as a textile artist started there. I remember my dad sending me to Sabo, the base of the Hausa community, to give skilled northern embroiderers pieces of sewn clothing to embroider designs on. I observed the embroidery process diligently and soon picked up some of the techniques used by the Hausa embroiderers. At home, I also practised what I saw, and when the main northern embroiderer my dad used returned to his home state, I told my dad that I could do exactly what these people do, and that’s how I started the journey to this moment.”
If consistency were a person, it’d probably be the middle name of Babalola Ibrahim, who participated in six editions of the LIMCAF contest between 2014 and 2021.
“I love challenges and challenging myself because I believe staying in a comfort zone or stationary position is not beneficial to one’s growth. So, I decided to step out of my shell, challenge and improve my craft, and connect with others by participating in the LIMCAF competition and other exhibitions. I was initially interested in the competition because of the prize attached to showcasing artwork. But after entering the competition the first time and making it to the top 100 shortlist, I became exposed to and inspired by distinct art mediums and styles beside the needle and thread on textiles and canvas medium. During the five other times I participated in the competition, I unlocked new levels of embroidery, stitching and painting skills.”
On Ala n Takun, his Best Body of Work
“Ala n Takun (the spinner) is a body of work that tells a short but interwoven story about my life, my small beginnings as a fashion designer and then a textile painter, my struggles, and up till my current career level. It also hints at my determination to grow and how I spinned from one stage to the next without giving up. I started with thread and needle, continued with textile in the polytechnic, and then moved to advanced embroidery and spinning, which influenced the name Ala n Takun.”
Out of the seventeen pieces of textile paintings that Babalola Ibrahim showcased under the Ala n Takun collection, a few pieces stood out for him because of their significance to his career stages, the challenges he faced, and how he triumphed over them.
“One of my most significant but underrated pieces is the Ogun Ise (Anti-poverty) piece which portrays the importance of working hard. A popular Yoruba poem inspired the piece, and I incorporated excerpts of the poem into the artwork. With this artwork, I encourage people, especially youths, to work hard and not relent because I have faced my share of challenges but didn’t give up. For example, when I decided to focus on embroidery art between 2016 and 2018, I couldn’t connect with any Nigerian or even African embroidery artist to share ideas or improve with. At the time, I was simply a self-taught embroidery artist exploring a rare art medium no one valued or recognised. I invested a lot of money into creating over twenty artworks but didn’t sell any until a foreigner bought one of my pieces years later. I didn’t give up, so I encourage others to emulate the same determination to succeed.”
Fusing Art and Fashion: a Great Blend or a Distraction?
One of the unique things about the art medium that Babalola Ibrahim adopts is that it’s a blend of fashion processes and painting techniques transformed into original art pieces. He shares how he combines his fashion design profession with his art.
“Fashion is also art, and I have observed and learned from classical artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspire me to explore various mediums of expression to create art. I currently practise fashion design and textile painting/embroidery art.
Both professions are somewhat interwoven for me because my paintings are made from textile materials and embroidery techniques, and my fashion design pieces also highlight my painting and artistic side. My knowledge of textile types helps me know different materials for different textile artworks. My fashion design business doesn’t affect my art career; instead, it supports it.”
Training the next generation of artists and fashion artists is an excellent way to guarantee creativity continuity, and Babalola Ibrahim contributes to this worthy vision.
“It’s no stress for me to fuse both professions, especially because I train a group of apprentices through my fashion design business. As a creative director, I coordinate the creation of creative designs and their implementation on different textiles, and these apprentices indirectly learn some painting and art techniques through me.”
In the story of hundreds of artists or creatives is the common theme of community and collaboration. For Babalola Ibrahim, the connection with several influential and upcoming talented Ibadan artists have significantly impacted and improved his career.
“Your location doesn’t determine exposure or popularity in the Nigerian art industry but the circle you move with. If any artist, even Ibadan-based, intends to move far, fast and well, they need to move with the right people and platforms. People like Oluwole Omofemi, Akinola Ebenezer, and Olatoye David are examples of Ibadan-based artists doing so well and connecting other people to good opportunities.”
With a global village like the internet, unpopularity is simply an excuse for ‘not giving it your all’, and Babalola Ibrahim further speaks on how taking advantage of the internet and the growing art industry in Nigeria has made it easier for artists to gain relevance even from the most remote locations. He also touches on how varying levels of passion for art can determine how far an artist can go.
“The internet has made it easier for artists to gain exposure; if not, people like me and other Ibadan artists won’t have the chance to connect and exhibit alongside other artists in Lagos and Abuja. Some people create just for money’s sake, but art doesn’t work that way. You first create great art for art’s sake with a track record attached to your name online, and the money will follow. That’s how it has been for other artists I mentioned and me.”
Art as a Language and Culture
Art is a way of life for Babalola Ibrahim, and he reiterates that even if he chooses only to create rather than sell art, he will live a fulfilled life.
“My art is like a language I speak, and my artworks are the mediums through which I speak them, and the purpose of these pieces is to educate people through art and about the originality of art. As such, even though money is important, creating art for this purpose is even more important because money will follow exceptional art.” Babalola Ibrahim leaves upcoming artists with this proverb-like advice,
“If you say you want to dance but stand still, it means you’re not really dancing. But even if you move only your head, people will consider it a sign of dancing. That is, you need to move inch by inch and consistently. Your breakthrough won’t happen in a day, but it will surely happen with time.”
Babalola Ibrahim’s work with textile materials and embroidery processes that end up as paintings on canvas is rare, and we’re in awe of what he has achieved with hard work and consistency. We will continue to celebrate him even as he shines the light on the path of extraordinary art forms for other artists like him.