In Conversation with Claire Idera
Claire Idera is a creative entrepreneur dedicated to the development of art and design in Africa. Her educational background in architecture, creative practice, and fashion design has informed her unique signature in her various collaborations with Hugo Boss, Lisa Folawiyo, Zashadu, and Rele Gallery. In this interview, we learn all about Idera’s passion for and impact on the industry—an impact that is definitely here to stay.
What began your interest in art?
I think it’s just always been a passion. I always knew that I could draw, just like the cliché: “I’ve been drawing since I was a baby.” Well, the truth is, I think in SS2, when I joined the art club, I stood out in such a way that they made me the president of that club, over the SS3 guys who were even studying art. Then I represented my school in some art competition and won. So all these kinds of things I had done at a very young age gave me the confidence to pursue art by itself, as opposed to any other type of profession that I could choose for my journey.
You describe yourself as a creative entrepreneur with an educational background in architecture, creative practice, and fashion design. How do all these disciplines inform your work?
In this world, everybody is one thing and another, so you find a chemical engineer who sells puff-puff at night. We are becoming very multidisciplinary with our work because you can’t box yourself into one place. The kind of career and things that I’ve done are intertwined with creativity and design. Architecture, creative practice, and fashion design all require the ability to move from an idea in 2-D to a final product, which is 3-D. So, the creative practice course really helped me to diversify. I did photography, I did product design, and then I taught as well, so I really did explore my creative madness to the max that I could possibly have before deciding that I wanted to go into fashion.
Hugo Boss, Lisa Folawiyo, and Zashadu have been some of your clients. Please tell us about the experience and how useful these partnerships have been in your career?
Interestingly, I worked with the three brands in really different ways. For example, Hugo Boss was live illustration of certain women and the production of the scent that they had created, called “Her Scent.” It was just a quick commission that I did while I was studying. This was a time where I really wanted to focus on delivering the best that I could in a course that was very much dominated by people who had studied the discipline. It was an MA in fashion, and most people had previously done a BSc in fashion, so I was the only one with a BSc in architecture, with no experience in fashion. I was trying so hard to make sure that I stood out that I said to myself, No commissions, no money-making. First focus on what you’re doing. But when I got that commission, I was like, “Whoa, whoa, let’s do this!” So I feel like it was just a great quick experience to remind myself that I shouldn’t ever make my emotions stop me from being a business person.
Creative people generally get stuck on their emotions by allowing it to guide their major decisions. I feel like having a robust clientele has opened other people to be like, “Oh, if she could work with blank, who are we to think that she’s not comfortable?”
With Lisa Folawiyo, it was a design project. It wasn’t just illustrations that required random sketches for the designer, as most people would imagine. I literally went through the entire process—concept research, research on designs, sketching, design development, detailing fabric, prints, colours, down to the final garment. Obviously, because she’s still the creative director, she would make certain changes to themes. But the end goal would still be in line with what I had brought as a narrative for the collection. So, that by itself was also interesting. And it’s completely different because the live illustrations for Hugo Boss did not need anybody else’s input. But Lisa Folawiyo was a collaboration, just like a client with a brief.
Zashadu was footwear, which was completely different from the others. It was essentially a product illustration. It’s interesting how you selected these three, as they’re all different. Funny enough, most of the people that I’ve worked with in the past are very different in the work that I have done for them. Recently, I’ve had a request for costume design—not that I haven’t done costume design before, but I haven’t done it for a company or a client or person or group of people. I’m just saying, “Okay, let me test and see what this will look like.” So I think just being able to do a lot of things has allowed me to have a portfolio that is very diverse.
While attaining a master’s in fashion design from Kingston University London, you communicated through your blog how alienating the culture shock was. What challenges should those looking to enhance their skills in a new environment expect?
When you get into a space that is not what you’re used to, it changes your perspective on certain things, even probably your religion. So, if you’re going into a completely different space, it’s always great that you understand your core, who you are. So whenever these other waves of culture do come in, you’re not shaken. I think my own challenge really came from the fact that I was so much of an introvert. I wouldn’t want to go to a club or a pub to just drink beer and make jokes.
Most of the time, I was very focused on trying to be top in my class and trying to stand out as the only Black girl. I was always trying to bring a narrative that was outside of what the Asian students were bringing. I found that I was so much in my box, in my space, and that was a bit depressing.
I have family that I would go see from time to time. But every time I was back into my space, I felt choked up with my own self, especially because at the time I wrote that blog post, I was in an accommodation that wasn’t my own personally rented space. I couldn’t do up the space in a way that felt comfortable. So, it all just fell apart. Eventually, when I was doing my master’s, I rented a space that I wanted. I made sure I could open my windows. I had a really large sliding door that had a plaque right in front of me. On days when I was just down, I would quickly go to the central area of Kingston, which was really close to me, and come back in. And then the master’s helped because we had to be friends, unlike when I was doing the creative practice where everybody was a competitor looking at each other with a side-eye.
During the master’s, we had to work with different disciplines, different types of people, so we’d all meet up, and it would always feel like a hub of politicians trying to be diplomatic to get to one position. So, the bottom line is, find a way to be comfortable. Once you begin to feel stuffed up, you need to communicate. I went through some sort of depression while I was in that state because I couldn’t talk to anybody. Luckily, the person that would always hear me rant about how I felt was my fiancé (he was my boyfriend then). He would always hear me, would always talk while I complained about how I felt to him. I couldn’t do that with my parents when the reply would mostly be, “In all things, give thanks to God.” So, find someone to talk to. I think most people who go through this kind of culture shock, depression, or other issues go through them because they don’t have people to talk to or are unable to make friends easily.
From conception to completion, kindly take us through your creative process.
It depends on what exactly I’m doing. Illustration is very different from design. I much prefer my design process because it’s very adventurous. Illustration is very mechanical. If there are prints involved, I’m very excited to experiment. First, I get the concept or idea. Then I start researching images from photography, art, fashion, magazines, storybooks or novels, newspaper ads, or whatever, really. Then I look into whatever theme it is, drawing a mind map. Once the narrative is established, I start imagining what the muse is or looks like, and then I make sketches of the muse or try to find someone who will be my muse. I also consider the person’s life. From there, I make colours and fabric. If I have prints, I get inspiration for the prints and then start sketching. Sometimes I go back and forth into research from sketching. I do a lot of collaging with Photoshop and then start sampling designs. From sampling, I know what’s working and what’s not. And then I make the final garment.
You have participated in quite a lot of social engagements. For instance, in 2017 you exhibited at Washington, DC, for Art for a Cause and in 2018 your illustrations were exhibited in Rele Gallery to mark International Women’s Month. What is it about your art that makes it political, and why is social commentary vital for the artist?
I think social commentary is always vital to any type of storytelling because, as artists, we’re always trying to document what is going on at the moment, in the time and space that we’re in. It’s important for artists to be able to tell the story now; nobody else can even tell it like them. Our fathers can’t tell our story for us, because they’re not the ones in our time and space. And when we tell the stories of our fathers, we can’t really express things the way the fathers would, because we weren’t in that time, the emotions are not the same.
It’s very important for politics and religion and culture and social problems to always be documented in art. That’s the only way we’ll know what’s going on, what’s happened. The paintings that I did for International Women’s Month were specific to the past, the present, and the future. Just as I was saying about telling stories—we look at Queen Amina as this very victorious and strong woman who knew herself and was a warrior. But there possibly were stories of her that we are unaware of because this is what the narrative has always been. And so my own way of interpreting Queen Amina was to represent the Black woman who was accepting her Afro hair, which is sometimes overlooked. I mean, she was Nigerian; she definitely had natural hair, but nobody talks about that. We just talk about the fact that she had many boyfriends.
The question I ask in my painting is, what story are we telling now about the woman who is accepting her natural hair? She was in a Versace dress, which gives off an aura of power, and she had a horse behind her. And then I had some other women, like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Modupe Alakija, which really created quite a controversy, as people thought she shouldn’t be there. They felt she didn’t become successful through hard work; most people believe that she was just lucky. But I represented her as a woman who owns her own business, as opposed to the women in the past who could barely own bicycles or lands without their sons or husbands. That was why I wanted to represent her as a woman in the present, who has cars and companies and supports other women in whatever way. I also had Margaret Ekpo, and I had another woman from the diaspora, who was the first Black [female] astronaut.
How vital are partnerships between artists and galleries?
I am still new in the art space. When I was contacted by Rele Gallery to do this exhibition was literally my first time setting up a canvas and painting. I prepared that work for the exhibition and then from there I started making prints, and it’s led up to now. A year later, I’m now deciding to pursue art very seriously.
I am quite grateful to Adenrele for reaching out to me because I don’t think I put any content out there in the art space prior to that. But they felt that I had something to say and something I could bring. I was excited all the days that I turned up at the exhibition. I was always ready to explain ideas. Alakija was painted in coffee so that you see how brown the skin is. I literally just used coffee to create that skin and hair, and it still smelt like coffee on that day. People were so thrilled when they perceived it as they got close to the painting. I really want to create experiences for people in the way that I have with my art.
Tell us about your experience teaching fashion while attaining your master’s at Kingston University London, as well as the arts and design workshop at Oxbridge College, Lagos. What prepared you, and how did you manage it all?
They are all different things, and I have different things to offer. The workshop we did in Oxbridge last year was when I moved back from London, immediately after my master’s. The teaching was while I was doing my master’s. What prepared me for all that? Sunday school teaching! I’ve always been talkative. I’ve always known how to teach and how to break down big things into smaller bites for people to understand. Some Scriptures are very complicated, and you have to explain them in the simplest ways. Also, my mom is a teacher, not like in a school or anything, but in the way she communicates. She essentially teaches in her day-to-day life, maybe not in the softest way, but she knows how to pass on information. I think that has rubbed off on me.
I was studying a master’s and teaching, and if I learned anything from that, it was how to balance things. I felt like I was giving myself an opportunity to learn something else. I remember that even in undergrad when we were prepping for exams, people would want revision classes, and I was always excited to re-teach my classmates. I would be the one to take history or one of those really long, boring classes and explain to everyone. I would make it so fun that they never forgot the story of how baroque architecture became washed out by Roman architecture. I would create a caricature type of story, drawing things and making them have this different perspective on theory. When I was doing my master’s, I harnessed this ability more. I had to be very professional with my delivery, and that helped me with how I presented my own work for my master’s. I was teaching both foundation and first-year fashion design, and I believe that God really favoured me in the work that I did. I applied for the teaching role, and they told me that I can’t do it. I was given a week to show that I could, and it just went on from there. When I compare the portfolio I used to get into fashion school with the portfolio I left with, the people who were there with me at the beginning were in awe. I can imagine if that kind of education were here in Nigeria, how many people would do better.
Most fashion entrepreneurs are fixated on commercial success, and considering the popular engagement with the hashtag #drawwithclaire, what else should an artist aim for besides monetary success?
The end goal is always money, whether we like it or not. The problem with creative people is that they don’t know how to balance money-making and being creative. And in that instance, I’d suggest getting a business partner. And besides making money, ensure that you’re completely satisfied in what you’re putting out, because it’s like your handwriting. You’re signing on something and you’re giving it out. It’s not coming back to you to be re-signed. So make sure that whatever work you’re putting out holds value, aside from the money you’re getting. It needs to have some sense of spirit.
I remember the days when I would illustrate people, cakes, dogs, everything. I was doing every type of job. I worked at a bank. I did menswear. I drew buildings. I did this, I did that—I did everything. It got to a point where I felt like I was running mad because money was coming in, but I didn’t like what I was putting out. So I had to stop and give myself some time and figure out what exactly I wanted my name to be attached to. To be able to take care of yourself in a state like Lagos is harsh for a creative person who focuses only on passion. You will break down and hate yourself for doing that. Even for me, settling down and taking a bigger responsibility as somebody’s wife—I won’t be waiting for him to pay the rent. What happens if he dies—am I going to live on the street? The aim should be finding a balance, as opposed to focusing just on making money or just on passion.
January 28, 2020
January 16, 2020