Artist Q&A: Yinka Ilori

Through the CW+ Arts in Health programme, we work with a diverse range of health technology partners as well as renowned and emerging artists, architects and designers to improve the patient environment and experience in the Trusts hospitals.

CW+ caught up with esteemed multidisciplinary visual artist Yinka Ilori to discuss his recent work in the St Stephen’s Centre at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, how art has changed during a global pandemic, and the power and importance of keeping art accessible.

Q. How did you become a multidisciplinary artist? 

I studied Fine Art at GCSE level and went on to study Furniture Product Design.  I did a foundation course in art and design, filmmaking, photography, and fashion for a year, which is where I discovered I’m more hands-on. I produced my first furniture collection in 2009, which I exhibited during Design Week. I was always obsessed with objects like chairs, but I got quite bored of just doing objects in exhibition environments and spaces.

I was then fortunate enough to be asked to design an installation for NOW Gallery, and from there on I made more and more installations. They ranged from gallery exhibitions to playground installations, underpasses, pavilions, and other immersive spaces. It all kind of happened organically and by accident, probably because I am quite a greedy artist and designer so I love to do everything all at once.

Q. So is positivity a big part of what you are trying to communicate?

Yes!  Positivity and that feeling of empowerment, that feeling of optimism, that feeling that anything is possible.  The work is trying to empower people in communities and in spaces, to try and give people a voice and make them feel seen. That is important for me.  I think that comes from my Nigerian heritage, being raised in a close-knit family home with a culture celebrating small wins and small things. Just celebrating the power of unity and togetherness is something I care about. Being together and appreciating that.

Being able to travel and meet and talk to new people, and have new experiences helps me to create new work with multiple levels of memories or stories in my projects. Whether it is a playground, an immersive space, or a homeware collection, there will be elements of moments or stories which I have injected into those projects.

Q. How did you get involved with CW+ and Chelsea and Westminster Hospital?

I was put in touch with CW+ through Kensington and Chelsea Arts Week (KCAW) who told me about this project at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I have always wanted to do a project like this where I can give back and connect with people who need support, hope, optimism or empowering. I think art is such a powerful tool for that. It’s meditative, and it should be inclusive.  Art is also therapy.  It allows you to dream and reimagine and think positively. So that is how the project came around.

I worked with Carmel and Saskia from CW+ on developing the artworks and curation. We came here to see how patients interact with the space, understanding their journey, where they sit and where they walk, their process from opening the front door. I wanted to know what they see, because going into the hospital environment can be very nerve-wracking or stressful or anxious. I wanted to try and create a palette of work that made people feel welcome, safe and hopeful. Things like patterns and colours.

Those choices were very important to me. Colour theory is still something I am investigating and experimenting with; how we humans interact with colours and what they do for our souls and health and day-to-day lives. There were a number of very rich conversations and design photographs exchanged between myself and the CW+ team until we were happy with the artworks.

Q. How did you decide on the colour palette for the artwork?

That was very collaborative with CW+ and the clinicians who work here. They’re the ones who see people every day, so just understanding the use of colour and using it in a different way was challenging but – for me – a huge learning curve. I have taken some interesting points from there which I use in new work as well.

It is very important to support communities and people who may not have families or may not feel they can talk to people about the things they’re going through. I have been in hospital myself and it’s tough being there and waiting with all the unknown. I feel people want something that can lift them. For me, my work is very community-led.

I grew up in a huge council estate in north London, and for me community is the most important thing ever. I cared about my community because they were the ones who were showing me love and they grew me and supported me. I share these memories because there is a community here.

When you enter and you see somebody across the room from you, you are both going through a shared pain, a shared confusion, a shared anxiety. I think that – as artists – it is important that we try and give back to people who need hope. I think visual art that tells a story is something that I want to keep doing in places like this.

Q. Do you think this is what has drawn you to public space throughout your career?

It has, yes. These last two years throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I created a series of murals around London because galleries and museums were all closed. You could only go out for an hour a day. I think back to it now and it seems surreal, we really couldn’t do anything. We were all going through this shared pain. It didn’t matter how much money you had, how big your house was. We were all trapped.

So creating those murals and using words of empowerment – ‘If you dream anything is possible’ and ‘As long as we have each other we will be ok’ – were around London. For the first time I felt like I had achieved making my work accessible to every race, age, identity, because it was on a billboard in Dalston or Peckham. Everyone including my mum, who had never been to a gallery before, experienced public art for the first time. For me that was powerful. Public art is super important to me.  It gives people a voice and it makes them part of a conversation. It makes them part of a narrative.

Q. How do you see art now?

Going back to the last two years and making art in public spaces has made me re-evaluate how I see art and how the world should view art as well. For me one of the lowest moments during the pandemic was understanding that although we were going through this global pandemic, I was still lucky because I had a garden. I could go out and play in my garden and do things and drive my car.

I walked to this place in West London and saw this block of flats, and I could see kids looking out the windows who couldn’t play. It broke my heart, seeing kids who can’t play or get fresh air because they were trapped at home. Seeing that made me re-evaluate and make my work a lot more accessible, because if those kids looked out the window and saw a mural, it might make those two years of not doing much a little more bearable.

Q. How would you sum up being part of this commission with CW+ at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital?

I am so humbled and honoured to be part of this project. I hope there is a legacy that lives on and people come back and that, when they’re here, my work brings them a little bit of hope and positivity.

Find out more about the CW+ Arts in Health programme here.