The Textiles & Paintings Of Kenyan-American Artist Jamilla Okubo

New York-based Kenyan-American illustrator, painter, and pattern/textile designer Jamilla Okubo talks to Okayafrica.

Jamilla Okubo is a Kenyan-American illustrator, painter, and pattern and textile designer. Based in New York, she’s also a student at Parsons the New School for Design. Inspired by African American history, Kenyan textiles, and fashion, Okubo creates patterns and textiles that speak to all of these interests, but grounds them in her own experiences. The Style Idle's Adwoa Afful caught up with Okubo for Okayafrica to learn more about her art and the stories behind some of her pieces.


Adwoa Afful for Okayafrica: What first got you interested in textile and pattern design? How did you get started?

Jamilla Okubo: My senior year in high school - I was in a regular high school and then I transferred to an arts high school my junior year- every senior had to create a series of art works from 15 to 20 pieces. So, I was looking for inspiration [online] and I came across Africa Fashion Week New York and that’s what inspired me to do my theory [on] African fashion. I incorporated acrylic paint and fabric and I collaged that together and that’s how I think I got into textiles and fabric. So when I got into Parsons, it was like freshman year, and I thought I was going to do fine arts then I took this class that they offered called “pattern and symmetry” and they taught you how to make textiles. I really fell in love with that class and I really enjoyed making repeat patterns and stuff like that, so after that, once I declared my major, I was looking for any classes involving textiles. I’m still learning, but I really enjoy it.

OKA: So was it a bit of an adjustment going from fine art to pattern and textile design?

JO: Not necessarily…I’ve done a little bit of hand-painting textiles, but I feel like [pattern design] is kind of more fun, because I get to choose what I want to create and then repeat and then I incorporate the painting into textiles. Usually I’ll paint what I want and then scan it and then recreate it digitally or I’ll paint it by hand and make a print by hand. So I think it’s really cool that I already have a background in fine arts and incorporate that, because I’ve learned that a lot of textiles require basically illustrating what you want to see as a print.

OKA: What is it about textiles as a medium that you enjoy exploring as an artist?

JO: I think it’s the repetition, and how beautiful it can be. I really like bright colours and anything that has a lot of energy, a lot of movement. I’m just drawn to anything with bright colours and a lot going on basically.

OKA: Can you walk us through your design process? How do you develop and then create your patterns?

JO: I’m still learning about textiles, but right now, I really only know how to do digital [patterns], but I am learning screen printing, or silk screening. As far as making textile patterns digitally, I’ll either freestyle paint something that I really like or if I have a screen of a print that I’m making, I’ll draw distant objects to how I like them and then I will scan them into either Illustrator or Photoshop and play around with the placement and colour and things like that. As far as painting textiles, it’s pretty much the same thing, I’ll figure it [the design] out on paper - I’ll probably use water colour - though I prefer acrylic, I pretty much use it for everything even if it’s drafting something I really like the feel of the paint- and I’ll just play around with designs that I have in mind and figure out how I want to repeat it and probably will have to draw a grid to make sure it’s repeated the right way.

OKA: You mentioned earlier that you really love repetition. What is it about repetition, either in a pattern or colour or any other element, that you find aesthetically appealing or stimulating as a designer?

JO: I think it’s fun to repeat things. I look at different fashion blogs or style trends or what’s on the runway and a lot of designers are playing with the placement of art on prints and I really enjoy that that’s something designers are making a trend. I really enjoy the fact that fine arts are being incorporated in print and fashion through textiles. Like Tata Naka, they are one of my favourite brands, because they do a lot of painted portraits of people or women with bright colours kind of like Matisse. They are really inspired by him and I like repeat portraits in clothing that people actually wear, and it inspires me to create my own textiles.

OKA: It’s interesting that you bring that trend up, because there is this ongoing debate within fashion of whether or not fashion is art. Do you think trends like these make the distinction between art and fashion seem more arbitrary or irrelevant even?

JO: I feel like that fashion that takes paintings by well-known artists... I don’t think there’s any fun in that, but I really appreciate designers who create things themselves, whether they create a painting for textiles or apply them to techniques like braiding or embroidery. I really enjoy that rather than [designers] taking a painting from Picasso or Jean-Michel Basquiat and sewing it on a pair of pants. It’s still aesthetically pleasing to me, but I feel like there are so many designers going out of that box of just, like, taking well known artists and artwork and just putting it on something.

OKA: You also used to be a breakdancer. Do you still break dance?

JO: (Laughs) Not really, it’s been a while. I should have kept going since I’m in New York City and it’s like the mecca of break dancing, but it’s really intimidating. The guy I took classes from in DC, he’s like a well-known break dancer, so I would go to practice sessions and be like , “Oh yeah, my teacher is this guy,” and so they’re like expecting me to be really good, but I don’t really practice that much. I mean I still do it from time to time on my own, but I haven’t actually battled or anything like that.

OKA: Even though you don’t dance anymore does your experience as a break-dancer influence your approach to design, because you design actual garments as well as textiles.

JO: I was thinking of creating for my senior thesis a collection inspired by Soul Train and like dances from that era, because I have always wanted to incorporate the idea of dancing and creating clothing that is still really cute and comfortable to wear. I just want to create some really flashy dancewear for the club that you can still look really great and be comfortable in. So, I would say yeah, my background in dancing does influence my design work in terms of making clothing. In freshman year, I created a hoodie that turns into a backpack that carries spray paint, and so that was really fun. I really like that Parsons really pushes us to think outside of the box and conceptually.

OKA: What propelled you to make the jump from applying paint to fabric to making clothes that people can wear? Did being a student at Parsons help you make that leap?

JO: Yeah it did, because during my freshman year we had to decide which kind of classes we wanted to take, and each class was going in a different direction. One was going in the fashion direction, one was going in communications and graphic design and the other was product design, so basically they were trying to gear us towards our interests. I ended up taking the fashion class, I didn’t really know how to sew, but again it was more about the conceptuality and so we had to create a garment out of a recycled object and I chose to make a dress out of paper. I found the project really fun and exciting and then after that I was like, I actually want to take an actual sewing class, so I started taking sewing and pattern making [classes] and last semester I took construction too. I wanted to see if I really wanted to do design so I started taking the actual sewing classes where I only learned how to sew or how to drape or pattern make and it’s like I really enjoy it, but it’s also still really difficult for me. So I have a love hate relationship with it.

OKA: I noticed in your work that you are heavily inspired by African American fashion from the 1970s and 80s, what draws you, creatively, to those eras?

JO: My mom introduced me to Blaxpoitation movies from that era. A lot of people think they’re really cheesy because they’re old, but I really like those movies. I’m also inspired by music, a lot, music is a huge inspiration in my work. For that series that I did, “We the people of the diaspora – Black Culture Exploration," that was inspired by 70s and 60s music era. And when I was working on that entire series, I was only listening to music from that era.

OKA: What music artists were you listening to from that era?

JO: Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, musicians like them with that type of sound. And a lot of house music too. I really enjoy afro-house music.

OKA: You have talked a lot in other interviews about how having a multiethnic background is really important to your work. How does your experiences being of a multiethnic background influence your designs?

JO: I feel like I’m still honestly exploring both sides as far as history and culture. When I was in elementary school and stuff, I didn’t actually learn about my culture or history. It took until I went to my high school when I started actually learning about black contemporary artists and people who actually meant something. Of course everyone in black history meant something, but it’s like there are lots of people I didn’t know about. I also learned a lot from Tumblr, surprisingly. There’s always a post about somebody you didn’t know from this era who did this. I usually call my work an exploration, because I’m still learning about my culture from my dad’s side. I didn’t really meet him until I was 13 so ever since then I’ve just been trying to learn from him, but then also just looking elsewhere for information. [For example] , I have other family members who I ask about Kenya and I’m trying to see If I can plan a trip to go there, but it’s like I try to take the information that I can from what I know about Kenya, and Africa and incorporate it into my art work. And I also like incorporating my experiences being African American and African.

OKA: Do you feel that being African American and having a multiethnic background puts you in a unique position to speak to some of the issues you want to engage with in your art and are there particular issues you want to explore?

JO: Usually I just pick things that I’m interested in or topics that I just learned about and want to learn more about, because I honestly just started with this whole theme in exploring my culture. Like “We the People of the Diaspora,” was the first actual topic exploration which identified, because I created three canvases, one was about education, which is called “The Alphabet is an Abolitionist.” It was inspired by Ruby Bridges and how she was the first African American to attend an all-white school. So I was exploring again, being multiethnic being from America and Africa and bringing those two with the kanga fabric and telling a story through that and I was also talking about how far we’ve come as being brought to America as slaves and where we are now. It’s an interesting journey we have gone through and I feel like we still have a long way to go. Especially now, because we have such an internationally diverse country in America, there are so many people here who are from different places and it’s like a lot of people need to come to together so it’s really interesting how people in America connect with each other and how they don’t.

I feel like everyone has a different experience of being multiethnic because there are some people who are the same situation as me, but they probably grew up with their African parents, you know what I mean? Everyone has a different story and everyone’s story is unique, I like to bring my story to my work to showcase where I’m coming from, to show that there are people with different stories and different backgrounds. And I feel like right now I do want to touch on more things about Africa and Kenya, but I feel like I’m still learning about it so I don’t want to get too deep into something I don’t necessarily know about, so that’s why I always call my work an exploration, because I’m still reading and learning about my people and people from the African continent.

I feel like there’s a disconnect between people of the diaspora and people who are African American. That’s also a really big part of my exploration and dealing with it, from my family to people that I know. For example, my roommate, she was Ethiopian, and we were learning from each other and like how she felt as someone who was actually from the continent, you know? How people see immigrants, people from countries in Africa, like how African Americans view Africans and the stereotypes between the two [groups], it’s just totally interesting and I’ve taken things that I have learned from that and incorporated it into my work. And it’s also really interesting when I interview with people and talk to people, because I guess I am multiethnic, but growing up even though my last name is Okubo, I felt like I was African American, even though everyone else viewed me as this little African girl because of my name and I guess features. So, it’s really interesting because some people when they write about me they’re like, “this Kenyan artist” or like, “this Kenyan-American.” People choose how they want to see me sometimes.

OKA: How you would you prefer to be seen?

JO: I don’t really know the terminology, but I guess Kenyan-American would be ideal, rather than labeling me as just Kenyan, because I really feel like…I don’t know, because that’s something I’ve really been struggling with. I grew up with my mom, and she’s like a single mom, and I grew up in basically a Southern African American household, honestly, Africa wasn’t really talked about when I was going to school. It was just like… it’s a really interesting aspect, because my grandmother she is very Southern, she’s from North Carolina and she grew up picking tobacco and cotton as a teenager. So, I have two different aspects, that side of my background and family history and the empty side where I don’t really know much about Kenya and my family from that side. And my grandmother, she’s like fully American, she goes to church and all that and is very, what’s the word? I guess old school, where she doesn’t care to learn about other countries or immigrants or like about Africa. It’s just really interesting having to deal with that.

OKA: How important is personal style is to you and you would describe yours (we've read that you have a thing for button down shirts)?

JO: I think personal style is really important. I find it really fun. I haven’t really gone shopping or made personal clothing for myself [in a while]. But yes, I have a huge obsession with button downs and anything with print or bright colours. Because I haven’t really been able to afford my own clothing, I like to create illustrations of females in different outfits wearing what I would wear. So, I think it’s really fun to incorporate fashion into my illustrations especially with the women and like their shoes and their clothing and their accessories. It’s really fun because I feel like I’m being a fashion designer on paper and a stylist at the same time. I think it’s really important to have your own style. I think it’s really enjoyable to everyone because they’re able to express themselves cause there are a lot people I know who are like, “I wish I could draw or express myself some way” and I feel like fashion is a really good way to express yourself even if you’re not an artist, because you’re playing around with colour or print, a style of clothing or the fit of clothing and you’re creating your own persona that way.

OKA: I noticed that your work tends to feature African American women or Black women more generally. Was this a conscious choice? If so, why do you think it’s important to depict black women in your art?

JO: Yeah it definitely was. I just like to show empowering images of females, because everyone is different and they should embrace who they are, especially black women because there are so many discussions about issues with like hair and the way women dress and their body type and there’s just a lot going on. And I’m still feeling that as well, ‘cause someone had commented on my most recent series, the “I Love You” one and they were like this really great, but we should also be representing gay couples, and I was like you’re right. I just didn’t get a chance to touch that subject or really get into it.

OKA: Are there artists that you admire and whose work you draw inspiration from?

JO: Yeah, I would say that one of the first black contemporary artists that I had learned about through one of my teachers in high school was Mickalene Thomas. She’s like my favourite artist in the world.

OKA: What do you like about her work?

JO: Her use of print and colour and the fact that she’s a fine artist. She uses different mediums… she usually works with wood panel, but she also incorporates rhinestone to add a different aesthetic. She also collaborated with Solange on the cover art of one of her singles or EPs, I think. It’s funny because I just met Mickalene Thomas a few months ago and that was a really amazing experience.

To check out more of Okubo’s work visit her on Tumblr. Adwoa Afful is a Ghanaian-Canadian fashion and culture blogger based in Toronto, who writes about fashion from a feminist perspective. You can follow her at her blog The Style Idle.

Photo by Ned Dishman, courtesy of Pops Bonsu.

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