book cover with multiple sculptures on wooden shelves
Sleaford Hub Gallery. Photography by Scott Murray.

10 Questions With… Artist and Designer Adaesi Ukairo

Adaesi Ukairo has a mastery of movement and it’s apparent when she works with metal, a material she encountered while studying jewelry, silversmithing, and applied arts at the London Metropolitan University. Much of Ukairo’s work is inspired by her childhood memories in Southeastern Nigeria, from constructing with locally available materials to playing with friends and watching aunties and other women dye raffia palms. These memories, alongside sweet moments spent with working with her grandfather and embracing the existing cultures between her Nigerian and British heritage, shaped the artist she is now.

The first impression of Ukairo’s sculptures is their possession of an alluring gaze—perhaps it’s the dimensions that feel like a subtle dance, a rhythm of gesture and performance that is raw, and both large and small in size. Her most recent collection Undule embodies this movement through well-defined shapes, which reflect her aesthetic. One major viewpoint she stands on is the bold interpretation of her work. She wants viewers to grasp the concepts of her work and interpret it in whatever way appeals to them, creating a communicative and relative sensation between her crafts and lovers of her works.

Here, the artist and designer speaks to Interior Design about her inspiration, design journey, and falling in love with metal.

Portrait of Adaesi Ukairo
Adaesi Ukairo. Photography by Rod Morris.

Adaesi Ukairo’s Journey To Mastering Metal

book cover with multiple sculptures on wooden shelves
A showcase of the artist’s work at the Hub gallery in Sleaford in the U.K. Photography by Scott Murray.

Interior Design: How would you describe your journey as an artist and designer?

Adaesi Ukairo: I studied jewelry, silversmithing, and applied arts for my degree. Though we didn’t do a lot of it, I also studied metalworking, learning about the hammer and shape, and I realized that I liked being in the workshop. I’ve always liked making with my hands so I knew that I wanted to do something like that, and I looked for the appropriate course. Metal felt so great because it’s an amazing material to work with. You can manipulate it and it stays. Now, I’ve been able to work with interior designers and architects, and work on restaurants and people’s homes, just making mirrors and covering bars with metal, copper bars and brass, and all sorts of functional things, like design pieces and lights.

ID: What was it like growing up and living between Nigeria and the U.K.?

AU: I lived in Nigeria as a child. We moved when I was seven and stayed there until I was about 12. Originally, we started off living in a village for about a year and half, and it was so different from the place that we came from in London. I think it affected me a lot in terms of myself as an artist and my work as well. So, it was a big influence on me. Since then, I’ve always been drawn to copper, which is this beautiful red color, which I remember from my village. In those days, some people lived in concrete houses, but most lived in mud homes. I’d sit with the village women and make things from palm trees and from the palm fronds. We’d make rope and baskets for the roofs, and all sorts of other things. I was very interested in making these things and learning from the women and my friends in the village inspired my work.

ID: Why did you opt for metal rather than any other materials?

AU: I’m not sure why I chose metal; I think maybe it chose me. I could have chosen any material like textile or ceramics, but I ended up with metal. Before I went to university, I used to make things with wire, which was an easy way to construct things. I was making earrings and other accessories with wire, and I thought maybe I would just make jewelry. I went to university thinking I was going to make jewelry and then I discovered the workshop with the silversmith materials, and that’s what I decided I wanted to do. Something about working on larger pieces of metal, hammering, stretching the metal and forming it spoke to me, and that’s what I’ve continued to do. I think I’ve also managed to make metal my own material, so I feel happy about that.

bronze sculpture that looks like a lily bulb
Part of the Undule series. Photography by Rod Morris.

ID: Your design explores varied themes like family and migration. Why is it important for you to illustrate these themes, and do you wish to illustrate a memory in each design?

AU: I suppose the feeling, the emotions that I transfer through my work, comes from my family, the women from the village and my friends. It also comes from somewhere deep inside that I need to express. And it comes from those experiences that you have with your family and while moving through difficult times. My family is part of my upbringing and my experience, which ultimately makes it a part of me. I’m of mixed heritage. My dad is from Nigeria. My mom is British. My grandfather on my mom’s side used to do woodwork, so I used to do woodwork with him using different materials and feeling all the different materials that I would work with. Everything that I make now, I make in an intuitive way, but I know that it all comes from my influences of my upbringing and life. This movement through life also comes through my work.

ID: Are you also influenced by your experience or your identity as both Nigerian and British?

AU: I think I’m looking more at movement and energy and, of course, my experience of being in Nigeria and living in a small town in the middle of England. Whenever you move around, you’re influenced by whatever comes to you during those times emotionally and spiritually. Being of mixed heritage, I also think my work is influenced by this feeling of not being particularly settled from one place or another place, and always being in the middle of things. So in a way, that’s a strength because it allows me to do what I want to do and not feel that I’m constricted by other people’s ideas of what I should be doing. I feel quite free in the way that enables me to design and make, and I think that’s the feeling of movement that I want to describe and show through my work because I feel that this is part of life.

ID: Shapes and movement are very deliberate in your art, which feels so fluid and rhythmic. Is that intentional?

AU: You’re right that the movement is what I’m aiming for. For me, those shapes are all about life and living. I think they are always moving, but not in a straight line. You’re always moving and undulating, with all those ups and downs. And I think that’s what dancing is, and the way I see life is this energy that is moving all around. I love dancing. There are also different types of emotions that can be undulated in that way as well. Like I said earlier, when I work, I work intuitively. I don’t have an idea in my head of what I’m going to make. But I never worry that something will not come to me as I start making, as the idea develops itself in a fluid manner. It comes into my mind. It comes into my body and comes through my hands and my hammer and makes me create things.

brown and yellow sculpture that looks like a fox
Part of the Undule series. Photography by Rod Morris.

ID: Are you open to exploring with other materials aside from metal, like bronze?

AU: Interesting you should say bronze because I want to work with bronze. I’ve made jewelry before, but it was always quite chunky. I’d also like to create some sculptural work, but focus on something that would adorn the body and not call it jewelry. So I might make neck pieces and body sculptures out of bronze. In the future, I would like to work with other materials like clay and glass since I’ve worked with them before. So, I would like to work with different materials right now, but there’s so much within metal, brass and copper to explore still. And that’s a major thing that I like to do. I like to experiment and explore the way metal moves.

ID: Describe the inspiration behind your collections.

AU: I’ve got four collections. One collection is Miri, which comes from one point and it swirls outward. Miri means water in Igbo. Then there’s the collection called Crush, in which the pieces are based on a bowl or a pot, which is like a sinclastic shape. The axes are also going in the same direction. The Flat collection consists of minimalist pieces that look like a plate. So far, all the other pieces are in copper and Flat is the only one that I have in glass. Then there’s the Undule collection, which is the one that I really enjoy making at the moment. That’s also my most recent collection, and the most sculptural. It is made with anticlastic raising, in which you hammer out a certain shape which can get you these undulating forms. So I called it Undule because I wanted to describe the way that the forms are undulating.

ID: Are you most interested in making large sculptural pieces or does your work also come in miniature pieces too?

AU: Yes, I absolutely make work that you can hold in your hand, like my Crush bowls. There’s a range, but they tend not to be too small, like jewelry. It’s on a larger scale. Each of the pieces could fit into a large place or it could be used for two different functions and purposes. My work can be displayed on the shelves. It can be placed in the middle of a centerpiece. I also made outdoor pieces, like sculptural pieces for the outside of a garden. If I get a commission, I’m not sure what the client might want, but I have made things for the outside and inside.

round brown ceramic bowl
Part of the Crush series. Photography by Rod Morris.

ID: What are you currently working on?

AU: I would say that I’m reaching a point now where I’m using elements. What I wish to do and what I’m working on at the moment is to bring all the elements—Miri, Crush, Flat, and Undule—into new pieces that will tell certain stories. And now my mind is thinking that I can use those already made elements as a basis for this new language that will help shape my forms in the future. So I don’t know if that makes sense, but I will be using the techniques from my previous collections for my new pieces.

Adaesi Ukairo posing with one of her statues
Adaesi Ukairo with the piece Close. Photography by Rod Morris.
two bronze humanoid sculptures facing each other
Part of the Undule series. Photography by Rod Morris.

read more