INTERVIEWED BY Amelia Brown
Illustrator, designer and artist Diana Ejaita shares what inspires her, why she’s drawn to the colour black, and how she came to illustrate a cover for The New Yorker.
Born in Cremona, Italy, and now based between Milan, Berlin and Lagos, Diana brings a nuanced global lens to her storytelling through an aesthetic that pays homage to her lineage.
How did you develop your style?
I like to mix different techniques like silk screen and linocut with pencil-charcoal or digital drawing. I am obsessed with the colour black: I like the power and the profoundness so I try to use it mostly as the dominant colour and I try not to exceed more than four colours in total.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
Since a very young age, I have been amazed by lines, colours and the expressions of the soul through art. I was always pretty busy with artistic things – if not contemporary dance, it was singing or drawing. At one point I decided to focus on drawing, probably because I was not a big fan of being exposed to “spectators”. I am not really a public person; I love my private space and like to share it with certain people. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but it has actually influenced some life choices.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
Something that has to do with natural environment and its protection, which would allow me to be in nature taking care of animals and plants. I’d probably be a farmer that does pottery on the weekends. Or maybe I’d reconsider my experimental contemporary dance career… with a select viewing public only, of course. Just friends, say.
Your Twitter bio reads: “Berlin Based. Italian Born. Nigerian Roots. World Traveller.” You studied fine art in France and Germany. How have all these different contexts influenced your work?
As a daughter of a Foreign Language teacher mother who was travelling around the world alone with me and my siblings, I grew up taking for granted that the world was my playground and that home was a little bit of everywhere. As for my way of working, I like to move and change spaces to refresh my views. (This probably also comes from my Gemini inclination and that sudden need to overturn of the story.)
Berlin taught me to be myself no matter what and to feel free to express my diversity. The city is admirable (although this does fade away) for its tolerance, anti-capitalist views, being alert on social issues and fighting against discrimination.
Italy is my childhood place. It’s where my motherland is and where a couple of friends live. There I learnt about the masters of Italian art and the beauties of history left for us to see from the Roman Empire until 1900. It’s always good for the eyes to go back home. At the same time growing up in Italy made me very conscious of my “diversity” and the urge of imposition on one’s self.
Nigeria has been a myth, a quest and a spiritual and physical journey. As a kid of the African diaspora, Nigeria was an urgent need for my growth as a woman and as an artist for many years. The desire of Nigeria has nourished my curiosity and my research. As I arrived as an adult to Lagos for the first time everything made sense and I felt complete. Now I can call Lagos a second base.
Describe your home and city. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I actually can’t imagine being based in only one place, but if I had to it would be somewhere away from air and water pollution, where the sea is full of fish and people are kind and open. It sounds like mission impossible! I did find something similar in Australia on a tiny island of about 300 people – the nature was amazing and the air so clean, although I have to admit that it did become a little claustrophobic after a while. Plus the issues of Australian violence against Aboriginal and migrants from the start of colonisation until now is hard to swallow.
I dream of a perfect, natural, untouched environment, but at the same time, as a child of the urban life, I need to be within the human mess. I am too much of a warrior to hide somewhere.
What, or who, inspires you?
I am inspired by human stories, people and their beauty. I try to focus on those who are hardly represented. I feel like I have a duty to give light to what is left in the shadows; to give force and space to those who are not highlighted by the mainstream. The lack of representation I lived with while growing up is there to remind me what my job is. I am happy to say that nowadays things are changing.
Where do you create your pieces?
At the moment I am in Lagos where I have a small studio, but the space is also my home. My work is my life, so I like to live where I work. I have the same home/studio setup in Berlin.
What time of day do you prefer to work?
All day long. I wake up, work and go to sleep. I’m still learning to do other things than just work. Previously I loved to work in the night, but as an adult I finally realised that following the light of the sun is healthier.
In May this year, you created a cover for The New Yorker entitled “Iya Ni Wura (Mother Is Gold)”. Talk us through that process.
I was contacted by The New Yorker’s art editor Françoise Mouly to create a piece about Mother’s Day. I focused on something that could be simple and specific, but universal and complex – such as the great love of a mother for her child. The image is Lagos-related yet I wanted it to go beyond a specific country or cultural aesthetics. A mother’s hug is universal. We all relate to it. We know it. It is for everyone. At the same time I wanted something that belongs to Nigeria and Lagos to land on The New Yorker cover – for the diaspora to see it and feel the nostalgia of motherhood and of motherland.
You have created a fashion label, Wear Your Mask. Can you tell us more about the name and aesthetic?
Some years ago I used to do performances with a small group and we all created costumes and masks. The role of a mask is to allow the actor to embody something else from the imaginary or the spiritual world and obtain its power. In West African culture this is very significant. I like the idea of being allowed to leave the normal life, face or reality through an object. So I decided to use that.
The brand is highly inspired by the way West African textile, which traditionally uses printed garments to tell stories of other times, like an open book. I feel this way of promoting history is very democratic .
The symbols used on West African garments is very powerful and I believe it gives force to the person wearing it. This is why I focused on simple and minimal symbols that have a universal reference. By studying West African ideograms [a character symbolising the idea of a thing without indicating the sounds used to say it] I found out that many have similarities with ideograms that were created centuries ago in Asia. To me, this says that we are all connected and the universality of ancient symbology maintains a bond between us.
If you could collaborate with an artist (or brand) who would it be?
For fashion, I had the chance to work with Senegalese textile artisans and that was the highlight of my life. My dream is to learn traditional textile techniques from West Africa from the original artisans. So much got lost with the post-Colonial effect, and there is something beautiful about having the chance to have such knowledge shared with you.
What are you reading at the moment?
Work by Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead, plus writers of the Afro-Italian diaspora.
What is the last piece of design/art/fashion you purchased?
I bought some handwoven baskets from a Lagosian street seller; custom-made ceramics from German-based PW Studio (@pwstudio_off); and a custom-made ring by EF Jewelry Design in Italy (@efjewelrydesign).
What’s next for Diana Ejaita?
I’m working on a new Wear Your Mask collection here in Lagos, which I’m extremely excited about. There’ll be more travelling in Nigeria and West Africa and some very interesting new illustration projects in 2020.