‘As aspiring creatives, it’s important to seek opportunities for internship and mentoring’
Gbemi Elekula is the founder of DreamHome, a full service interior design and styling company and HUMANx, a fashion brand tackling period poverty amongst less privileged girls and young women. Each sale at HUMANx unlocks access to better sanitary products for girls in rural Nigeria.
Prior to these enterprises, she worked in the construction and banking sectors where she developed skills and competencies relevant to her current vocation. Her strong fascination for colours and deep love for design led her to quit her job at the bank to pursue her passion for design and creative services. The brain behind a number of cultural initiatives, she recently put together an art exhibition, United in a Pandemic; United as a Nation, aimed at building solidarity and promoting joint action to stop the spread of COVID-19.
A multi-disciplinary creative entrepreneur, she holds several degrees, including an MBA from schools home and abroad and also boasts a Diploma in Interior Design from the British College of Interior Design, Oxford, United Kingdom.
In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about following her passion, tackling period poverty amongst rural women and girls, as well as encouraging women to thrive in the art and design field.
You left what many would describe as lucrative careers, first construction then banking, to pursue design and creative arts. What informed this decision?
Without a doubt, these careers were lucrative. But art has always been my passion. Like my course of study at the university (Quantity Surveying), I worked in the construction and banking industry to make my mother happy. At the time, most Nigerian parents didn’t take the creative profession seriously. But as soon as I had enough courage to take on my own interests, I moved on. Art and design make me come alive. I am like a city with numerous lights when I am creating.
Looking back, would you say you have any regrets with your decision?
Absolutely not! I have never for a day regretted my decision; I don’t think I would any time in the future. I believe too that the different job roles I took on helped prepare me for my creative vocation. I have immersed myself in this, and I am determined to make a huge success of it. Being a creative artist has been truly satisfying, and I am very excited about the future.
You describe yourself as multi-disciplinary creative entrepreneur, what does this mean exactly?
It simply means that I am creative in multiple ways, and I have made a business out of each. I design and produce furniture and soft furnishings, including cushions, throw pillows, art dispenser bottle covers, table runners, door and kitchen mats and much more.
I am a resin artist; I design and create several resin works like mirrors, coasters and placemats. And I curate home fragrances. I am also the creative director at HUMANx and I design and create fabrics too. My works are all over the country and outside the country as well.
Designing and being a creative here in Nigeria can be very tough, lonely and not financially rewarding enough. How are you circumventing this?
You’re right. It can be very discouraging, but you have to stay true to your passion and be consistent; the limelight will eventually focus on you. I also run other businesses that adequately provide for my needs.
Would you say your growing up had something to do with your decision to finally settle for design and styling?
Yes, it did. Even though I am naturally creative, I honed my interests and skills. Good thing is my father never discouraged me; I would make crafts and he would keep them to show everyone who cared.
Being excellent in my academics almost swayed me, as I landed in the science class due to my JSSCE results. But I still took Fine Arts as an elective subject. I became president of the Fine Art club and stayed put in the school art community despite being a full science student. But for the times when creatives weren’t viewed as serious professionals, I’d have gone on to study Creative Arts at the university.
You say design should be about people and their desires; does this sometimes clash with your creative vision?
Yes, design should be about people and their desire to express or communicate; and the ability to bring their deeply rooted desires and ideas to life is what sets us apart. Our collaborative approach ensures that we work very closely with our clients in designing spaces, as well as decor and fashion pieces. We carry them along every step of the way and build consensus on all projects, so there is no clash.
Of course, we also have our custom designs and creations, which many of our clients appreciate greatly not just for the beauty, but also the functionality. At the end of the day, design is a harmony of thoughts and expressions that need not be understood in the same manner by all. Different people can interpret one creative work in many different ways; the interesting thing is that most will find something they can identify with.
You recently had an exhibition, what was the idea behind the show?
My last exhibition, United in a Pandemic; United as a Nation, was organised to sensitise Nigerians on how serious the coronavirus threat is and the importance of protecting ourselves. I chose this title because I had seen the skepticism from even well educated people about the virus and how nonchalant they were about it.
I had works that featured people wearing masks to encourage all guests attending that it is key in beating the virus. I believe that if we had all taken it serious then, we would have fewer casualties today.
You mentioned that your fashion brand is tackling period poverty among girls from rural areas, how does it work?
I noticed that period poverty was a prevalent problem in Nigeria; it’s something that few people talk or care about. Truth is, even as someone who can afford it, when I see the price on a pack of tampons, I scream in shock and sometimes wonder how poorer females and those in the rural areas are able to afford these products.
From our outreach held then, I realised that a huge number of them use rags and other unsanitary item, leading to menstrual hygiene issues. In trying to solve one problem, another one is created. This is why the HUMANx brand is focused on period poverty, to generate conversations about menstruation and the problems around it. I am hoping that one day, all menstrual products will be free for women in Nigeria.
When we design and produce clothing, we sell and use a percentage of our profit to provide reusable sanitary products to girls and women in rural areas and to ensure we don’t have to visit a community twice. We train them to make their own sanitary, reusable pads.
How are you looking to make a difference with your talent and art?
I would like to believe that I am already doing this in my little way. Through DreamHome, I have organised exhibitions and events that draw attention to social causes, using art as a tool of education and enlightenment. With HUMANx, I am creating awareness about period poverty and providing sanitary products.
You have gone through tough times before arriving at this point, how did you manage to overcome your challenges?
I must say it was really hard, but when you’re genuinely interested in a thing, it will take a lot to discourage you. I’m also grateful for the people around me who have supported in many ways over the years.
What is the hardest thing about being a creative entrepreneur? What business challenges do you face and how are you solving them?
First, pricing, determining what the cost of your creative work should be. Other than the cost of materials, as well as administrative and logistic expenses, creatives basically charge for their time and talent. But putting a price on these can be very tricky, especially here in Nigeria where there are no pricing guidelines. So, you run the risk of charging too low and not getting due compensation for your effort, or charging too high and scaring off potential customers.
Closely linked to the problem of pricing is the economic situation of the country and rising dollar rate. Already, appreciation of the arts is poor here. So, when there is a lull in the economy (as we’ve experienced over the past year, even before the pandemic), patronage of creative works is lower. Then add to that the weakening value of the naira against the dollar. With a lot of the raw materials we use being imported, production costs go higher. And this also affects sales.
Another major challenge that you face as a creative entrepreneur is having to network with your target customers and market your art while, at the same time, designing and creating (remember, also, that you have other responsibilities outside of work; you have a family to tend to too, as well as important friendships to nurture). All of these are critical to running a successful business and living a fulfilling life. One must find a balance, which is not such an easy thing to do.
How are you personally helping younger women looking to get into this space?
I am putting my works out and expressing myself in every way I can. My studio is open for art classes, open to all for fabric design classes. I have held female only exhibitions and trained a number of women for free. All these are done to encourage women that the art and design field can also contain them.
The creative and design space is male-dominated and can be intimidating for a newcomer. What advice would you give so that one can thrive in this space?
Do not be intimidated. Art and design has no gender. Identify the aspect of this field that you want to focus on and put in the hours. Your work will speak and no one will ask the gender of the creator.
As someone passionate about mentoring, do you think more mentoring is what younger women need?
Yes, for an aspiring creative or any professional endeavor at that, it is important to seek out and avail opportunities for internship and mentoring. This way, you not only get to apply and develop the academic concepts you’re learning in a work setting and under the guidance of professionals in your chosen craft; you also get to learn the business side of things— how to communicate and collaborate with project teams; how to source materials and negotiate the best deals with suppliers; how to value and market creative works; and so on. Also, financial aid (grants) and other forms of support will go a long way in helping to sustain and scale female-owned businesses.
How do you relax when you need to?
I sketch my design ideas. I look up projects done by other creatives and pull inspiration. I read fictional books, as I love reading. I relax at the spa, and I make sure to eat right. I spend time with my family and, as much as possible, I visit my close friends too.
Final words you want to leave for readers?
If you have a creative child, let them be; encourage them. Don’t try to sway them to do what you want them to do; channel their creative energy and watch them conquer their world.
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