Design Inspiration

“Paper has a personality”: Ayobola Kekere-Ekun on how quilling’s limitations transformed her creativity. 

Kaltuma Mohamed
Saturday, May 18, 2024

Paper. For millennia it’s been the scroll, the canvas and the blank page for which humanity has expressed itself. From our first paint brush strokes to a page of heartfelt poetry, it plays the mere supporting act for so many of our creative performances.

But in the world of quilling, paper is everything. It is the medium. Quilling sees the artist manipulate strips of paper into shapes and designs. It’s labor-intensive but can bring beautiful results.

Ayobola Kekere-Ekun is a quilling artist from Lagos, Nigeria who explores gender, mythology, memory and trauma. Ayobola's work amplifies the concept by utilizing pockets of light between the paper. It makes you look twice, for closer inspection; revealing deeper meaning in the intricate paper bends.

Come Home Before The Sun Sets I 122 x 182 cm Mixed Media (Paper Strips, Fabric and Acrylic on Canvas) 2023

Ayobola sat down with us to discuss how the paper’s limitations define both the process and the result.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

What initially drew you to quilling as an artistic medium?

I started quilling entirely as a mistake. I didn't mean to. I was studying as a graphic designer at the University of Lagos at the time, but in addition to your dissertation, you had to make a piece. Any piece. I was struggling a lot with what my piece was going to be. It was a lot of pressure. 

Then I had this chance moment where someone handed me a flier and I rolled it up. I remember seeing the way the light caught the rule and wondered if there was a way to close this down and use it to paint; because I was a horrible painting student. I bought a bunch of paper and I cut them into strips and I just messed with them a bit. I didn't even know what I was doing.”
Victory Flag I76 x 61 cm Mixed Media (paper, fabric and acrylic on canvas) 2023

Within months, Ayobola found satisfaction and results with what she was doing with the paper. It was the start of a journey that would lead her to awards and exhibitions from Lagos to Los Angeles. But in the early days she avoided picking up any biases, unaware it was even an existing medium.

But it wasn’t just chance that pulled her towards quilling. It was the paper itself. For most of us, it’s something we take for granted. It’s a canvas of endless possibility. But for Ayobola, its limitations opened up creative opportunities. It transformed her output.

I think I gravitated towards it because it mitigated all the issues I had with painting as a medium. I disliked how much freedom there was in painting. You could mix almost any color and do almost anything. Working with paper, I had found an artificial boundary to grapple with. I found that very comforting because I'm always going to be constrained by the limitations of the material, so it gives me something to struggle against. And like a painter would evolve, the work just gets more and more complex over time, more focused and sharpened.

Quilling, by nature, is technically difficult. How have you overcome the challenges of working with paper in such a fragile context?

It's a very unforgiving medium. There's not a lot of room to change your mind or fix thing. When the paper is down, there's a very limited window. It's almost like the material punishes you for having done that in the first place, so you have to avoid it. Paper has a personality. Some papers are just not going to do certain things. Some will do it half-heartedly. Some are just going to tell you to fuck off right from the start.”
Voyager III 100 x 100 cm Mixed Media (paper, fabric and acrylic on canvas) 2023
So much art is based on real-time improvisation. With each brush stroke or movement influencing the rest of the piece. Quilling limits that approach. It’s something Ayobola seems to use to her advantage.
How do you approach the design process when you start a new quilling project? 
There's a lot of planning. I don't start until the piece is at least 70% to 80% clear. I need to know where it's going before I even start. [I plan out] color, the selection of paper, how the space might be used, how the other materials might come in, texture, how light is going to play on the work and what needs to happen to the background. It becomes a very meditative process, once the skeleton is laid. I've always said it's like I'm building a jigsaw puzzle I could see, and I'm trying to help other people see it.
Do you sketch out ideas during that phase?
I do now. I never used to. I used to just go directly on the paper. Now I do both. I’ll sketch in a book to resolve how space would be used. And sometimes I just do it directly on the canvas. The more complex, the more likely I am to sketch.

It’s striking how quilling provides a refreshing approach to our fast-paced contemporary habits. In today’s world, we’re all struggling to maintain focus. I asked Ayobola how she maintains that during such long, intricate projects.

I think I enjoy repetition. For me, it's not a difficult thing. Where I lack patience is in my real life. There's something very satisfying in a bit of repetition, so I don't struggle with how much or how long it takes. Sometimes I'll listen to the exact same thing; literally over and over again. I find it helps me focus. My Spotify-wrapped is always quite messed up and I can tell what the obsession was at the time.
Threshold I 76 x 61 cm Mixed Media (paper, fabric and acrylic on canvas) 2023
What for you determines a piece is done?

It's a combination of being a designer and an artist. When the essence of the plan has been fulfilled, you have to stop. Otherwise, there are things that I would just keep fretting about. 

There is an element of a path in this as well. But I do have to make a conscious decision to stop. And that's where the planning comes in. That little 20% to 30% leftover that I don't know how it's going to pan out is the room to play in. But at some point, I have to decide that I'm done playing.

As much as quilling limits you technically, the freedom of expression is vast. I’m curious as to how Ayobola finds a route to follow. She describes it as the ‘eternal battle with limitations of the material.
Are there ever any other materials or techniques that you incorporate into the process?
I'm constantly wondering what can be added and what can be removed in service of the larger picture. I've ended up having to explore my nemesis painting, just to bring in complexity and also vary the vision. I also enjoy working with fabrics. It's a very efficient medium of expression for me. I've been exploring 3D printing, more sculptural work and more installation-type work that grapples more with the technique.
Couch Coronation 122 x 91 cm Mixed Media (paper, fabric and acrylic on canvas) 2023
How do you approach selecting the right colors and textures to convey moods or messages in your artwork?
It's a combination of experience and intuition at this point. A lot of paper has passed through my hands. I can touch a piece of paper and gauge what could be done with it and where to push it. I can predict how textures will interact, how colors will interact.”

Ayobola tells me that once she’s completed her PhD in Art and Design at the University of Johannesburg, she’ll be finally able to dedicate more time to her quilling passion. She’s excited by the prospect, but I’m curious about what doors that will open.

Working with other masters could be really interesting. There are so many possibilities, [such as] animation, fashion, product design. So, I do find myself open to the idea. Just the synergy, values and perspectives have to make sense. It could be a lot of fun.”
Plushie IV 60 x 60 cm Mixed Media (paper, fabric and acrylic on canvas) 2023

Have you collaborated with other artists to help spark new ideas and perspectives?

I’ve had assistants in my studio now for almost two years and there's a sense of giving them space to develop their relationship with the material. It’s fascinating that we get the same result, but the approach is so different. My studio manager does this thing where she measures with her fingernail. For the life of me, I don't understand how it works, but it works, you know? One of my assistants prefers working right to left and with a downward flow. I prefer the opposite, quite literally. It’s been good preparation for actually collaborating with another artist because the way they approach the material is quite different from mine.

Ayobola Kekere-Ekun (b. 1993) is a Nigerian visual artist currently pursuing a PhD in Art and Design at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. She can be found on her website and Instagram.

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