Handmaking inheritance: Jariet Oloyé and the living inspiration of traditional craft skills

Read time: 12 minutes, 1 second

Meet the artist who treats cultural inspiration as a living process. Mazzi Odu spoke with artist Jariet Oloyé about her unique approach to handmaking.

“Starting from the age of four or five I loved watching the community artisans and participating in their crafts of woven craft and basketry, I was encouraged to play with materials and enjoyed how these materials could be manipulated into an object.” Reminisces Jariet Oloyé, the jewellery artist and object maker who was born and raised in Nigeria before moving to the United Kingdom. Oloyé is known for her mastery of metal and glass, experimenting with both materials to create effects that are unique, but fuse her core interests of culture reimagined, colour and texture celebrated, and handmade craft championed.

In many ways, her making philosophy can be seen as a continuum of lessons learned during her childhood spent in the countryside in Kwara state, a region that is known for its woven cloth and basketry traditions. Like many a rural location, it was a place governed by the natural rhythms of life rather than the cut and thrust of an urban landscape. She adds; “there was a real community spirit and good open spaces where people could meet”. As well as the foundational knowledge garnered in her primary school years, was something profound: an attitudinal mind and heart-space that the traditional craftspeople possessed, one that was in turn imparted on the objects they created, as she notes: “The locality is tranquil and serene, and my pieces of work are derived from this tranquility.”

For Oloyé, whose studio is in London, the aesthetic and cultural DNA of her native Nigeria are ever present but so too is the curiosity and expressiveness at the root of all her artistic endeavours. “I would say I am an artist because I use lots of different materials,” she says with a smile and a quiet chuckle. Her geniality is infectious, but it is her breadth and scope of work, often made entirely by hand and alone, that imparts a profound sense of her personality. Since formally launching her jewellery business in 2013 she has expanded her interests and is now as well known for her metal and glass objects as she is for her jewellery pieces. However, it is her authentic aesthetic explorations, coupled with the referencing of her heritage and championing of handmade crafts that makes her a distinct and important voice in the jewellery and crafts landscape.

Although she initially didn’t see a creative career in her own trajectory, “in those days you either had to be a doctor or a lawyer,” Oloyé’s path was drawn to jewellery once she moved to Britain. First, via her own costume jewellery business, where she outsourced the making, and eventually when she could resist the pull no longer, she “started from the basics.”

Upon graduating with a BA in Jewellery and Silversmithing from London Metropolitan University, she commenced the juggle of freelancing for other jewellery designers and making her pieces when she could, as she notes pragmatically: “In this country you need to have a workshop, and you need good capital, and all these things are not easy to come by. Freelancing allowed me to go and use other people’s workshops.”  Oloyé is remarkably optimistic about the hurdles faced for makers who find themselves in similar situations, but it is this can-do and will-do attitude that has sustained her business and her tireless explorations into the different possibilities of working with metal.

She is emphatic when speaking of her inspirations: “My influences come from African culture because the heritage, our heritage, is very rich. My great-grandparents collected art; carvings, sculptures all sorts of things. Once in a month my grandmother would bring everything out and start cleaning them up, looking after them and she would corner me and ask ‘look at this, what do you think of this?’ But even then I didn’t really understand what they were all about. Until later, much later.”

As a Nigerian, Oloyé grew up having a different relational attitude to art and craft adding, “for us it is a cultural tradition, and everyone is welcome to learn and feel the importance of making with your hands”. Art and craft did not belong in a gallery or removed from everyday existence, or only for the elites, it was truly for everyone as it represented all.

Her grandmother’s practical art appreciation classes left an indelible mark on Oloyé, who’s name in her native Yoruba, literally means wisdom, as she set about her quest to decipher the hidden meanings in ancient craft and imbue her work with some of this knowledge. Her Nugget necklace in Gold plated copper, simultaneously references a gold nugget but in its forms resembles a cowrie shell, which was a traditional form of currency across Africa. Her Ocean Wave ring replicates the undulating waves of the Atlantic but in its hand-wrought construction is also reminiscent of the loops formed in hand woven cloth traditions across Nigeria.

For Oloyé, Africa is not a static reference library, and this is reflected in her object series, Both the Full of Life basket in silver plated copper and the Vibrant basket in gold plated silver reference basketry but render it modern, and an attractive addition in any home. She notes: “The pieces are transparent and there is a particular kind of calmness and tranquility that you get out of it”.

i Pieces arranged at the bench of artist Jariet Oloyé

The notion that your surroundings and the objects that populate them have an important role to play in your sense of self is prevalent in traditional Yoruba culture, in Oloyé’s hands it is reinterpreted and offered for all to experience. Furthermore, the series speaks more directly to her heritage and the customs and values she upholds.

“My work is an abstract image of the local people and the artisans, their happiness, their good nature, their story, the tenacity and care for the environment that they lived in – that is where the Full of Life Series comes from.”

Indeed, the physicality of working with metals is at the heart of Oloyé’s practice. “I use my hands most of the time making different things, using any kind of material, just for the fun of it.” Oloyé uses the raised metal method when making jewellery and objects alike, as she says, “you have to manipulate this flat sheet of metal. Some people can’t raise, some people can just cast, so when you raise you use lots of different kinds of hammers in order to raise it up; you are actually making a sculpture.”

 Her pieces are often described as wearable art and Oloyé herself admits that she often designs pieces with a view of how they will look both on the body or indeed in the owner’s display cabinet. “I like my clients to enjoy their jewellery in many ways,” she adds. Of the march of mechanisation that has seen many makers combining handmade crafting with processes such as 3D Printing she is certain that collectors will always place a premium on handmade objects noting: “People prefer the human touch. The time that a person has spent making that piece of work, the journey the person has taken making that piece of work.” Oloyé is an exponent of the notion of embedded energy, speaking of Alexander Calder, an artist whose work she greatly admires she states, “the man is gone but look at his work?  Those pieces live forever.” When we think of embedded energy one cannot but think of the craftspeople she grew up around, and how traces of their creative spirit have been transferred into Oloyé’s work.

Furthermore, for Oloyé, working with metals also means responding to the realities of the climate emergency and how it impacts artists such as herself, who use metal as a principal medium. “I use recycled gold and silver, but I also up-cycle. If you don’t like a piece you can melt it and make something else.” Opening up her clients to these possibilities is something that Oloyé has done from the beginning and she herself often uses the up-cycling challenge as a means for deeper material explorations.

i Metalwork detail by Jariet Oloyé

In her object practise, Oloye’s love of colour has resulted in her traversing a unique material fusing journey. “I wanted to create a kind of uniqueness. I had to experiment a lot and use powdered metal that I make myself. When you put a piece in the kiln you don’t know what is going to happen, but that unexpected magic is what made me fall in love with glass – the anticipation is seductive.” Although in possession of extensive knowledge and experience, her playfulness gives her body of work a lightness of touch and a dose of the unexpected. These forays have resulted in seminal pieces such as her Floating Sphere Sculpture and her Beauty Of Nature bangle series both made of lead free glass and metal alloys.

Creating an elemental marriage from her live-work space in London has garnered her a new set of fans who are seeking the unusual and highly individualised pieces. But it is also why Oloyé was so swift to describe herself as an artist rather than a designer, she uses heritage and culture in a unique and intriguing way that challenges expectations.

When I ask Oloyé about legacy, she smiles and says: “My whole body of work is spontaneous, but I want people to have a kind of peace and happiness from the things I create. The pleasure of making lies in its ability to magically transport you back to a different space and time; and for me that’s one of peace and serenity. When I am making the basket bowls, I think of the people I grew up with, when they were weaving the baskets, the organic materials used, the chatting, the way the time passes. Money cannot buy happiness, but that kind of process is happiness for me – it really, really encourages me to do more. To work. To use my hands.”

i Artist Jariet Oloyé demonstrating techniques in her studio

Oloyé has lived in Britain for thirty-eight years and though jewellery collectors and some industry insiders are aware of her work, mainstream commercial success or industry plaudits have been muted in relation to her contribution. She is delighted about her inclusion in Vanity Fair’s On Jewellery magazine and how there has been increased visibility for her and many other creatives of colour in light of the global BLM Movement. But what is most significant for Oloyé, remains the work, the explorations in her practice and the exquisite manifestations of it via her laboratory of ideas. To embrace the adventure of making means not just sharing her work with the world but also an unparalleled sense of creative joy.


Author: Mazzi Odu | Photo Credit: Jayne Lloyd