Meet the artist bringing Lagos to Dulwich

Yinka Ilori has transported the vibrancy of Nigerian markets to the leafy south London suburbs

If you’ve not been to Dulwich Village, let me paint you a picture. It’s the sort of rarified, postcard-worthy suburb you’d see in a Richard Curtis film, with a calm high street, rambling Georgian townhouses, towering trees, and bakeries selling £4 sourdough. All of this leads to Dulwich Picture Gallery, first opened in 1817. Designed by Regency ‘starchitect’ Sir John Soane, it’s a squared-off, single-storey building fronted in distinctive yellow London brick with arched windows, skylights and the occasional stucco urn. It’s beautiful – but, to modern eyes, a little sober. All of this has been shaken up by artist Yinka Ilori.

Yinka Ilori Dulwich Pavilion

After overcoming competition from 148 initial applicants, Ilori has brought a burst of vibrancy to the gallery’s grounds with his Colour Palace, this year’s Dulwich Pavilion. Designed in collaboration with Peckham-based architecture studio Pricegore, this multicoloured, 10 metre-high pavilion will jostle the skyline of its historic neighbour until September as a part of the London Festival of Architecture.

The idea came as he looked for a way to fuse European and African cultural traditions. ‘I started by looking at Sir John Soane’s building and the local area, then my own culture. My background is Nigerian and nearby Peckham is like a mini Lagos with a huge West African community,’ says Ilori. ‘I wanted to link these two things. Dulwich and Peckham are so close, yet so far apart. I wanted to tell a new story about multiculturalism and community.’

Yinka Ilori Dulwich Pavilion

The result is a monumental box split into two layers, with the upper layer forming a narrow gallery around a central vaulted space that contains a bar. ‘A lot of the inspiration here was from Balogun market in Lagos – a narrow road of stalls billowing with Dutch wax prints and aso oke fabric,’ says Ilori. ‘I remember going through there in 30 degree temperatures, busy with loads of people, and these materials brought colour and shade from the heat.’

Lifted on four red cylinders, the huge square is shuttered in a waterfall of slim wooden slats and topped with a flat roof and a crown of triangles. The outside is a canvas for an exploded geometric pattern: mustard yellow circles and salmon pink triangles on light blue stripes. It’s a nod to the uniformity and angularity of Soane’s architecture, enhanced with the bright patterns of Nigerian fabric, which loops back to Soane’s love of travel.

However, for Ilori, this project doesn’t stop with the construction of the physical space; far from it. During its relatively short lifetime, The Colour Palace will play host to dinner nights, performances, talks and, possibly, yoga. ‘What’s great about the gallery is they’ve asked me who to invite to be a part of the schedule of events,’ he says. ‘We’re trying to bring a new audience in as the audience here currently doesn’t reflect how multicultural London is. That’s why I love London. Sometimes public spaces can feel quite intimidating, but every gallery is for everyone.’

Yinka Ilori Dulwich Pavilion

The creation of this building was very much a collaborative process, one that came about by chance when he moved into his workshop last year at Whitefriars Studios in Wealdstone. Originally the HQ of art supply manufacturers Winsor & Newton, the former factory had been converted by Pricegore, the architects who worked on the structure with Ilori. ‘When I moved in they came to take some photos for their portfolio. I got an email from them the next day asking whether I’d be keen to collaborate with them on a design pitch for the Dulwich Picture Gallery. That was about a year ago. Pretty crazy!’

Having previously specialised in crafting canvases and chairs, this has given Ilori the bug for supersizing his art. His next project, Happy Street, will transform the currently drab Thessaly Road Railway Bridge in Battersea into something locals can be proud of, using his trademark rainbow colours and bold patterns. Dulwich Pavilion might be the largest project Ilori has worked on so far, but, by the looks of it, it’s bound to be the start of something even bigger.

Open until 22 September,