Sun Ra, couture techniques, and outer space: these are just a few of the things that inspire Jamilla Okubo, a 24-year-old artist who only last year graduated from Parsons The New School of Design and is already working with Dior on a collaboration.
“I still just couldn’t really believe that they were reaching out to me,” the D.C. native told the Cut by phone. “I took a few days to respond because I didn’t know if it was real or not.” The collaboration is Dior Lady Art #2, the second iteration of Dior’s Lady bag project, in which artists redesign the iconic bag. (Jack Pierson, Lee Bul, Namsa Leuba, Hong Hao, and David Wiseman are some of the other artists participating.) Okubo designed three bags, which are available at select Dior boutiques worldwide starting today.
Okubo was born in Clinton, North Carolina but moved to D.C. shortly after, before eventually coming to Parsons to study. She’s known that she wanted to be an artist since elementary school when she recreated a Janet Fish still-life painting. And though Dior may be her biggest collaboration yet, it certainly isn’t her first. Earlier this year, she designed packaging for beauty brand Big Hair No Care and illustrated a children’s book with Shout Mouse Press. She’s also been busy showing her work at galleries, such as AMREF Health Africa ArtBall at Milk Studios’ gallery.
Okubo’s work involves layering paintings with actual fabrics. She was inspired to mesh fashion and fine arts, she says, when she took a class at Parsons called Fashion Illustration Performance. In a graphic painting she titled “African-American Gothic,” she used acrylic paint and layered in scraps of Kente cloth (native to South Ghana) and Kanga (a traditional garment worn throughout Africa) as tribute to her Kenyan background. A lot of her pieces are also graphic because of the innate contrast of materials: Okubo collages much of it and creates various patterns within her work, appearing on everything from the depicted person’s nails to the individual pieces of clothing worn by people in her paintings.
One series in particular, called “We the People of the African Diaspora,” made her reconsider how she should categorize her work. “They were paintings, but they also could be considered illustrations,” she says. “Some people also call them fashion illustrations, because they have clothes. That was my first way of incorporating fashion into my work.”
Her Dior bags also take a cue from the same combination of fashion meets fine art, plus a healthy dose of music, which she listens to constantly while working — one of her inspirations being Sun Ra’s afrofuturist film, Space Is the Place. “It’s like jazz, but it sounds like you’re in space,” she says. The pièce de résistance of the bags is the textural beadwork. When Dior brought in some beading samples in red, blue, and yellow during a meeting, Okubo fell in love. “I was immediately drawn to that, because it reminded me of Maasai beading. I was like, I definitely want to incorporate these, sequins and anything bedazzled into my bag. I’d taken a couture techniques class last year at Parsons, so I was already inspired by that.”
Up next for the talented young artist? Her own business, specializing in some of the eclectic, colorful patterns that attracted Dior. “I would license my patterns to other brands and anyone who wanted to use them,” she says. She’s also in discussion with a hotel in Paris about a potential collaboration.
“I’ve been focusing on representation of black culture, but I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how to word that in my artist statement,” she says. “A lot of people say that when they see my work they see more meaning in it.” Thinking on the Dior bags and how art can act as a form of fashion and vice versa, Okubo muses: “When you wear a pattern, you’re drawn to it by what you like on that pattern. With my patterns, I try to tell stories.”