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‘I aspire to change the world’s perception of African design’: Furniture designer Jomo Tariku returns to the Afrofuture

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When the creators of wakandan forever he wanted some of Jomo Tariku’s Afro-futurist furniture to help create the pan-African look of the film, an honor Tariku had never imagined. Granted, it’s hard to make out Tariku’s chairs and stools in quick cuts of the action movie. But simultaneously, his work has been acquired by several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Also, after a few failed attempts at gallery representation, his company Jomo Furniture has teamed up with Wexler Gallery, which will be exhibiting exclusive versions of his high-end seating at Design Miami.

Jomo Tariku. Photo courtesy of the Wexler Gallery.

“We don’t do branding in Africa like we do here,” said Tariku, who was born in Kenya and grew up in Ethiopia. The 54-year-old furniture and industrial designer moved to the United States in 1987, attended the University of Kansas, and later settled in Springfield, Virginia. “The brand for me was totally new: talking about yourself and your work, elevating it through your name. Sometimes I think that’s why it took me longer, career-wise. I had to internalize that.”

While self-promotion may not have been easy for him, his ambitions have always been lofty. “I aspire to change the world’s perception of African design while exploring contemporary forms,” he said. “I want to make sure that the canon changes.”

Jomo Tariku, mukecha stool/table (2022). Ebonized and painted ash. Edition of 18, $9,000.

For too long, African design has been synonymous with leopard skin and masks, or highlighted by non-African designers who visited the continent. His pieces more authentically reference historic African objects, none more stark than his Meedo chair, a bent plywood veneer seat depicting an oversized Afro comb. “From the 6,000-year-old afro comb from Sudan to now,” he noted, “the afro comb is an essential daily companion for our lives.” Tariku’s aesthetic also embodies an appreciation for Japanese minimalism and mid-century modernism.

If accolades are suddenly everywhere—top shelter magazines, invitations to speak at Ivy League schools—they come after having been almost nowhere for a long time. A furniture manufacturing company that Tariku started in 2005 failed, so he returned to drawing and modeling nights and weekends while working full-time as a data scientist. He combined his two endeavors, statistics and design, after getting a hunch that his inability to gain traction in the world of design was due to his skin color. He began a thorough study of the concept in 2019.

Jomo Tariku, nyala Chair (2022). Ebonized ash with carved and painted detail. Edition of 18, $13,500

“I tabulated how many black designers are being licensed and qualified by the more than 150 furniture companies,” he said. Of 4,417 brand collections, it found that as of 2020, only 14 were by black designers, about a third of one percent. He realized that this was the reason why he believed that in his 20 years of work, “Nothing was changing.”

Tariku co-founded the Black Artists and Designers Guild in late 2018 and understood that “we can’t have an impact one at a time, so let’s do something about it.” The power of the unit pulsed and interest in his work increased. He quit his day job last summer to work at Jomo Furniture full time. He is looking for a studio space large enough to allow him to make larger pieces, such as tables and bookshelves.

“It’s a small operation now, but hopefully not next year,” he said, adding: “I can’t keep up.”

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