An arched white structure on a terrace
“The Sail” at London’s Somerset House. (Photo: Ed Reeve)

Ini Archibong Creates a Traveling Monument Devoted to the African Diaspora

The Nigerian American designer unveiled his Pavilion of the African Diaspora at the third-annual London Design Biennale.
By Tiffany Jow
June 12, 2021
3 minute read

To showcase the world’s most inventive designers, the London Design Biennale invites participants who represent their country, city, or territory to respond to a given subject with an original work, and installs them throughout the Somerset House arts center in the spring. The premise created an obstacle for designer Ini Archibong, who in 2019 was approached by artist and set designer Es Devlin, the artistic director for this year’s “Resonance”-themed iteration of the event (postponed from 2020, due to the pandemic). “I’m appreciative of celebrating culture, but the idea of representing a flag that covers so many people who are so diverse and different didn’t sit right with me,” Archibong says on Ep. 75 of our At a Distance podcast, recorded last September. “I thought, Well, who do I identify with?”

Born and raised in Southern California by Nigerian parents who came to the United States as college students, Archibong has lived in Switzerland since 2014, and understands the feeling of displacement firsthand. He also feels a sense of kinship, safety, and home whenever he sees people who look like him, regardless of the country he’s in. Eventually, Archibong decided his design would represent the African diaspora, a term that refers to the international spread of African people, ideas, and customs via both voluntary migration and enslavement. Last week, he unveiled his Pavilion of the African Diaspora (on view through June 27), the first of a three-part traveling installation that unites Black voices and celebrates their global cultural influence.

The project begins with “The Sail,” a billowing 25-foot-tall arch informed by conch and cowrie shells—once a form of currency in Africa and a symbol of trade and commerce—currently unfurled on Somerset House’s River Terrace. Next it will be followed by “The Wave,” a curved edifice to be erected in New York this fall. “The Shell,” a canopied stage, will debut at Art Basel Miami Beach in December. Archibong plans to activate each installment with in-person talks and performances, showcasing work from the communities the structures salute. (The line-up for these events is still taking shape amid Covid-19 restrictions.) On June 16, Archibong will be part of an online Biennale panel discussion focusing on how designers from various cultures might find new ways to resonate with a global audience.

Through these efforts the designer hopes to create a platform for people of African descent, and draw attention to the lack of monuments and public places designed for them. “There’s a potential for design voices to have an impact beyond the sphere of their local design community,” he says. “My responsibility is to take it to the next level.”