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An Integrated Approach to Design, Culture and Community: H++ Banner

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An Integrated Approach to Design, Culture and Community: H++

WRITTEN BY: Burcu Yancatarol Yagiz

DesignNigeria

Also the founder of multidisciplinary art and design studio, Studio Sikoki, Sikoki-Coleman seeks to instill design as a transformative process that connects with aspects of everyday life and culture, with a strong focus on intervention and problem solving. We talked with Sikoki-Coleman about her approach to design, her designerly sensitivities towards African everyday, and her latest water hyacinth project, H++, which introduces a sustainable design approach to a site-specific community problem: the invasive water hyacinth.

Furo, you have a background in Communication, Authoring & Design, and Industrial Design. Can you tell us a little bit about how your educational background influenced/shaped your approach to design?

I see information, products and experience as interlocking and interchangeable parts expressed in different mediums. So, an object is information and information is a product, products are experiences, an idea is a string etc.  

What kind of design projects are you interested in pursuing at Studio Sikoki, the multidisciplinary design and art studio that you founded in 2008? In relation to the design projects that you have done so far, how would you define your design practice?

My work at Studio Sikoki has changed over the years, from experimental projects to working with communities, and exploring cultural conservation. I launched the studio after completing my masters thesis project The Prosthetic Ornament, which explored how we could turn physical loss into gain. That remains the studio mantra: focusing on universal yet critical design, which seeks to turn problems into opportunities. From Braille inscribed tableware, Contact Series, whose aim is to give greater control and independence to the visually impaired user to healing clothes to restore health as explored in the Closthetics collection for Farabloc. Nigerianisms served as a tool for creating a visual language, and to holding on to the near-extinct cultural idioms. And now my water hyacinth project H++…

Can you tell us about the idea behind the water hyacinth project? What were your observations regarding the nature of water hyacinth that underlie your design intervention ‘H++’?

I began working on H++ when I moved to my father's ancestral home, an island in Bayelsa, southern Nigeria. The only means of getting to the island is by helicopter or an hour-long journey by speedboat from the mainland. During my numerous boat trips I began noticing the negative effect of water hyacinth on river transportation, fishing and the lifestyle of the residents of the various islands along the River Nun. 

Could you elaborate on the aspect of ‘intervention’? What is the significance of ‘intervening on a daily reality’ in a designerly manner in this specific project?

I did a lot of research and discovered that water hyacinth was an invasive species; so I delved deeper into its environmental effects on the river. At the same time, I had been in various discussions with many residents of the island community. I found solace on the island: being on the waterfront, no cars, fresh air, exotic birds and lush vegetation. The residents, on the other hand, felt trapped on the island with no jobs, no bridge to the mainland, next to an oil well yet living in penury. I concluded they were trapped in paradise and saw an avenue to turn a problem into an opportunity within the community by converting the weed on the river into a raw material. This raw material would serve various functions; as a means to rebalance the environment, as a source of income, as a catalyst to conserve the lost of weaving, and as an opportunity to empower the local community.

Had you observed any other local uses of water hyacinth before you started the project?

No, it wasn't being used locally, and community members were very curious when they saw my team and I working with it.

What steps does the process of transforming water hyacinth plant into a raw material involve? What was the most interesting and exciting while you were familiarizing with the plant?

It's a very long and tedious process: harvesting, processing, design, weaving and production. I'd say the harvest, design conceptualisation and weaving are definitely the most interesting steps as they constitute the start, middle and end of the production cycle. There are many challenges such as unstable weather, shorter spells of sunshine, and floods to contend with. Each of these variables affect the outcome of the raw material, so we set up coping mechanisms to address each off-set.

Who and in what capacity needs to be involved in the process of transforming the plant into a raw material? How did you envision the participation of local actors in this project?

I chose to work with a group of young women in the community aged between 17 and 35. Some had just completed their secondary school education; a few were young entrepreneurs, and some were homemakers taking care of their homes, husbands and children. The core character traits I sought when recruiting team members were open mindedness, willingness to learn, team player characteristics and being a responsible hard worker. I taught the team all the steps involved and they learned very quickly. I also learned from them traditional weaving techniques and I am excited to return to the island for the next production cycle to share the new methods of weaving I have recently come up with.

How do you see the products made out of water hyacinth fit into the local product and material culture?

I am hoping to instil a sense of pride, appreciation and involved sustainability in locally made goods. By tapping into a waste stream, and making it valuable and desirable we aim to renew cultural confidence in the makers, community and buyers of the H++ products. 

And, how do you see local handicraft techniques respond to water hyacinth as a raw material? What local production techniques have been employed so far?

A huge part of this project was aimed at preserving local weaving techniques that are no longer in use. For this I worked with two gorgeous senior citizens Cecelia and Kanfa who showed me traditional forms of weaving passed on from older generations. With H++, we employ traditional weaving methods and also invent new methods compatible with the raw material. 

This project responds to an everyday situation in a very sustainable, ecologically sensitive way. How can H++ be instrumental in bringing together the members of local community, and creating awareness on design as an everyday practice?

H++ feels very organic and one of its strengths is that the community and the team members have faith in the project. They see and understand its relevance and we are all committed to improving the local environment and creating a sustainable industry. Design is a tool for positive change and I'm glad that H++ exemplifies this as a form of whole systems thinking whose value lies far beyond the designed object.

How do you envision the future of this project in a social scale?

H++ carries a certain amount of immediacy with it, for the environment, community, culture and industry in which it is found, produced and marketed. It is an example of how we can express positive power over our environment and circumstances. 

What is the next step that you plan on taking in the project?

Over the last 2 years I have been in lab-mode, working on processing techniques and testing fabrication methods, as research and product integrity are extremely important to me. I am working on a long-term, large-scale art installation next, weaving the River Nun as a historical and geographical document. It will take a year to produce and I am preparing for this exciting new chapter.