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I want to celebrate my Nigerian Heritage, Tokumbo Ijeorere

By Yetunde Tiawo
Inspired by art and the world around her, Olatokunbo Oluropo Enitan Muhammed found her calling in Architecture. In an industry dominated by men, this young Nigerian woman is putting Nigerian creativity on the map. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Tokunbo is living up to every parent’s dreams.

Tokumbo Ijeorere
Tokumbo Ijeorere

The first of three children, she is focused, dedicated and passionate about her family, her career and her life. Tokunbo’s family moved back to Nigeria where she attended Imola Day Primary School. She really experienced Nigeria at that critical stage in a child’s life when character begins to form. At age 12, she moved back to America where she attended William Grady High School in New York and Great Bridge High School in Virginia.

Tokunbo described the “back to America” experience as shocking. “When I arrived back to the U.S., attending junior and senior high school was brutal.

I had a Nigerian accent. I was a very skinny, dark skin girl with very prominent African features. I looked like any other 12 year-old Nigerian girl but the American girls had bodies like a grown woman… I dislike going into the details but you can just imagine how awful it was for me. The experience made me resilient and it took me a long time to appreciate how I am, how I look and how I talk.”

Tokunbo attended New York Institute of Technology, CUNY City College campus and finally Lawrence Technological University.  One of her notable projects was design work for one of America’s leading companies, STARBUCKS.  Working with her team, Tokunbo’s creativity was a part of the company’s   vision that is now a reality. Tokunbo is now an architect for the United States’ General Service Administration.

To incorporate her culture into her passion, Tokunbo has created Ijorere Invitations. Ijorere creates hand-made one-of-a-kind invitations for special events – from weddings to special events to award shows.  Her eco-friendly business utilises resources that use 100% wind power to make paper and post-consumer recycled materials.
We present to you Olatokunbo Oluropo Enitan Muhammed, fondly called Toks.

ALLURE:  What got you interested in Architecture?
Toks: I remember telling my mom that I wanted to work at Disney World, drawing and colouring as a cartoonist. She brought out her encyclopaedia and told me, “If you want to make money drawing, then you are going to have to be an Architect.” I was about 8 or 9 years old at the time and simply took her word for it.

ALLURE:  How would you describe your architectural style?
Toks: Very modern and contemporary, with hints of vernacular architecture. I have an eye for very modular shapes and like to soften the precisions of squares and/or rectangular forms with organic free forming elements.

ALLURE:  Your creative skills are tied to creating things. How do you sharpen those skills?
Toks: By Practice, practice, practice!
ALLURE:  How do you handle the pressures in a male dominated industry?

Toks: It hasn’t been much of a problem for me. I have enjoyed being “one of the boys”. Architecture is a male dominated field, true, and here in America, it is a white, male dominated industry.

My problem was not with my colleagues or professors in college but rather a few encounters with racist and sexist white males’ employers that could not believe that I am a black, young woman who went through architecture school, graduated and worked as an architect with reputable companies such as General Motors, Starbucks Coffee Company, Sears etc.  I have more than ten years’ experience working in the corporate world of architecture.

ALLURE:  Give us a run through a day in the life of Olatokunbo Oluropo Enitan Muhammed.
Toks: I awake to my sub-urban surroundings at 5am, two-hour commute on the L to the loop (down town Chicago), check in to my office and dash to the airport for a quick flight out within one of my markets (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio or Illinois) reviewing and red-lining drawings, writing up my comments, attending meetings or making conference calls and conducting compliancy trainings.

Back to the airport, I fly back home and check my e-mails in between phones calls. I arrive home about 6.30pm; now my real work begins! Play mommy for a couple of hours till 8.45pm, read a bed-time story and put my chicks to bed. Then, I work on some concepts for Ijorere and go to bed by 10:45pm. Keep in mind that this would be on a perfectly scheduled day.  It never falls quite as nice as I put it.

ALLURE:  How has been a Nigeria woman helped to handle working and creating in this industry?
Toks:  Definitely a positive impact. It’s like that good old saying, “Remember where you come from”.  I have confidence in myself and respect myself always, remembering that though I was born here in America, I am still Nigerian. My upbringing as an American-born Nigerian has aided me tremendously on my morals and work ethics.

ALLURE:  Why did you create Ijorere.com?
Toks: It was a way to vent my artistic traits. I enjoy literally being hands-on in everything I do. There is also great pleasure in discovering things the old fashion way.

In this era of modern technology, the delights of receiving and reading a hand written letter has become almost obsolete. That is how the idea of Ijorere started to conceptualise in my mind, and then it evolved to how “our people” do not really have an appreciation for “The Invitation”.

They would rather print out flyers or purchase $2.00 invitations. I wanted to change their minds, letting them understand that “The Invitation” sets the tone for what is to come. How else would a guest know the prestige of your event? I have received invitations in the mail and knew if it was worth going or not from how the invitation was prepared. I know that I am not the only one that feels this way.

I also wanted to celebrate my Nigerian heritage. The word Ijorere is actually two words – ijo and rere are Yoruba words that add up to mean “a grand day”. I merged these two words and certainly you would agree it’s the perfect name for any grand occasion.
ALLURE:  How would the end of year be for Ijorere?
Toks: I’ve noticed a trend of wedding proposals right before the end of the year. It seems men take pleasure popping the question to their ladies towards the end of the year through the earlier part of the year. I want to say between November and February so, I get a lot of calls around this time as a knowledgeable bride knows she must plan, at least, a year ahead to have a good wedding. In fact, my business has evidently become centred on weddings. Even though Ijorere is about any kind of invitation, most of the requests received are from brides and wedding planners.

ALLURE:  What do you remember about Christmas in Nigeria and how different is it from America?
Toks: Very delightful memories – Bar Beach, disco, bangers, friends and family, food, music, fireworks, celebrations; very much like the 4th of July here in the United States. It’s very different here in the U.S. in December.

Here, it’s very quiet at home and in the neighbourhood. The shopping mall is where I find energy, noise, lines of people, impossible parking spots.  I don’t like going to the mall during Christmas, it’s just too overwhelming and crazy; not fun at all.

ALLURE:  Why do you think the wedding season for most Nigerians is in December?

Toks: I really think it’s because December is considered a month of celebration. Muslims and Christians alike always celebrate something in December.

That is one month that everyone has something to be thankful for; a new year is around the corner and families re-unite during the holidays in December. What better way to begin a new life with your partner than when everyone is celebrating.

ALLURE:  What do you miss about spending your Christmas holidays in Nigeria?
Toks:   I miss old friends from primary school, family, my grandmas and grandpas. I miss the foods. One thing I really remember about Christmas is metal stick with the sparkly light. I can’t remember the name now but I remember running around with this sparkly thing that never burns you.

I miss the music that you hear from those shops as you walk down the street.  I remember my grandma would fry cow meat and hide it under her bed. My cousins and I would sneak into the room and steal some meat.  It was hilarious. I can hear her calling my name asking me what I was doing in her room.

Christmas was simply bliss in Nigeria. Christmas time is the best time to be in Nigeria. But here in the United States, it’s quiet; we watch movies, have dinner and pray for the last 30 minutes into the New Year. But I can still imagine if we were in Nigeria; my kids will love the fire crackers.

ALLURE:  Most things tend to shut down as most people wrap up the year while preparing for the next year simultaneously. How do you keep business afloat in the holiday season?

Toks: Towards the end of the year is when I receive inquiries and I start to set up my calendar for all the events that will hold next year. There are periods when things slow down. I use those times to work on concepts never seen before and to tighten up my skills, thus giving my clients more innovative options to choose from.

ALLURE:  What should we look forward to with Ijorere in 2010?
Toks:   Ijorere the Invitation is just the first of my creative outlets. For 2010 and further in the future, I have ideas of buying an inter-changeable space like a loft where I could design each of my clients’ theme occasion to their heart’s desire and provide them with invitations to go along with it.

It would be a one-stop shop for grand events.
I also have a secret love for furniture design. When I was in college, I always preferred building my models with wood instead of form core. Wood is earthy, sturdy and its imperfections make it look all the more appealing and beautiful to me.

I love fabric, patterns and texture and you will see all these infused into my designs for 2010, whether it be invitations or interior design or architecture.
For more information on Tokunbo please visit www.ijorere.com


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