Out of office: coffee and creative small talk with Grace Wales Bonner

Bodil Blain, Wallpaper* columnist and founder of Cru Kafé, shares coffee and creative small talk with leading figures from the worlds of art, architecture, design, and fashion. This week, in celebration of the opening of her Serpentine Sackler Gallery exhibition A Time for New Dreams, London-based menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner

Single wooden frame daybed on mat
Grace Wales Bonner. courtesy of the artist
(Image credit: Paul Mpagi Sepuya)

Bodil Blain: So...you don’t drink coffee?
Grace Wales Bonner: Unfortunately not! I’m just very into tea – tea does it for me.

BB: You must have know quite early that you had that creative spark – do you know where that comes from?
I’ve always been interested in people and representation, so it was a sense of being drawn to them. I’ve also always been really interested in photography. I think it was that emotional connection to people, or to the way people are represented, that grounds what I do and was something I was aware of growing up. At school I drew, but it was more still life, some painting, and a lot of photography. I was always interested in art. It felt like a natural thing to do – an easy way of concentrating.

BB: How did you then come to fashion?
It happened gradually over time – it wasn’t an immediate thing. It felt like a way to tie together how I see the world into something tangible. It was always going to be something academic or something to do with art, and I suppose I’ve just tried to marry both things together.

Grace Wales Bonner's exhibition at the serpentine

‘Untitled (daybed 1)’, 2012. Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams © 2019 readsreads.info

(Image credit: Rashid Johnson)

BB: How do you feel your parents have influenced you?
They encouraged me to find my own way, and educate myself, independently of them – creating my own world, and my own space and collaging those influences. It’s encouraged me to be playful.

BB: Have you considered designing women’s clothing as well?
The way I design menswear requires having distance, space to project an image. Once you understand that approach, you can apply it to women as well. I have a small womenswear collection and will be doing more.

BB: How do you find inspiration?
My research is quite broad, so it can be quite musical. I’m very methodical about it – my musical research I do around a certain timeframe. Then I think, right, what kind of textures work in the context of that sound. It builds upwards. Usually it starts from literature. I’ll have some books or poems in mind and then build a visual world around that and then a musical world around that until I have this complete sensory world, that's a hybrid of different things.

For each collection, we also do a short film with Harley Weir. We usually do a research trip, where we revisit some of the ideas within the collection in context. The films are quite open and organic – they unfold on these trips. It's an important part of my process, having these freeform moments that can escalate and inspire other things.

Grace Wales Bonner's exhibition at the Serpentine

‘There is only one…one’, 2019. Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams © 2019 readsreads.info

(Image credit: Liz Johnson Artur)

BB: If you weren't a designer, what would you be?
Maybe a curator? I like bringing people together and not having a specific outcome.

BB: Tell us about your current exhibition, ‘A Time for New Dreams’ at the Serpentine. Why have you chosen the theme of the shrine?
GWB: I became conceptually interested in the idea of the shrine through Face of the Gods, a seminal book by Robert Farris Thompson which connects the creation of shrines with other forms of aesthetic practice across the Black Atlantic, like the idea of repurposing, interpreting rhythmically and assemblage.

BB: What does the shrine mean to you?
GWB: Shrines serve as portals into other connections to other spiritual realms, worlds, temporalities and connections with ancestors.

‘It’s an important part of my process, having these freeform moments that can escalate and inspire other things’

BB: Can you tell us about some of the people whose work you have incorporated in the show and the reasons you chose them?
GWB: I have been thinking about the idea of writers as oracles, and therefore the work of Ben Okri has been and continues to be profound to my work and thinking. Ben is a central collaborator in the show. Ishmael Reed is also someone who’s writing has been pivotal to my understanding of magical realism and grounded ideas from a black intellectual perspective.

The exhibition has given me an opportunity to connect with my peers and longer-term collaborators like Eric N. Mack, Chino Amobi and Paul Sepuya, and also make more urgent new connections with artists like Liz Johnson Artur and Kapwani Kiwanga, who are visionaries I have long admired and have been anticipating working with. It also gives me space to acknowledge a lineage of artists who have come before me and shaped pathways to encounter spirituality and mysticism within black aesthetic practice, namely through the work of David Hammons and Rotimi Fani Kayode.

Grace Wales Bonner's exhibition at the Serpentine

'Capital Heights (via stretch)’, 2019. Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams © 2019 readsreads.info

(Image credit: Paul Mpagi Sepuya)

BB: Also, the dresser you have created, can you talk about that, your own shrine within the exhibition?
GWB: My shrine honours writers as sacred oracles, who make magical connections to ones ancestry and lineage. Archival research material becomes the material from which to create art work.

BB: Beyond understanding your own working practices, what do you hope the viewer will take away from visiting the exhibition?
GWB: I hope the viewer will feel nourished by the exhibition and welcome the space it creates for meditation and reflection.

BB: Has it given you a taste of curating, would you like to do more projects like this?
GWB: The dialogue with artists has been an incredibly rewarding and valuable. I’m interested in curating in the future and developing from this starting point, taking in everything I have learned along the way.

BB: On your perfect day in London, what would you do?
GWB: I like going to the Stuart Hall Library in Shoreditch. It's a niche archive, which is interesting. I’d probably also go to local food markets and galleries. §

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*232)


‘Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams’ is on view until 17 March at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. For more information visit the Serpentine Galleries website



Serpentine Sackler Gallery West Carriage Drive London W2 2AR