Almost five years ago, during the fashion world’s most flurry-filled season, Wilson Oryema began his journey as a model. Fashion was never on Wilson’s career radar however, after a chanced casting on the streets of London, he was immersed into Paris Fashion Week to walk for Maison Margiela. Since Margiela, he has worked with multi-disciplinary artists and fashion houses, amassing experience, building creative relationships, and cultivating his own artistry along the way.
Wilson is an artist and activist, unbound by medium. Now leveraging his presence in fashion to shed light on issues of personal significance, Wilson’s work confronts consumerism and seizes sustainability as a topic for discussion. In 2017 Wilson released a book of poetry entitled Wait, which followed his art exhibition of the same title. His body of work questions the habitual cycles to which we’ve become accustom and ensnared. “Wait, is there another way to do this?” Wilson asks us. I pose to him a few questions of my own…
JG-S: First off, how would you introduce yourself?
WO: I work on a few different things: I am an artist, a writer, a poet; sometimes a fashion model. I also do talks; it’s all a mix of various work.
JG-S: How would you say it all started for you?
WO: I’m not sure where it all started. In terms of everything I’m doing now, I stumbled into modelling about four and a half years ago. I got caught in the street and was asked to walk in a Margiela show. From there, I met a lot of friends in the fashion space and I’ve just been working with them ever since.
I've always been making art. But in this current form, it’s been about two or three years. I’ve also started writing, having released a book a poetry just last year.
JG-S: Have you always had an interest in poetry? Or is this more of a newfound love?
WO: No, I just started poetry, in September 2017. Before I was writing in different ways, mostly academic-led work. I used to do technology journalism when I was around 17 years old. I was writing dozens of articles everyday around technology news. I used to do copywriting for advertising agencies at a point. But I had never really written in the context of poetry before.
JG-S: You were street-cast for the Margiela show and that’s how you got into modelling. Did modelling ever cross your mind before as a career path for you?
WO: Not at all. It’s not a world that I was aware of before. Imagine looking at the streets outside and seeing that this thing exists, or someone’s made this other thing, and not being involved in the process of how these cities came to be. But you do walk by, see other people living their lives, you can acknowledge their existence, without any of it really having anything to do with you. That is how I felt about fashion. Not that I didn’t have a place in fashion, but it just didn’t concern me because I was focused on tech and other things at the time.
JG-S: One of the first times I really took notice of you was at Grace Wales Bonner’s show. You seem to have a collaborative relationship with her, right?
WO: Collaboration in the sense of muse and a designer, definitely in that context. Not so much in the context of producing work together. But I’d say I’ve spent a lot of time in her studio and used to do a lot of modelling. We’ve just become really good friends over time.
JG-S: Speaking of the artist-muse relationship and you being an artist yourself, where do you gain inspiration from?
WO: It depends. I can’t create of out thin air, and have it be of value. It has to relate to something in my life or something that I think is an issue that needs to be addressed. And then to think about what is the best way to address it. Is it through a particular tool? Is it in a particular space or location? What type of medium should I use? Then I kind of build from there. So, it can become a poem, some form of writing, an image, a video or whatever it may need to be.
JG-S: Let’s talk a bit about your poetry book entitled Wait. What’s the story behind its title?
WO: I did an exhibition a few months before the book, which was also entitled Wait. If it was to be extended, it would be something along the lines of “Wait, isn’t there a different way we can do this?” thinking about the ways that we consume in the world. So that’s how the title came about.
The title is a great expression of the book in that sometimes what we really want to communicate doesn’t need to be too wordy. It just needs to be concise and on point, as opposed to stretching it out. Of course, I could have written a 500-page essay about human consumption and where it’s going, but that doesn’t appeal to the general public. Most people don’t even have enough time to read three or four books a year. Where people place their time is a different conversation… But in the grand scheme of things, people don’t have that time to spend. I wanted to create something that anyone could pick up, read, share with a friend, put in their pocket and come back to very easily.
JG-S: You’re very vocal on sustainability and consumerism, when did you first decide to use your voice and platform to provoke change?
WO: The second I realised I had a voice. I’ve done many different roles in my life, but never really found a position or place in myself to think that “oh, my voice is important.” When I better understood— by working under other artists or just other people I’ve met along the way— that you can do something using whatever tools you have, and have it create waves essentially or have some importance in a space. You just have to be pure with it and consistent. So that’s how I started. If you refine your process and find the best way to communicate your ideas to your audience, then they’ll listen at some point.
JG-S: Fashion isn’t the most sustainable industry and produces a lot of waste, do you ever feel a tension between the industry and your beliefs?
WO: Of course. I don't model under nameless things anymore… But if we were to look at anyone’s day job and then their passion or whatever causes their cared for, are they aligned perfectly? No.
But whenever I get the chance, I am trying to push the two together. I’m trying to mainly work under brands which are at least trying to do something positive. In a sense we’re all hypocrites, but it’s more about how we bring the two worlds together to create change within a space. I’m able to do a lot more on the inside, than I could do outside of this industry.
JG-S: Definitely, I can see that. Working in the fashion industry gives you a better perspective of what the problems are and the progress which has been or could be made. Over the last four years, what are some of the changes you have seen since working in fashion?
WO: On a mass scale, there’s been a lot of great changes for sure. Everyone is acknowledging the fact that we shouldn’t be using animal fur, or that we shouldn't be throwing out millions of pounds in products, or that we should be changing the supply-chain processes and the sourcing of materials. One thing that I have noticed, as I’ve become more vocal about my own work, is that other people do care too. It’s just about finding ways for everyone to come together and work together to bring about these changes.
JG-S: Yes, I agree. At the end of the day, nobody actually wants to damage the planet. It’s just that there are systems which have conditioned us into behaving in a certain way…
WO: Exactly, and we are so far removed from the result, that we don't really concern ourselves with our actions. Like we can look at all these bins outside and use them, but we don't really think about where the refuse collectors take it to or what happens over the next 100 years. We don’t think enough about the end result.
JG-S: What would be your ideal project or collaboration that you’d like to do?
WO: I can’t name a particular company. Well, I could, but I think it’s when I’m getting more into the actual game-changing products, when I’m able to impact more with products. Maybe it’s something to raise the attention towards solar panels, because the cost has gone down so much in the last few years. Or whether it’s reducing our water usage… I think it’s just more about engaging with stuff I haven’t had the time to do or bring awareness to yet.
At the moment it’s been more of a broad conversation, mainly tied to the way we purchase. But I think there's a lot more that we need to address for sure. Which I’m getting to. We’ll see how it goes but I’m definitely getting to it.
JG-S: I assume you have to now be more selective with the brands your work with?
WO: Of course. Not every brand is one that you should work with. You have to look at how well it meshes with you and then decide.
JG-S: Brands, and society in general have placed a lot of emphasis on social media, whether it’s to scout talent, market products or to create our own digital utopias. What’s your view or relationship with social media?
WO: The thing about social media is that you have to see it as a tool. Regardless of what someone is doing on it, everyone is vying for attention. I can't look at social media and say that it is a bad thing. It’s more about what you draw from it, or how you intend to use it. In terms of my personal use, I’ve found it very helpful. It has allowed me to communicate with people across the world, to get opportunities I would have never got if I wasn’t online. I’ve learnt a lot of different stuff. I consume a lot of information which becomes relevant to work and life. So social media has helped out a lot. It’s like with everything, you take the good and the bad.
JG-S: Looking at the future now, what are some of the projects you’re working on that we should look out for in 2019?
WO: I’m starting an organisation to be more focused around raising awareness about issues affecting the earth. It will be similar to what I do with my art but would be much more far-reaching. It will be project-based. Some things will cross over with the work I do, some things won’t. So that's probably the biggest thing I’m working on for 2019.
I’ll probably have more exhibitions in different places and more short films. A bit of everything. I have my new book coming out; i won’t reveal the title just yet, but it will be out around the end of 2019.
JG-S: Nice, so is the new book a sequel to Wait?
WO: Yes. It will be about consumption again, but around how particular things consume us. In contrast to Wait, you could say it is more personal. It might be a bit more emotive, as it deals with aggression, trauma, addiction, shame and a few other things as well.