Africa comes to life at the Brooklyn, N.Y., shop Calabar Imports. Owned by architectural artist Atim Oton and her mother, Heloise Oton, the boutique features Nigerian-, Asian- and South American-style home furnishings, jewelry and fashion. In 2014, as Calabar Imports celebrates its first decade of business, designer Atim Oton spreads her influence not only in Crown Heights but also in the world at large with her innovative designs.
“Design is not about me,” Oton said. “It is about solving a problem. Do I solve the problem in clothes? Do I solve the problem in jewelry? Part of the whole was to create a solution box that meets the consumer where they wanted to be.”
Oton’s formative years were spent exploring her world with her siblings in Calabar, Nigeria, where she was born. “I had four brothers, [and] I was the tomboy,” she said. “We had a slew of friends. All of the neighborhood kids ran to each other’s houses. We ate, drank, [and] played until we had to come in.”
Oton’s childhood was cultured with American images of “Sesame Street” and National Geographic. Despite the occasional quarrel with her brothers or neighborhood friends, it was her father’s untimely death in 1977 that enlightened then 8-year-old Oton.
“It gave me an understanding that life is short, time waits for no one and I should use it,” Oton said. “It became an empowering force because I had a mother who helped secure that space.”
Working with her mother taught Oton to trust her own ability to have an impact on the world.
“No other voice, but the voice of your soul, defines you,” Oton said. “I have a very strong mother. She taught me that you are not ever in competition with anybody. You’re in competition with yourself.”
After immigrating to the United States, Oton studied architecture at the City College of New York and attended the Architectural Association Graduate School in London, England. She explained that Max Bond, a prominent African-American architect and dean of the architecture school at CCNY, inspired her to become the artist she is today.
“Max was one of the most influential Black architects,” Oton said. “He was able to say that architecture was a revolution, architecture is about social change, [and it] has the ability to change people.”
Although Oton has lived in the U.S. for most of her life, she stated that she could never forget the beauty of her native country. “I miss the sun, the moon and just being able to see the stars differently,” Oton said. “When I arrive in Nigeria, or any part of Africa, I feel grounded. America is my home because of my mother, but my upbringing was in Nigeria.”
Decorated with African ornaments and dashikis, Calabar Imports holds memories of Oton’s life. The shop is painted a bold yellow that stands out on the corner of Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn. “I wasn’t raised to blend in,” Oton said. “I was raised to stand out.”
Since 2000, Oton has developed art and design curriculums for the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan and the Joyce Ababio College of Creative Design in Accra, Ghana, in West Africa. After 2004, she expanded Calabar Imports to include the DUMBO and Crown Heights areas. In 2012, Oton became the founder and creative director of the Creative Side, an organization that promotes and mentors architects and designers. By September 2015, she plans to launch “Experience Africa,” a project that empowers Americans with African culture.