Perfumier and photographer
09/ The Pioneer: Maya Njie
Maya Njie is a Swedish-born perfumier whose artisanal blends are inspired by photos from old family albums.
"I set out to capture, by way of scent, these moments in time, these tropes of familial life, set within their frames. 'What did it smell like?' The small Swedish summer house surrounded by mercurial forests, the visits to her grandparents’ sparsely furnished flat on Sunday afternoons, Uncle Lars' and Aunt Irene’s shotgun wedding.. I sought to bottle the spirit connected to the classic 1970's Scandinavian idyll, combined with the soul of her esoteric Gambian heritage."
As a pioneer in her field, curator of smells and memories, and former artist, who better than to curate her own edit of artworks for us. We chat to Maya about how she started the brand, and what keeps her inspired.
Tell us about yourself and how the Maya Njie perfume brand came to fruition.
I was born in Sweden and grew up in a small industrial city on the outskirts of Stockholm. My dad was Gambian and my mother Swedish and so I experienced a mix of influences from both cultures whilst at home. Growing up I was a very ‘nosy’ child with a passion for the finer smelling things in life which I would collect wherever I could.
Moving to London was a desire of mine as I entered my teens and I relocated here shortly after turning 19. I spent many years working for the clothing brand Carhartt and discovered the city through analog photography. It was a place bursting with both art and music and that was the big draw for me at the time.
When I became a mother, it brought on a desire for change in my direction of work. I started studying Surface Design at the University of the Arts and worked visually within print, pattern, and photography. Having always been drawn in by scent I veered towards multi-sensory expression, combining visual design, photography, and olfaction. My old family photo album from the 1970’s was my starting point and it went on from there.
How has art influenced your life and brand?
Art gave birth to it. Even though I have been driven by scent and smells in general growing up, I never considered it as a profession. My outlet for creating art made me seek it out and once I started it was like finding the missing piece.
What are your earliest olfactory memories?
I have a few...
The smell of soil is an early fond memory that comes from playing hide and seek in the local Garden Centre. It’s a bit like Petrichor.. the smell of rain.
My grandfather's apartment as a young child. My fragrance Tobak is based on it and smells of wood and leather furniture, tobacco leaf, sweet tonka, cinnamon, and musk.
Another memory is the smell of when the farmers are burning bush along the roads in Gambia. It’s smoky, nutty and woody – I absolutely love it. I recreate that at home with the use of Vetiver oil and incense.
It’s too hard to pick a favourite as they do vary and span across the families so let me pick a few. Iris, Vetiver, Cistus, Cedarwood, and Bergamot. All beautiful and serve different purposes.
What do you collect?
Hm... I do have a weakness for well-designed stationery. I also have a fair bit of laboratory glassware which perhaps could be deemed as a collection whilst also being highly functional when experimenting with perfume ingredients.
Where’s your happy place?
I have three. At home around the breakfast table, around a pub table and on a good dance floor.
Artists you love / who inspire you?
I love artist Colin Barnes’s work, he’s a mixed media artist that works with collages, oil on canvas, and sculpture among other things – seek him out.
I recently bought a book on Richardo Bofill as I find his architecture really inspiring. I love his work with color, space and shape. It’s pretty incredible.
What do you hope to change about the field that you’re in?
I’d like it to be more inclusive. I want to provide a brand that is relatable to people and especially those that are underrepresented in different fields. I am often categorized as beauty but I relate more to art if anything. I like blurring the lines between art and beauty and bringing them together.
Last book you read?
The Diary of a Nose by Jean Claude Ellena
Currently listening to?
Chaconne In G by Moondog
Maya 's curation
Khoisan Kween Mother
I love how bold this female creature is, she reminds me of tribal masks and traditional dances I have seen in Gambia.
- Lady Skollie
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I was first drawn in by the combination of the grainy black and white photography combined with its colour blocks and as I looked closer I wanted to know more about the intention behind the art.
- Richard Hart
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