Comfort Zone

Comfort Zone: Ifétayo Abdus-Salam

by Sabrina Smelko


Ifétayo Abdus-Salam, better known simply as Ifé, is a New York City native. Born and raised in “the village of Harlem,” the love she has for her neighborhood inspired her to organize a series of pop-up markets which featured a curated selection of Harlem-based artists, and later on, her own jewelry business. Since her days spent beading as a little girl, jewelry-making has been a lifelong passion for Ifé. After exploring metalwork in high school and during her time as an undergrad at Tisch School of the Arts where she majored in Photography and Africana Studies, Ifé continued to nurture her love of jewelry through various classes. Just as home beckons for you after a long day, so too did the pull of this creative practice. Following a 10-year career as an arts educator and public high school art teacher, Ifé was reunited with her jewelry bench after many moons spent looking out her living room window into the vibrant streets surrounding her. Inspired by the unique visual aesthetic of Harlem, with its array of historical and cultural influences, she launched her bold and elegant jewelry line, Hecho en Harlem from her home overlooking Morningside Park.

For Ifé, home — namely her living room — is not only the place that she finds comfort and peace within, but her place of work, which continues to inspire and influence her to this day. She recounts many days spent reading by the window, gazing and drawing energy from the beautiful landscape of Morningside Park; “a constant symbol of Harlem’s growth and transformation during my 32 years living here.” And today, she is joining us to chat more about the space she has called home for over three decades and what it means to her. –Sabrina 

Photography by Ruby Tull

Tell us about yourself.

I am a 32-year-old NYC native, artist, teacher and a forever student. My personality and point of view is very much comprised of the mash-up of life experiences I have [had] up until this point: 14 years as a student of the Harlem School of the Arts have instilled a deep passion for music in me; one of my favorite things to do is to head down to Rockwood Music Hall on weekends [to] discover emerging NYC musicians. Four years at a Quaker School High School have left me with a lasting desire to continuously look within, and to recognize God — not only in myself, but in everything around me. A lifetime as the daughter of a forward-thinking Afrocentric Feminist has conditioned me to believe that I can (and must) achieve the goals I work hard at, specifically when they concern my own betterment, or that of my community. My formal training at NYU and RISD have given me the ability to always be open to critique (and to know when to take it, and when to leave it). I have always been deeply engaged with artistic expression, and have spent my entire life up until this point, building my life around creative practice. Whether through my love of writing as a child (I thought I would be a writer until I was about 12), my own photography, guiding the practice of my students, or more recently, the construction of my jewelry business, the act of creation has always brought me incredible joy and satisfaction. I have learned so much about the world through the art of others and my creative practice has allowed me to share my own subjective experiences with others.

I currently spend my days teaching beginner photography students at the International Center of Photography, and building my own small business, Hecho en Harlem Jewelry, which is operated out of my home studio. My jewelry is geometric in form, eye-catching in nature. Much like the culture of the Harlem, it exists on an intersection of sleek elegance and bold style.


What does home and this space mean to you? Describe it.

The reading nook in my living room is a space that instantly washes me with inspiration. When I sit there I am immediately within arms reach of so many artists that I love, whose work inspires, perplexes and motivates me. Furthermore, while reading I can gaze out of the windows at the beautiful landscape of Morningside Park, a vision that signifies the unexpected natural beauty of New York City serving as a constant symbol of Harlem’s growth and transformation during my 32 years living here.


What makes it so comfortable (physically and personally)?

The layout of the space; the fact that its shape becomes quite narrow in areas makes it automatically feel very cozy. I also love that as I sit and read I am bordered by a favorite Dalî poster on my right (which I picked up from the Dalî museum in Paris), and a Cindy Sherman poster from her 2012 exhibition at the MOMA on my left. I love being surrounded by these images. I think they ask the viewer to ponder deeply about the ideologies of womanhood, femininity and identity — topics that were at the heart of my own photographic work. While reading, I often spend half the time gazing out of the window, watching amazing sunsets, or — my favorite — children sledding after a fresh snowfall.

What makes you uncomfortable? What is your biggest fear?

I am most afraid of the concept of failure, and, like so many people, I suffer from impostor syndrome. I am constantly practicing the art of self-confidence. I truly believe in the value of listening to your inner voice; in the power of letting intuition be the answer to uncertainty, and preparation be the cure to insecurity.


Have you ever thrown caution to the wind and departed from your comfort zone? What happened as a result?

I am currently posted far outside of the vicinity of any comfort zone! During the last school year, I left my position as a tenured art teacher for the Department of Education to focus my attention on starting my own jewelry business. It was terrifying to leave the school that I had been teaching at for six years — where I was supported and had grown roots — for the uncharted territories of self-employment. The result, much to my amazement, is that the world has not come crashing down on my head! My business is surviving and I learn and grow every day. I live in a constant state of amazement that I was able to change my life into something entirely of my own design.


What have you learned as an adult that you wish you knew when you were younger?

Now that I am an adult, I tell my students — and really any young person I can get my hands on — to explore their interests as thoroughly as possible. So many kids (and, let’s face it, adults, too!) are so confused by what to do with their lives, and too many find themselves in crippling educational debt with degrees that may no longer seem relevant to their lives. Seek out internships, apprenticeships and after-school programs. Explore the things you think appeal as both potential career and hobby. Most likely, the consistent hobbies or passions that you find yourself doing and drawn to naturally are the things that will continue to sustain you.

At this stage of my life, I understand how important it is to listen to and trust yourself, even if you are afraid by what you hear. So often, your internal voice knows what you need before your [conscience] does. One of my favorite quotes comes from Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist. “Listen to your heart, it comes from the soul of the world and will one day return there.” (If you haven’t read that book, go read it!)

How do you unplug, recharge and unwind?

Yoga, meditation, seeking the insight of a trusted loved one, a glass of wine and Netflix are trusted routines for relaxation for me!


Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you get back on your feet and stay inspired?

My fourth year of teaching as a public school teacher was my eighth year working as an arts educator, and around this time, I started to experience a lack of personal fulfillment in my everyday routine, coupled with a severe alienation from my own artistic practice. The combination of the two started to initiate depression, and I found myself searching for a way out of the constant sadness I was experiencing.

Writing has become a catharsis for me. It is so important, not only for me to have an unfiltered method of releasing, but also to be able to review and reflect on especially trying times. Journaling has literally helped me through some of the hardest times in my life.

Additionally, two years ago, two good friends of mine and myself started a Desire Map book club, based on the book by Danielle Laporte. In this group, my friends and I created an ongoing space where we would be held accountable on constructing and actively pursuing a set of core desired life goals. These meetings easily lasted a minimum of five hours and the support and constant encouragement, combined with clear and structured activities, helped to keep me motivated and inspired by my own growth process. When I can’t find it within myself, I look to my favorite artists for inspiration. The brilliant musician Meshell Ndegeocello, writer Alice Walker and the photographer Roy De Carava always seem to know how to stun me back to life with the beauty and depth of their craft.


What would you do if you had a day, a week and a month all to yourself?

I’d love a day of burrowing in bed with a glass of tea and a good book. A week would be spent visiting NYC museums, (or traveling to a nearby city to work my way through a list of restaurants, performances and exhibits), and a month would be for travel: getting lost in new countries, absorbing the sights, languages and cultures, reflecting on the multitude of possibilities this life has to offer. “Time off” for me has always meant time to rejuvenate, get lost in the pleasures ordinary day-to-day life doesn’t allow for; time to reground myself in the world around me, and reconnect with the things that make me feel most alive.

What do you think the world could use less of, and more of?
Less fear, more love.

What’s one question you wish you had the answer to?
Will my grad school loans ever be forgiven?

Suggested For You


  • Ms. Abdus-Salam is an inspiration– thank you for sharing her words and her lovely space . And I’m on board with that last question!

  • More of us are made to think outside of the box; then is needed in this world. Would it not be nicer to stay on the side line for once; juxtapose those that seem not to want to live outside of the box because they are traditional and continuum. I don’t always express correctly what I mean to say. No matter, thank you for sharing and good luck.

  • I love her – I love her space, I love her clothes, I love her words… I feel like we could be good friends. Thank you for sharing!

  • I loved reading this. It made me miss Harlem – the sounds, the folks, the food. I love the reading nook and the open, expressive style of Ifé’s space. Wonderful.

  • Well, now I’m going to research what the Desire Map is. That sounds absolutely lovely. Thank you, Design Sponge, for showing how real people – educators, no less! – work within and out to get what they are doing for the world!

  • So fun to unexpectedly catch up with Ifé, who I know as a photographer. Going to check out her jewelry line. I love this series.

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