Africa’s fashion as visual communication: socio-cultural aspect

[ARTICLE] KIAF ART SEOUL 2020 TALK

Africa’s fashion as visual communication: socio-cultural aspect

Jeehyun KANG, Board Chair, Korea Street Culture Federation
Heekyung KANG, Director, MMCA Foundation

The session is about Africa’s contemporary fashion in the region of South, East, central, North, and West by considering socio-cultural context. By introducing 19 designers from 5 African countries, the presenter shares specific stories of each designer.

(Heekyung KANG, hereinafter HK) What made you interested in African fashion?
(Jeehyun KANG, hereinafter JK) I have been doing research on politics, economy, and culture in Africa, cultural projects, and aid (international development cooperation) projects for about 5 years. My undergraduate major was Political Science and Diplomacy, and my personal interest in culture and arts led to my interest in cultural diplomacy. I visited African countries in the East, West, South, North, and Central regions to study Africa, and I come to know how narrowly I had a view of the African continent. It was true that Africa was often more familiar with the image of hunger, disease, and war, along with images of hunger, disease, and war, before visiting the African continent in person.

Also, until now, products from Africa have often been purchased with a sense of duty from a humanity perspective rather than the attractiveness of the product itself. But we all know that this approach is not sustainable. In the meantime, I learned that through African fashion, transactions can take place through the value of the product itself, not through charity or hard marketing. And by interviewing designers working in various countries in Africa, I focused on African fashion as a visual communication.

(HK) Mentioning both fashion and visual communication is unfamiliar at the same time. Could you please explain in more detail about African fashion as a visual communication?
(JK) There is an artist named Yinka Shonibare, well known not only in Korea but also in the world. Yinka Shonibare‘s work was exhibited at the Seoul Museum of Art in 2014 and has also participated in exhibitions at the Busan Museum of Art. A common and frequent appearance in his work is a cloth called Batik, which is easily referred to as an African pattern characterized by only splendor. Paradoxically, this fabric, which symbolized the independence and integrity of Africa in the 1960s, was inspired by batik, a traditional Indonesian dyeing technique, and was mass-produced by a Dutch trader using a technique called Dutch-wax and marketed for export to Africa. That is the origin. Yinka Shonibare reveals the brutality of the conquerors of the imperialist era through costumes made of fabrics that symbolize Africa worn by the characters in the work.

< (Left) Yinka Shonibare, MBE Little rich Girls, 2010, (Right) Yinka Shonibare, MBE Earth, 2010, souece: Africa Now: Political Pattern. Sema >

In the exhibition called BEAUTE CONGO held at the Cartier Foundation in Paris in 2015, the work of the artist JP MIKA, who worked through the patterns, was made with goods and posters. Those items were so popular among visitors.

< Cartier, BEAUTE CONGO catalogue >

In fact, if you visit various African countries, you can get encounter with people wearing these colorful patterns of wax cloth on the road. Then, I come up with a question ‘what kind of message do those various patterns have?’ in my mind. Whenever I visited African countries, I started doing research, such as collecting wax cloths, trying on clothes, and visiting fashion schools for getting answer to my question.

Although it is not well known in Korea, Fashion Week is held every year in each African country. Specifically, in Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Kenya Nairobi, Nigeria Lagos, Tanzania Daressalam and Uganda Kampala, they are sponsored by global leading companies such as Heineken and Air France. As a place for buyers to meet, it has established itself as a source of new inspiration for the global fashion industry.

(HK) The reason why global companies are relatively less interested in African fashion or industry in Asia than in African fashion is simply because they are far away?
(JK) In my personal experience and thoughts, long distances are the primary reason, and because of that, in fact, there were few cultural exchanges in history. In the case of Europe, there are many opportunities to experience Africa in various fields via school curriculum, news, TV programs, etc. with the history of colonization or physical distance. Particularly because of its physical proximity, it is not difficult for the Germans to choose Namibia for vacation with no hesitation, and for the Spanish to spend their holidays in Morocco. I think that if there is an socio-cultural exchange, you will naturally be interested in various social and cultural elements. In fact, in Korea, it is difficult to know whether fashion week events are being held in African countries and cities, and whether there are local fashion designers. To be more honest, it is a strong image related to poverty, war, and hunger that I have encountered in Korean school curriculum, news, TV programs about Africa.

(HK) Were there any difficulties in collecting data in Korea without residing in the African continent or individual countries?
(JK) Of course, it was not easy to collect data in Korea. Whenever I went on business trips to individual African countries, when I had free time, I visited local designer shop for custom-made dress and visited fashion schools such as Addis Ababa(Ethiopia), Kinshasha(Democratic Republic of Congo), Windhoek(Namibia), Dakar(Senegal), Abidjan(Ivory Coast), Marrakesh(Morocco). In addition, I visited the National Museum of African Art in the United States to collect literature, purchase books at large and small bookstores in New York, Barcelona, and Paris, or reference materials from the New York Times, Guardian, and Vogue Africa.

(HK) Wow, Fashion school in Africa, is there a fashion school in each region?
(JK) I did not find out whether there are fashion schools in every region I visited, so I can’t answer exactly, but I visited a fashion school in the form of a vocational training and education school in Kinshasha, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It consisted of processes such as hand-pattern design, clothes making, and graduation exhibitions. The color and design were very impressive, but due to limited technology and equipment, when I visited, about 4 years ago, it was possible for only seniors to use sewing machines.

(HK) Is there a reason why African fashion has become world famous?
(JK) I am not sure if I can say that it is world famous. haha. However, major cities around the world such as England, France, Italy, Spain, the United States, and Japan are showing interest by holding events such as African Fashion Week in London and Africa Fashion Week in Tokyo. In addition, world-renowned brands such as Dona Karan, Valentino, Burberry and Stella McCartney have presented African-inspired collections. Africa is often called as a source of inspiration since there are so many diverse historical, cultural and social factors. To be specific, there are more than 3,000 tribes and more than 2,000 languages in the African continent. Perhaps this cultural diversity is reflected in African fashion and is attracting attention for this.

(HK) I know you interviewed a fashion designer in Africa to write a book on African fashion. How did you select the designer and how did the interview work?
(JK) As mentioned above, designers who are currently active in Africa among designers mentioned in the New York Times, Guardian, Vogue Africa, etc., and those who participated in the fashion week held in the African region, were selected first. Among African immigrants, international designers, who are active in Europe and the United States, are often well-known, so I focused on local designers. As a result, a total of 19 designers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda, where the fashion industry is naturally growing in Africa, were finally selected for the interview. Video interviews with 5 people, written interviews with 8 people, and data for 6 people were collected through literature research.

(HK) What were the main questions for the interview and what was interesting?
(JK) The questions were as follows: why did you become a designer, what was your career before becoming a designer, what do you think your strengths as an African designer are, and what are the difficulties in living as a designer? Do you have your own color or design pattern, what are your sources of inspiration, what are your future goals? What I learned through the research of 19 people was that they were not just making clothes, but through fashion design they were trying to revisit and solve the problems of society in which they belong. At the same time, they tried to communicate with people outside of the African continent by symbolically melting the historical and cultural context of his society into patterns and designs. I was very impressed with how each individual is playing a role as a diplomat and activist beyond a designer. Inspired by the traditional headdresses of Kenyan Luo warriors, for example, Kenyan’s history and society are covered through the clothes of Kenya’s Anyango Mpinga, who leads the brand with the motif of the ostrich feather, which symbolizes beauty and strength at the same time in the Luo culture. That made me to have interest in Luo culture and history. In addition, Tanzanian designer Mustafa Hassanali, who was a doctor, organized a campaign called “Fashion 4 Africa” to promote the Tanzanian fashion industry to the world through work with Naomi Campbell and others. It was very interesting to see designers from different countries trying to make fashion not just stay within that area but to melt into society

(HK) So, more specifically, were there any design features that appear in African fashion?
(JK) A brand that was interesting enough to want to import real products into Korea was lemlem from Ethiopia. Liya Kebede left for Paris for modeling at the age of 18. Returning to her hometown, Liya Kebede made clothes, scarves, and small products from cotton woven in the traditional Ethiopian way, and established a foundation named after her to continue her activities for the community. For this brand, a beautiful and modern interpretation of traditional weaving was very striking.

< (Left) lemlem, (Right) lemlem Founder, Liya Kebede >

When Habret Lakew in Kenya was interested in fashion, he realized that there were only tailors in Kenya who made what customers wanted, and there were no designers who made clothes that reflect the designer’s style and philosophy, and after studying in New York, he returned to Korea and started Kooroo Design. At the end of the interview, she sent a sketch of the Hanbok, Korean traditional clothing, in her own way, saying that she is mainly designing inspired by a tribe in the Omo River, north of Lake Turkana, Kenya.

< (Left Top / Bottom) River Omo Collection, (Right) Hanbok >

Nigerian designer Ogochukwu Akabogu was the winner of the Nigerian Fashion Competition and founded the brand Lines by Chaab. She firmly believes that fashion is a language that can communicate with other cultures across national, ethnic and language barriers, and she mainly uses high-quality fabrics of gold, white and purple. As I was interested in empowering women through fashion. Specifically, she was continuing the design for enhancing a sense of self-esteem of women.

< (Left) Ogochukwu Akabogu and Model, (Right) Show >

(HK) Was there any aspect of actually trying to communicate using African wax cloth or Dutch-wax cloth that appeared in the works of Yinka Shonibare earlier? Specifically, is there a pattern that separates men and women, a pattern that separates unmarried and married, or a taboo pattern?
(JK) Roughly half of the designers I interviewed designed their own fabrics and used cotton and silk, and the other half were found to use wax. In the case of the wax cloth pattern, there were cloth often designed to sell well in terms of suppliers such as the Obama pattern commemorating President Obama’s visit to Africa, the leaf pattern that was traditionally popular in Africa, and the shoe or handbag pattern favored by women. Nevertheless, you can also find interesting patterns that reflect the cultures of individual country or specific tribes. For example, a pattern that expresses strength through the shape of a sheep’s horn, a symbol of the Asanti tribe in Ghana. In addition, the triangle and diamond pattern of Sudan is said to symbolize a married man if the triangles are overlapped with a triangle symbolizing a man and a diamond symbolizing a woman to form an hourglass, and if the diamonds are overlapped, it symbolizes a married woman. Although not wax cloth, the ostrich pattern of Anyango Mpinga, inspired by the headdress of Kenyan Luo warriors and dancers on silk, and the ostrich symbolizing the beauty and strength of the tribe, can also be interpreted as an attempt to communicate through fabric patterns. Data is still being collected on patterns that distinguish men, women, single and married, and taboo patterns. As of now, what I can say as a specific example is the pattern that distinguishes men, women, married, and unmarried with the triangle and rhombus pattern of the aforementioned means.

< (Left) Anyango Mpinga Defign, (Middle) Asnati, source: Catherine Carpenter(2011) African Textile Patterns. A&C BALACK, (Right) Sudan Symbol Pattern, source: Catherine Carpenter(2011) African Textile Patterns. A&C BALACK >

(HK) In fact, can ‘African fashion as visual communication’ be seen as effective from a socio-cultural perspective?
(JK) Kate Middleton made a good impression on her hat when she visited Canada with maple leaves, the symbol of Canada. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wears Kurta, an Indian traditional costume instead of a Western-style suit at an official event, and is popular both in India and abroad. It is said that fashion is one of the pillars of public diplomacy.
In my personal experience, when I wear traditional Ethiopian costumes at a dinner hosted by the government of Ethiopia, or attend a government event of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wearing their national costume, I have experienced that it is more effective than the words. The fact that the meaning of respecting the other person’s culture and history can be conveyed as a piece of clothing proves that fashion can play a role as a visual communication.
Several years ago, I had a conversation with a Doctor of Economics from Cameroon. I asked what he thinks about the reason for the biased perception toward Africa. He replied: “It is a lack of chance to experience cultures in person” Maybe through fashion, we can have experience part of African culture as a gateway to know and understand on variety of people living in African countries. To be more honest, I hope so.

< Kigali, Rwanda, Shop & costume >
< Kinshasa, Congo, Designer shop >