The globally-popular Naomi Campbell was in Durban, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, for the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA 2019 Leading Women Summit, to talk about her abiding interest and investment in the African continent.
As a supermodel who has scaled stratospheric heights in fashion, Naomi Campbell has graced global runways and magazine covers, so when she came calling in Durban for a FORBES WOMAN AFRICA event, the anticipation was bigger than any cover shoot we have ever done.
For the 2019 Leading Women Summit held in the coastal South African city for the first time on International Women’s Day, the British-born supermodel, activist, philanthropist and cultural innovator exuded her signature grace and glamor in a sea-blue Marianne Fassler dress.
In 2017, Campbell was named contributing editor of British Vogue by its Editor-in-Chief, Edward Enninful.
When I complimented her March 2019 cover for British Vogue, she said, considerately: “I wish I could have brought you one, I could have grabbed a copy for you from the airport [in London] yesterday.”
Campbell caught her break as a fashion model when she was just 15 years old, and has featured in advertising campaigns for luxury houses including Burberry, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino.
Beyond her work in fashion, she has used her celebrity for fundraising and non-profit initiatives across the globe. In 1997, South African President Nelson Mandela named Campbell an “honorary granddaughter” for her activism. She also now has a YouTube channel, Being Naomi.
Campbell aims to integrate African and international luxury markets “bringing storied retailers to countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco, as well as introducing African artists to global audiences”.
“The strongest woman I have met come from Africa,” she told an audience of 500 during an on-stage interview at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit.
“There’s many great women. I was very blessed and lucky to meet Miriam Makeba when I came to South Africa. I didn’t know her story but it was just her presence. Then Winnie Mandela… I met many powerful and strong women with inner strength and I am very much attracted to women with strength. You learn from them, you take from them, you observe them and how they speak. I have always considered myself a work-in-progress.”
READ MORE | IN PICTURES | Leading Women Summit 2019
She added: “For me, modeling has been a blessing in my life. I am very grateful. It led me to meet the most amazing people. Where I am at in my life today, is to use the almost 33 years that I have been in this business to help make awareness, to open the minds to the brands that I work with and have worked with all these years.
“They need to come to this continent, not just come in and out and take, but [invest] in the infrastructure and make a commitment to the communities in Africa.”
A day before the event, when FORBES AFRICA caught up with Campbell, and before settling down for our brief interview, she began with a disarming: “What do you think is a good restaurant to go to in Durban?”
“I am tired but excited,” she had laughed. More from the exclusive interview:
You have said that you are investing in communities and infrastructure in Africa. Can you tell us more about your Africa plans?
My plans are to start serving my industry, brands and the continent. And seeing that we are such big consumers [of brands] in the rest of the world, yet we don’t have it ourselves on the continent… And it’s what works in all businesses, like fashion, architecture and technology. We are big influencers so why don’t we have these things? It’s mind-blowing, so now is the time.
You are working a lot with African designers?
I want to take them out into the western world and bring the western world in… so vice versa.
Are African designers in demand in the West?
Yes, because of the textiles. I don’t want to see that their textiles are copied and they don’t get credit for what they have done.
For me, the workmanship, the textiles, this is what we need to keep on the continent. We cannot allow other brands and designers from the West to come in and take your textiles.
What are some of your best memories of Nelson Mandela since your first meeting in 1993?
I have many great memories here in South Africa, and undoubtedly always with ‘grandad’, when he would send me out to the people, to different townships and villages and just put things in perspective for me.
Yes, I was coming from a fashion background, but I am a human being too and coming from a middleclass family, it’s something you feel to do, it’s not something anyone can push you to do. I am not sure what he saw in me and thought that I could do it, but I really love him and miss him.
Lending your celebrity to important causes, you have worked for global health, women’s rights etc… is there any passion project that you are working on right now?
My passion project is Africa. It is such a beautiful rich culture, with minerals and so many natural resources.
The narrative and perception also have to change. It is understood in the wrong way.
All through your career, how have you managed to be so versatile across diverse industries?
There’s no plan to me, I just do what I feel. I [go with] gut instinct really of each thing I commit myself to doing, and I always follow through.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully, in the continent of Africa.
What’s it like being a contributing editor on British Vogue?
It’s great working with Edward Enniful and fun to be an editor. I travel anyway but I get to travel and interview people from all walks of life.
It’s interesting to hear other people’s lives, their experiences, strengths and their hopes to get them on their journey. It’s not really like interviews but more conversational.
What is the best part of being an African woman in the 21st century?
African women have always been extremely strong. On the African continent, people are really smart… I have always had high respect for them.
They are so smart and educated, and yet what do they do with it once they have got it, and this is where it needs to change.
The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria
Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.
There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens.
Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.
Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.
“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.
Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.
“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”
Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.
Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.
“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”
Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.
“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”
This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.
“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”
She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.
As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.
“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.
And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.
One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.
“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”
Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown
Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.
During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.
“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.
He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.
He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.
“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”
Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.
“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.
During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.
‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’
A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.
Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).
In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.
Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”
How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?
“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”
A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.
“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.
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