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‘We Need Iconic Platforms To Project Africa’

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There is a new avant-garde edifice in the heart of Lagos’ swanky Victoria Island. It is no mere edifice. Typically, it is where you would find Nigeria’s art, design and fashion fraternity converge under one roof.

You could call this edifice, a multi-level design gallery and retail haven named the ALARA concept store, a library of pan-African luxury.

Its founder Reni Folawiyo’s ambitions can be likened to the monumental edifice she has built. An art and design aficionado who worked as a lawyer for a decade, Folawiyo describes her store as a celebration of who we are as Africans today, a sign of our cultural awakening and a statement of where we are going as a continent.

It is clear Africa is developing a noteworthy appetite for luxury design.

When we meet at the store, we sit on contemporary carved wooden stools, with subtle Angolan Kizomba and Pasada music playing in the background. Folawiyo exudes a simple sophistication just like the surroundings we are in.

“I believe we need iconic platforms to project Africa and celebrate the different Africans doing great things all over the world,” she begins.

For this, she started from the bottom.

“I started to grow my passion by seeking to understand the creativity of the artists and designers on the ground. My association with them was important just for my own interest but it also began to grow into a curiosity for their functionality, growth and how they earned a living.”

Folawiyo left her career in law to chase her interests, one that saw her collaborating with young artistes in the design schools and the College of Arts and Technology in Lagos. She held weekend brainstorming sessions to help them monetize their creations.

“We had fashion designers, painters, sculptors and I thought to connect them to our world would be to create contemporary objects that would be useful to people in their everyday lives. That way, they were utilizing their creativity and for me as an entrepreneur, it was viable,” says Folawiyo.

From organic wooden seats to hand-embroidered cushions created by fashion designers, the functional items were presented at exhibitions for sale. A variety of materials were also showcased, including leather and indigenous raffia fiber.

With demand for more pieces, Folawiyo soon decided to set up her own studio.

“I looked at the numbers and gaps in the market and realized there is nobody doing contemporary doors and joinery… I wanted to keep it local and tool it to perfection so that, if anyone looked at the piece, would recognize that it is African but also very contemporary.”

This led to the launch of Folawiyo’s joinery and doors company, a one-stop shop for all interior design requirements. As she began to travel more on the continent, she began to have a better appreciation for traditional artisans and designers.

“I realized there were many people like me who were trying to use old skills to do contemporary pieces. I became curious and started to inform myself about them, to see how they got to where they were and what they were doing to operate.”

Folawiyo speaks about a lack of exposure and appreciation for Nigeria’s artistes and designers.

“It is difficult for the artistes to break through as there is an aesthetic that people relate to which is different from what contemporary artistes are doing and if with this space [ALARA], we can encourage people and support artistes to produce collections that can be put in stores, then that will be a great feat.”

She highlights the need for design schools, technological support and encouragement in preserving artisanship.

“It’s important to find a way to preserve what we are doing locally and elevate it. This brought me to a point where I felt I needed to celebrate what I had found. Africa has not been seen as sophisticated and I wanted to show people that this is not the case.”

At ALARA, Folawiyo currently stocks names such as Loza Maleombho, Jewel by Lisa, Tiffany Amber, Maki Oh and a host of others.

“I also decided that in fashion especially, it was important to put both African and international designers in the same space because I feel that in order for our designers to grow and be respected, we need to place them side by side with the best of the world,” she says.

And to Folawiyo, every creation she lays her hands on has a touching story.

“A woman weaving a basket tells a story of her life. Her final product may be aesthetically pleasing but it is stronger for me because of the story behind it.”

Art. Design. Fashion. Folawiyo is on to the next chapter of her African success story.

Arts

The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria

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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!”

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Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown

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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.

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‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’

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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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