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Unfurling Africa in The Big Apple

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It’s a Thursday evening in September and the upscale Pier 59 Studios in Chelsea, New York City, is abuzz with excitement.

Backstage, models spin about, heels clattering, as wardrobe stylists determine the best silhouettes and sartorial choices for specific outfits. Makeup artists layer on the highlighter and hairstylists do last-minute blowouts. Cameras flash and roll as photographers and journalists scramble for quotes and interviews.

The plates of assorted healthy appetizers – chicken salad, baby carrots, and celery with ranch dressing – are disappearing faster than the goody bags with coconut hair products, portable chargers and gym socks.

In many ways, Harlem’s Fashion Row is like any other New York Fashion Week (NYFW) show. In many other ways, it’s absolutely unlike any other.

“I didn’t have to bring my own foundation this time,” says Naqisha Cummings, a Caribbean model from Boston, in a clear reference to the tone of her skin. “I just knew they would have my shade.”

Mariah Mckenzie, an African-American model from Queens, New York, nods in agreement. “It’s usually not this diverse. Not at NYFW. Today’s show is more ethnic. It’s a really good stepping stone for minorities.”

And indeed, it was intended to be. Founded to increase diversity in fashion, Harlem’s Fashion Row (HFR) has transformed from its modest beginnings in 2007 to emerge one of the most prestigious industry platforms for emerging minority designers and fashion creatives.

In an industry where people of color make up less than one percent of designers in major online and department stores, HFR is significant.

Backstage, its founder Brandice Henderson is doing the rounds – looking into minute logistical details, networking, giving interviews. Earlier that day, NYMag had published a compelling profile calling the entrepreneur a small town native who started out with few connections and “fashion’s best advocate for black designers”. Today, fashion’s force of nature is decked out in a red dress, glittering necklace and rather comfortable-looking brown flats.

“I’m super-excited,” says Henderson. “This is HFR’s eighth year. And I’m about to birth a child. This feels like a new beginning.”

Harlem itself is a cradle of new beginnings. The historically black neighborhood was the seat of the Harlem Renaissance – a socio-cultural and artistic revolution in the black American community. Today, that community includes a prominent and growing African diaspora.

Indeed, in certain neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx today, as in pockets all over America, Kru, Igbo and Yoruba are the most commonly spoken non-English languages. From burgeoning sabar dance classes to the plethora of restaurants selling jollof rice and injera, from the proprietorships in Le Petit Senegal to events like the International African Arts Festival, signs of Africa’s soft power are everywhere in the world’s financial capital.

Africa has woven itself into New York with the gentle intricacy of Maasai beadwork. And today, Africa is the showstopper here in Chelsea.

The Fashion Deli, a globally focused retail platform that first opened in Cape Town, is showcasing four South African designers at HFR.

“African fashion and lifestyle elements are no longer viewed by western audiences and buyers solely as ‘traditional’,” says Thulare Monareng, the Founder-CEO of The Fashion Deli. Attired in black, high heels and tribal-inspired jewelry from her own company, she has a relaxed sophistication about her. She looks very New York and international – the kind of lady who is so well-travelled she carries cities with her.

“Africa is now influencing global mainstream fashion and lifestyle trends,” she says. “Take Balmain’s African inspired resort 2015 collection, Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2013 collection inspired by the red Shuka worn by the Kenyan Maasai people, Sergio Rossi’s Zulu-inspired Spring/Summer 2014 footwear collection, and Vivienne Westwood’s Spring/Summer 2015 handbag collection inspired by the West African Bogolan prints.”

Armed with multiple degrees including one in Fashion Buying and Merchandising from the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, a wealth of corporate experience in her native, South Africa, and experience with her own eponymous designer label, Monareng, came to realize there was a gap in the international market for African luxury and for ethically produced, sustainable and conscious products.

“There’s a lot more to African fashion than just wax prints,” she says. “I want to present an alternative narrative of African designers.”

And so, under bright lights on a long, ivory runaway, the alternative narrative began to unfold. If the audience was previously unfamiliar with African fashion, or didn’t know what to expect, they were about to have their hearts stolen and minds blown. The thoughtfully-curated array of gorgeous ensembles elicited sighs of wonder, gasps of surprise and frantic iPhone photography from the onlookers.

From veteran designer Marianne Fassler came prints found from and inspired by the cityscapes and citizens of her native Johannesburg. Fassler’s love for her modern, cosmopolitan city, which she described as a place to find one’s “personal gold” truly shone through. Every garment featured a palette that positively burst with vivid colors and prints that came together with a giggling playfulness. Dramatic pleats and paneling prevailed. Flirtatious flowing and sheer fabrics abounded.

Where Fassler’s brand drew from the urban jungle, Katherine-Mary Pichulik’s accessories label PICHULIK, drew from the colors of the South African environment. The pieces were designed and inspired by African tribal ornamentation, making symbolic use of color, beadwork, basketry.

“The sacred nature of making jewelry and its link to ceremony and initiation inspire a powerful way of making ornamentation that serves to not only adorn, but alchemize and empower the wearer,” says Pichulik.

From Celeste Arendse’s SELFI brand, inspired by the subconscious, came the SELF AWAKE collection featuring geometric silhouettes in a palette that was entirely black and white and primary colors. Everything was digitally-printed.

“The collection explores the connection between the self and technology,” explains Arendse. “What we see and what we touch.” Even something like the use of primary colors was inspired by early 90s video games.

Futuristic and forward-thinking, Arendse’s collection certainly subverted the Western notion of Africa in fashion and rewrote the script. Presumably in JavaScript.

The Adriaan Kuiters label featured sophisticated unisex and androgynous garments in neutral colors and sleek silhouettes. The collection exuded timelessness, being both current and classic. The designers Keith Henning and Jody Paulsen experimented with gender lines, using women’s items on men and men’s on women.

If there’s a running theme throughout The Fashion Deli’s collection, it is that of the old and new worlds cocooned in harmony. It’s a universe where nature and cityscapes, humans and technology, the traditional and the contemporary are simpatico.

Contemporary African fashion, it seems, doesn’t seek to conform to global ideals, but rather, seeks to disrupt and improve them.

“South Africans are now looking directly in our backyard for inspiration, because it’s so rich and diverse.” says Arendse. “I feel really lucky to be living in a time where countries can merge so easily. The new generation understands the power of technology and are able to communicate their messages directly without agencies. The youth in South Africa are expressing their own style on social media which is so unique and is certainly being noticed on global platforms. This will only strengthen us as creators.”

Amina Nuwame, a Senegalese model who Monareng met in Harlem, and who found herself debuting at HFR, considers herself lucky. She had to hide her love for fashion and modeling from her family until they found her on Walf Fadjri TV and eventually caved. It’s been a long journey to New York City since then.

“There’s a lot of talent in Africa. But we need more opportunities to get discovered globally,” she says.

“Africa comes from a rich lineage of craft and has a large network of incredible artisans,” says Pichulik.

The possibilities for African designers it seems are endless.

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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