Weaving Social Fabric: The Craft of African Fashion

Welcome to CultureMade: Heritage Enterprise in a World on the Move , an audio collaboration from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the American Anthropological Association and This Anthro Life Podcast

“I mean a lot of my experience is in Senegal, with fashion or the way that things are made there. You know you buy your fabric in the marketplace, and you have a relationship with the market people, you know? And you haggle, or you know, you negotiate a price and you pick [something] out from what they’re doing, or you sometimes can commission a piece, or so on. And then you take that to the tailor or the dressmaker, who then you can bring your own design, or they’ll have a book with designs. And so, it’s a real relationship… In the States where many of the things that we buy, especially with the fast fashion is in a department store, and you don’t know the maker. You don’t know where the maker came from.”

The above quote comes from Diana N’Diaye, a Cultural Specialist and Curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Diana was speaking directly to the social bonds of fashion and textile production that still connect communities across the globe, and specifically in Africa. In the US, fashion has been relegated to large impersonal retail spaces and increasingly online stores. Fashion in the US, as many know all too well, is transactional. The sense of community one has through clothing is often expressed through style though it is exceedingly rare for truly deep relationships to develop between the designer and the purchaser, even if an article of clothing is commissioned.

But, community and fashion can be much more integrated. With this episode, we invite you into the conversations we had with participants in the crafts of African fashion program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Crafts of African Fashion is an initiative promoting the continuity of heritage arts in Africa, exploring the vital role of cultural enterprises in sustaining communities and connecting generations on the continent and throughout the diaspora. The activities for this portion of the Festival took place in the Folklife Festival Marketplace.

We had the opportunity to view demonstrations and workshops with Ghanaian Kente weavers, a Nigerien leather maker, and American designers and artist creating African-inspired clothing. In this episode, we speak with Soumana Saley, Cynthia Sands and her mentee Tomara Watkins, also known as Tam, and the program’s curator Diana Baird N’Diaye (mentioned above). This episode was broken into three underlying themes of African fashion, and craft production focused on: the local marketplace, transnational and international fashion trends, and the relationships between consumers and producers within a community. 

Social Life in the Marketplace

When thinking about the expression of culture and economy, there are few better places to explore than the marketplace. The presence of a market may not be a cultural universal, but the idea of exchange be centered in a place at given points of time almost certainly is. With fashion and crafts in the African marketplace, you have a place for artisans, crafts-persons and designers to sell their wares, but also an educational space where patrons can meet the creators, learn about craft, support local production, Needless to say, the marketplace is an essential part of cultural life and social relations. On this subject, we were lucky to speak with Diana who provides a curatorial voice to the African marketplace and the changes both it and the associated communities continue to undergo.

Here is Diana N’Diaye in her own words:

“One of the dreams that I had I came to the Smithsonian in 1990 to curate the program on Senegal, and I was distressed to find out when I went back over the decades that the people who were making wonderful things and who were carrying on these craft traditions, their kids weren’t going into it. You know you could find them less and less in the marketplace. And one of my dreams had been to try to encourage crafts schools in Senegal, and I realized that you know many places on the continent of Africa, this was going on as well as in the Caribbean where I also work… So, the idea of the crafts of African fashion came about as an initiative to look at the craft enterprises that underlie fashion… Our idea then was to do research as well as to bring this research to the Folklife Festival and to other parts of the Smithsonian.”

For Diana, the decline of the marketplace is troubling because it places community tradition, heritage, and memory at risk of being of being lost to time. This is in part why Diana is so passionate about schools and education. Continuing, Diana asserts:

“Working with a designer who are opening schools around. One of our inspirations was also looking to people who were educated, who were also trying to create schools. So Alphadi who we’re working with is creating the design school in Niger. So is Soumana creating a design school for artists and then combining literacy skills and crafts skills. Cynthia taught for many years working with people like Tacophi Narte who’s a Dinka maker a Denker cloth maker. We have other folks who couldn’t come this time but who are involved in merging crafts schools and schools that deal with contemporary design schools’ skills. So that’s a little bit of what our impetus was but also how we’re looking at this in a transnational sense.”

International African Fashion

Perhaps one of the most prominent outlets where many discover transnational fashion and see the skills of African designers is in Hollywood. It’s no secret that Hollywood costume designers played a crucial role in dictating fashion trends. Outfits worn in movies become quickly copied by retailers and recent films like Black Panther also illustrate the impact of a Hollywood blockbuster on the fashion world. During NY Fashion Week in 2018, many designers include pieces inspired by the film, in which the film drew mainly on traditional and contemporary clothing worn in Africa.

Speaking to Hollywood and transnational fashion, Tomara (Tam) Watkins and Cynthia Sands express their desires to see African fashion in more public settings while also discussing the tension between use and appropriation. Tam Watkins, in her own words:

“I remember I was in Ghana before the movie [Black Panther] was getting ready to come out. Now a lot of my friends they were educated abroad, and they come from families that are pretty affluent in Ghana. So as it relates to fashion, they tend to still wear more western brands. They will wear traditional fabric and print when they go to more formal type of events. But I do know a lot of designers there that are responsible for the re-emergence of the brands that you saw in movie like Panther. So for example like a brand like Christy Brown, Mina Evan,s actually Christy Brown designer Beyonce’s costumes for “I’m a Grown Woman.” Yeah. So she’s a designer based in Ghana. She designed that. So yeah I think it’s coming out. I just wish a lot more of the younger people would start to wear it in more common settings to wear the traditional African prints and batik fabric in nontraditional African settings so like if you’re going to class or if you’re going to work like these prints are also appropriate. And I think that’s what I would like to see.”

Continuing the discussion, Cynthia Sands says:

“I mean I just think we should continue producing beautiful textiles. We should continue marketing beautiful textiles, and you know the movie industry should continue making films like Panther because for so long the movie I really blame the movie industry for a lot of myths and miseducation of me as a child. You know for instance the cowboy movies I mean I used to watch them I used to love John Wayne. It’s just pitiful. So, you know I just didn’t know I just don’t understand have a guy tell me so. No. The movie industry can correct all of that. I mean we just making the movies. You [are] making beautiful textiles. People see them. People want to buy them because they are. I mean they set the standard. You know the movie industry, magazines billboards, what do you called Madison Avenue. They set standards so if these if these you know fashions are portrayed in a good light I think they will be embraced.”

Tam Watkins: “I was talking to a lady this weekend at the African Art Museum and she was saying that she feels like designers who make African print clothing or who design things that are constructed of African print clothing should make it more wearable so that she doesn’t feel like she only has to break it out for a funeral or for an event that request it for you to wear African attire. And I completely agree with that, and I do feel like we need to modernize the designs so that people don’t feel like they only have to wear it to a funeral like you can wear it to work you can wear it to class. And I think at the end of the day like the reality is that we are competing with large retailers like Zara and H&M who will take that cheap fabric from China and incorporate it into a more modern design. So, I just think from a financial perspective like we have to if we want to see this industry survive.”

At this point, Leslie Walker became curious about how appropriation can be avoided. He raised the point that movies like Black Panther have allowed many of the African diaspora in the US and elsewhere to reclaim a sense of heritage in style while also finding pride in the fashion they wear. Though he cautions, other parties are interested in wearing such styles and clothing. Tam Watkins responds:

“I feel like the unfortunate part about this is that when you look at it from a numbers of financial business perspective if we only sold to “melaninated” consumers the business would not be able to survive. And I am ok with “non-melaninated” consumers purchasing and appreciating the things that we produce as long as we can educate them and as long as they understand it and as long as the people who benefit from that purchase are you know of that origin then I’m completely okay with it because the reality is if we don’t do it in benefit off of it financially someone else will, and they already are doing that.”

To this, Cynthia Sands adds: “And this shows that you are a citizen of this global community because that’s what we are. We are all now intertwined in this global community. And I think it’s wonderful that you would want to wear African fashion.”

Design and Community

From the standpoint of Tam and Cynthia, fashion expresses not only an aesthetic preference but can also showcase participation in a community. Any community will have its histories, knowledge, and voices. To transmit this such cultural knowledge entails expanding a community either through educating new generations or extending one’s networks. As a teacher, Soumana Saley expresses his desire to share his expertise and grow the community. Soumana, in his own words:

“It is my dream to go to show my talent outside of my country. And also, my second dream is whenever I get good enough. I want also to not get by myself. I want to show, to handle the new generation coming up. That’s my dream. I’ve been I’ve been outside of my country like 18 years, 2002 to 2018 this year. So, I have a lot of experience. I see how back home how people work, and I see how here they work in America. Also, I see how European people work. So, I have these three experiences. So, I go back home I said I’m going to set up a school for art.”

Speaking to her experiences and the relationship she sees with fashion and community, Diana N’Diaya reflects:

“A lot of my experience is in Senegal and with fashion or the way that things are made there. You know you buy your fabric in the marketplace, and you have a relationship with the market people you know, and you haggle, or you know you negotiate a price, and you pick out from what they’re doing or you sometimes can commission a piece or so on and then you take that to the tailor or the dressmaker who then you can bring your own design or they’ll have a book with designs and so it’s a real relationship.”

Fashion, Community, and Heritage

Reflecting on the difference between fashion design and community in the US and Africa, the differences have to do with connection. Reflecting on this difference, Diana N’Diaye explains:

“In the States where many of the things that we buy especially with the fast fashion is in a department store, and you don’t know you don’t know the maker you don’t know where the maker came from. Well, you see the little tag, but you know you don’t know much about it. And I think that so much more, I think in the coming years we’ll have to do with building relationships in all the things that we do and the things we buy and the way we interact with people. I think that in fashion this kind of thing is what’s happening as well.”

Podcasting the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The purpose of this series is to create narratives linking the diverse peoples, perspectives, and activities across the Festival from a series of micro ethnographies like those above. The open format interview style allowed participants to define in their own words the relationships between their artisanship, musical ability, or experiences and the ways in which migration and movement shape their lives. Conversations with curators and other researchers supplemented the interviews with Festival participants and helped us to identify the research involved in selecting participants and the presentation of cultural heritage for the Festival. This approach allows us to foreground a central or thematic conversation and to narrate events and activities at the Festival that listeners can paint in their minds as if they had been there to experience it.

About our Speakers:

Diana N’Diaye is a Cultural Specialist and Curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Diana developed and leads The Will to Adorn: African American Dress and the Aesthetics of Identity, a pan-institutional, multi-sited research project that included a program in the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Her training in anthropology, folklore, and visual studies and her experience as a studio craft artist support over thirty years of fieldwork, exhibitions, programs, and publications focusing on expressive culture in Africa, the Caribbean, and their diasporas in the United States; children’s play and performance; and dress traditions and fashion in Oman, Mali, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Japan. After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, she led the Smithsonian’s support of Haitian traditional artists at the Folklife Festival. She has served on national and international juries, advisory, policy, and funding panels including UNESCO, the NEA, and the American Folklore Society. She is a graduate of the 2010 Smithsonian Leadership Development Program. She holds a PhD in anthropology and visual studies from The Union Institute.

Soumana Saley is a leather craft artisan from the West African country of Niger. When he was eleven, he moved with his family to Niger’s capital Niamey, where he became involved with the Centre des Métiers d’Art (CMAN), a local artisan cooperative where he became an apprentice in the classic French technique of leather work. Upon being awarded master artisan status, Saley traveled throughout West Africa in the 1990s eventually befriending the leading African designer, Alphadi who commissioned Saley to create the handbags for his first International Festival of African Fashion show in 1998. With this new attention, Saley began traveling throughout Europe participating in trade shows and furthering his career. He currently lives in Millersburg, Pennsylvania running his own business.

In 2015, Saley formed a nonprofit organization in Niger called ONG DIMA which provides basic education and advanced training to young artisans in Niamey and surrounding communities.

You can learn more about Soumana and see his products on his online store accessible at https://www.facebook.com/pg/soumanasaleyonline/,and you can learn more about Soumana’sschool at https://www.ngodima.org/.

Cynthia Sands is an African American textile artist and businesswoman in Washington, DC. As the wife of a foreign service officer, Sands first became introduced to African fashion in the 1970s when they were stationed in Congo. She stated she fell in love in the barkcloth and learning more about other styles of cloth-making on the continent. She has lived and worked in Benin, Cameroon, and Ghana. Sands’ art career includes experimenting and blending contemporary and original African artistic methods, materials, and dying techniques. She also works closely with African artisans to sustain the use of indigenous art and craft making tradition for social development, income generation, skills-transfer, and art education

You can learn more about Cynthia and her work at the website: www.entuma.com.

Tomara (Tam) Watkins, is a mentee of Cynthia Sands and is the founder of Loza Tam, a hair accessory line created in collaboration Ghanaian women artisans and entrepreneurs.

Visit Tam’s online store at www.Lozatam.com.

About Our Hosts

Adam Gamwell is the co-host and executive producer of the This Anthro Life (TAL). He is the founder and director of Missing Link Studios. Adam holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Brandeis University.

Ryan Collins is the co-host and editor of This Anthro Life (TAL). Ryan holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Brandeis University.

Leslie Walker is the project manager of the Public Education Initiative at the AAA. He served as a special guest host, collecting stories during the Folklife Festival the forthcoming podcast series with This Anthro Life.

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