Some of the most popular African cloths in traditional African culture are the batik cloth used by many African peoples; many of them sewed their cloths into different versions of robes. For example, the kente cloth of Ghana, the Kuba cloth of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the boubou of Senegal and the gandoura or leppi in Cameroon. These were sewn into varied and colourful loose trousers, skirts, robes, and dresses, each with their distinct variation and style depending on the region.
Going to the Africa Utopia event at Southbank, on Saturday 12 September 2015, for the second year in a row, I was struck by how original, enterprising and colourful it was. I was particularly interested in the fashion events, which were the highlight of the day for me.
An interesting concept was The Peoples Catwalk, organised by Africa Pride Magazine, where members of the audience were invited to show off their attire, showing how Africans interpret/wear their heritage. This gave people an opportunity to participate and added an interesting element to the event. Baaba Maal was one of the founders of Africa Utopia event in 2012, it was a based off a 10 year dream to showcase the positives coming out of the continent through youth, culture, debates, fashion, dance, food, music, literature and so on.
The Shoreditch pioneer Solomon Soboye, who put together the main fashion show, mentioned that some of the designs he uses are Ancara. he transforms them into powerful styles, drawing from African, Asian, American and European concepts. Brands such as Kiyana Wraps, Snake & Dagger, Nash Prints were all there. Soboye said he didn’t throw away any pieces of fabric, that were left over, these are hand embroidered and put together for new pieces.
My criticism of the fashion show is that we didn’t know the names of the designers or the designs that were worn by the models, as they were not announced nor were they on the big screen. This is a shame for members of the audience who may want to buy a few designs, and even for the designers themselves who could have used the show as an advertising or marketing campaign. We all know the colourful and glamorous boubous of Senegal. I felt that was missing from the show too.
Ideas for designs can really come from anywhere. One doesn’t have to travel abroad or go very far before the senses are titillated by colour and individuality in peoples clothes, billboards, TV captions, adverts, hardware, to nature’s varied seasons and life forms, these are limitless. Essentially artists/designers/jewellers/poets and writers or composers, use what they see around them, to gain inspiration. One artist said look at the cracks in the ceiling to gain ideas.
It takes me back down memory lane to my secondary school days when we learnt tie and dye, a traditional Yoruba of Nigeria technique of cloth dying called Adire. Firstly plain cloth was used, as different colour dyes were mixed with water and the cloth was dipped into them, using designs that suited their particular tastes.
The patterns were made and then tied with plastic to protect them, (traditionally leaves were probably used). The individual patterns were then tied separately, with only the un-patterned cloth exposed. Elastic bands were used to hold the plastic protection in place. Twigs and leaves were put at the bottom of the pot, (the reason for this isn’t clear to me), and then the cloth was added to boiling water in a very large and deep pot for a few hours.
I think, today, a solution would probably, be added to keep the cloths from fading. Twigs and leaves may have been used to give an even tone to the materials or to prevent the cloth from being ruined due to burning or uneven distribution of heat, as they would have been boiled on open fires.
As the story most of the time goes for African fabric weavers/traders themselves, things don’t look good at all. Massive amounts of cheap imports from China have been killing off the industries. They are often imported illegally in huge volumes and sold right across the continent. There is no regulation or protection for most industries in Africa, which creates huge hardship for them.