Afrotopia

Produced as part of Africa Fashion

British-Ghanaian author and curator Ekow Eshun, Senegalese fashion designer and filmmaker Selly Raby Kane, and Kenyan creative director and stylist Sunny Dolat join Nataal and the V&A as they discuss Afrofuturism in fashion.

Afrotopia is an active utopia that takes as its task the cultivation of vast and open spaces of bountiful possibles in order to help them flourish. The challenge thus resides in articulating a thought that bears on the fate of the African continent… by identifying the site where new practices and discourses have already begun to express themselves, where this future Africa can come into view.

Felwine Sarr, Afrotopia, 2016

Felwine Sarr's meditations in Afrotopia – the landmark book by the Senegalese economist and philosopher – proved to be an inspiring starting point for Dr Christine Checinksa, Curator of African and African Diaspora Fashion at the V&A, to explore how African designers and creatives are imagining the future. The exhibition, Africa Fashion, is not concerned with Afrofuturist visions of rocketing into outer space. Rather, it's about rediscovering the continent's pre-colonial histories, mythologies, cultural and spiritual traditions in order to heal and reach beyond traumas of the more recent past, and ultimately to create a future in which Africa is centred, self-actualised and free.

Selly Raby Kane, Ekow Eshun, and Sunny Dolat have devoted their practices to this work. Dr Checinksa believes they are already "shifting the geographies of fashion". We brought them together for a roundtable, during which they discussed their ideas of Afrotopia through a fashion lens.

Accompanying their conversation is a visual odyssey by Nigerian photographer Ruby Okoro entitled First Three: A Visit From Time.

Colour photographs featuring three people in sat in chairs in front of a building.
Left and right: First Three: A Visit From Time, photography series, by Ruby Okoro, 2022. © Ruby Okoro

A shifting of gaze

Ekow Eshun (EE): You know, we're all in different countries, on different continents. And from my position here in Britain, sitting at the historic heart of Empire, it's an uncomfortable place to be in all sorts of ways. I think of the 1950s, which was the start of mass immigration to Britain – chiefly from the Caribbean, but also from the Commonwealth, so parts of Africa as well – and the many people that came off the ships were actively critiqued on the basis of the cut and colour of their clothes. These clothes were regarded as too flamboyant, too somehow "unserious" for a British mentality. And it's a clash from the 1950s onwards, about whether the wearing of bright clothes – say, a woman in a red dress, a man in a purple zoot suit – in a way disallows or excludes African or Caribbean people from being truly British.

Sunny Dolat (SD): Kenya was a settler colony, and so the British strategy here and in, for instance, Nigeria was completely different. The way the British colonised us was culturally, and one of the places that you see that very clearly is in dress. I would say that Kenyans are among the most conservative dressers on the continent, even just in terms of colour when you're walking through Nairobi. We gravitate toward navy and grays and whites and black, and we drink tea at 4pm, you know? You want to look good, but you don't want to look too good. There's always this idea of, like, if you're dressing up, you're dressing up for someone or for something, it's never quite for yourself. Whereas when you look around at the countries that either were not colonised by the British, or the British had a different strategy, you see such a wealth and such a pride around dress.

Selly Raby Kane (SRK): As a Senegalese brand wanting to be sold throughout the world, you have an expectation of what your creations should be, of what the textile you use should be, of your silhouettes – what you are and what you are supposed to create as a human being is predefined and preconceived in the gaze of the people that are concerned. I think all of that might be quite heavy for a creative in any country in the world. Those are the things that need to be set aside.

EE: I'm completely nodding when you say that. I mean, ultimately you have to try and see beyond it, or reach beyond it. If I look at your work – to make fashion, to make films, to create a way of presenting and a way of seeing that reaches beyond the kind of presentations that come from the West – I think about a sort of shifting of gaze. And crucially, I think the process of de-colonisation is a kind of process of imagination; it's not that one is dismantling an economic system, but it's about saying, "To see ourselves, we have to imagine ourselves outside this given template". We have to imagine ourselves anew.

Colourful photograph of two people against a pink and green lit background
First Three: A Visit From Time, photography series, by Ruby Okoro, 2022. © Ruby Okoro

Looking beyond Afrofuturism

SRK: I have to say I'm struggling a bit with Afrofuturism lately. The first time that I came across works of Afrofuturism was around 2012, and I felt like I found a family and an aesthetic. But the more I went through them, the more I felt like I was witnessing some type of impossibility. The juxtaposition of Black bodies and Western technology, and not seeing enough Black people creating the technology, that was very difficult for me.

Also, there's a really interesting approach to time that I found here in Senegal. I started to read on immaterial heritage and on esotericism and I realised that in my culture, people didn't approach time as a linear thing. It was something that was fractals of loops, and each loop could access the other; rather than backwards or forwards, there was access to all those capsules of time. Once I understood that, the notion of 'the future' became rigid. There's something beyond Afrofuturism that is happening here. Many other creatives that were in the Afrofuturistic movement in Senegal are today feeling a bit constricted by the label. I feel like there's something else.

SD: Yeah. I worry that Afrofuturism is heavily influenced by the Global North, that our explorations and even framework of Afrofuturism are still pegged on the Global North's aspirations for the future. For instance, it's completely understandable that one kind of futurism would be around Africans in space, but I wonder if that's because of all the movies that you see of, like, Americans and Russians going to space. Sometimes I wonder if Africans actually do want to go to space.

EE: What's happened with that term 'Afrofuturism' is it's kind of devolved into clichés: pyramids, flying saucers, Sun Ra. It's all fun, but also, it's kind of slightly problematic. Essentially, look: part of it is actually predicated on an idea of African under-development. So, the notion of this sort of shock of Black people and technology is supposed to be a juxtaposition rather than a symmetry, and that's part of the problem.

SD: I think one of the things that would be useful for Afrofuturism is absolute freedom to decide and determine what it wants to be and what it wants to do, without having to align itself to any sort of other future ambitions from anywhere else in the world. And if the idea of Afrofuturism is this return to land and complete abandonment of technology, then so be it. And that makes complete sense.

EE: That's why I've been playing with a term like the 'Black Fantastic' as a more capacious, more open territory, which allows us to think back in time, as well as into the future. It's not really about the relationship to technology per se; it's about how we have always had to think about our place in the world, had to invent and keep reinventing our place in the world, and about how, as a consequence, we're allowed to draw on these histories and heritages, these belief systems that can go way back in time.

These, it turns out, are still radical positions. As you say, they allow us to think about time not as linear. And why that is important is because again, you look from a Western perspective, the notion of historical development always places Africa as either outside that history, outside the trajectory of development and progress and future, or else, at its very base. Africa is always the beginning point. You always have to leave Africa to get to the future, you know?

But, as we know otherwise, so much of African culture is about thinking about the future as a circular territory that can be visited in a number of different ways. And to put it grandly, I think part of our search for liberation has to be beyond some of these linearities, some of these historical constrictions. And Afrofuturism, for all of its imagistic possibilities, at least partly fits into this trope. The concept can't hold the depth and the breadth of creative imagination that we see playing out within Africa and or in the African diaspora. Things are much more inspiring than some of that concept now allows for.

SRK: Exactly. It's very interesting. And, you know, not every African that thinks about the future in their creative practice is an Afrofuturist.

EE: We have to think deeper than that. We have to think about cultural heritages and what we have to draw from as a way to build into the future. Because again, I feel like we've often been taught that these cultural practices or spiritual beliefs are somehow primitive.

SRK: We have been taught that [laughs].

EE: But, you know, I would suggest one aspect of our shared heritage is the ability to be able to wander, to be able to able to find and locate, and bring together. And in that respect, looking back in time is a wholly legitimate way of thinking further about how we build a future, how we walk into a future. In a way, not to do that is the strange thing. The idea somehow that that's a disqualifying practice, that's the thing to be sceptical of.

People dressed in futuristic clothing in an orange and red light with lights for eyes
First Three: A Visit From Time, photography series, by Ruby Okoro, 2022. © Ruby Okoro

Back to the (pre-colonial) future

SD: I hope that the metaverse allows people to engage with African fashion beyond just looking at it. Perhaps that'll be the next way for African designers to start to get their work seen, and to skip the nonsense of logistics, so that you're able to buy, like, metaverse Orange Culture and wear it on your metaverse body.

But I'm still here with textiles [laughs]. Kenya doesn't have a strong textile history, unlike other parts of the continent. The shuka was introduced to the Masai by Scottish missionaries, which is why it looks so much like tartan. And then we also have kikoi, which is based on an Omani textile, and kanga, which is based on a Portuguese textile. And while these textiles are widely used and loved throughout the country, I think there's also a curiosity around indigenous textile heritage, because you know, the colonialists sabotaged any kind of local manufacturing that was happening.

I'm interested in at what point heritage is established. Just because it's 2022, does that mean that it's not possible to establish a textile heritage? For me, a large part of the future – a lot of my work and thoughts and experiments around textile development – is actually in looking back. The making processes in Kenya were inherently sustainable. All the dyes and materials were organic and most importantly, there's always been this very deep, respectful relationship with nature, where people knew just how much to take. Their relationship with the land was so clear.

SRK: I see as well a true return to the systems of ancestral beliefs, to the myths, to the healing approaches – a return to studying those and to make them tools to build the future, or to build today and, you know, just speculate on what tomorrow might be. If we have some type of conversation of what used to be, it makes a firm basis for how we want to live today and how we want to project ourselves.

Reading Amadou Hampâté Bâ has been fundamental for me, and the Peul Fulani mythology on the creation of the universe. And I'm fascinated by talismanic writing for healing and protection – where the spoken word and the written word become active and have an effect on the body and how it moves within its environment. It has been my obsession for quite a bit of time now.

I see many creatives here in Dakar – fashion designers, shoemakers, comic book illustrators – operating some type of return to have the tools to heal, to face the world. And I think there's a realisation of the equal dignity of all of the archives of this world, and all the means to heal.

SD: I'm very interested this space in which spirituality and fashion intersect. I've been interested in the land and the sea as living, breathing entities. Again, it's such a historical thing – if you look at many African cultures, there's equal parts fear and admiration of the ocean, and similarly with the land. I've been negotiating my interaction with both of them, and just curious about the power that lies in them. And so, I created a ritual textile, hand-woven from cotton and silk, stained by being buried in the earth over a couple of days. Looking at the textile, what you're really looking at is an imprint, a memory of the land.

I've also been thinking about talismans, and clothing and jewellery as protection. I found this phenomenal cloak from Niger that had all of these talismans sewn onto it. I'm still so bummed that I didn't get it – it was a bit scary looking [laughs]. But what it reminded me of is that in many parts of the continent, there's deep intention attached to items like this – everything has meaning.

If you look at Kenya, we might not have a deep textile heritage, but what we do have is a phenomenal heritage of adornment. And so, the thing that Kenyans completely understand is jewellery. There is something called a hirizi that you find in the coast – it's a sort of locket, which is hollow on the inside, and usually it contains a scroll, like a prayer or a verse from the Koran, that you're able to slide out. Creatively, I'm interested in that ability to contain something.

I've been wondering if there's a way to explore talismans for this day and age. I was speaking to a couple of friends and it was funny because what came out of that conversation was that phones appear to be our modern-day talismans, which, when you think about it, yeah they are, not for what it represents, but for what it holds. I think in the future, anything could be a talisman.

EE: I've been curating an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called In the Black Fantastic (29 June – 18 September, 2022), and it's about works with visual artists, but it's exactly about this realm of the possible, this realm of new dreaming, and new thinking about how Blackness, and an interrogation of Blackness, opens us up to these deep histories, elements of spiritual practice, but also these interpretations or imaginations of potential futures. And for me, this territory is part of a kind of contemporary lingua franca, at the moment, for Black creatives. It's this thing of reaching beyond and challenging the quotidian and the ordinary and the apparently real.

This comes back to these set expectations that come out of a colonial system, about how we should be, how we should conduct ourselves, what we should wear. Partly this is about saying, we don't need to be constrained in those terms, at all. We can think into the fantastic, into the magical, and for that not to be an escape, but for that to be deepening our exploration of how we live and of who we are.

three people photographed standing on concrete blocks outside a school in regular light and then in red light
Left and right: First Three: A Visit From Time, photography series, by Ruby Okoro, 2022. © Ruby Okoro

Fashioning Afrotopia

EE: Selly, right now I'm looking at you, and I'm looking at this amazing, gorgeous… what is that? How do you describe what you're wearing?

SRK: It's a kimono, but the patchwork is typical of the Sufi brotherhood here – the Mouride. They used to patchwork their garments and were always recycling what they had. So, this is a dress kimono with hair extensions, [laughs] because I'm a playful person.

EE: Yeah, but if we're talking about what it means to create from an African perspective, it's exactly this: It's an ability to draw from African cultural heritage or traditions, but it's also, I think, an absolute awareness that part of the birthright of African creativity is cosmopolitanism. So, it's never just, here's one thing; it's about how we borrow and match and bring together.

You know, from the West, there's some sort of notion of African essentialism, African purities, but actually when you're on the ground in Dakar or in Accra, where my family comes from, what you see is absolutely this kind of melding of histories and traditions; what you see is a heritage that's based always on looking outward, gathering in, and collecting and patch working and bricolaging, and all sorts of things. And I see this absolutely in what you're wearing, right now, Selly.

SRK: Definitely. I think one of the things we mustn't forget as trans-African creatives is our right to be as incremental as we wish to be. You can take from anywhere. Trying to maintain some type of purity, it's just a way to put a mirror in front of all the aggressions that you can receive.

So, in that sense, I feel like I have erased many boundaries in my work. My process while creating collections has, since 2012, always started with a short story because I felt like I needed a world to be inhabited by people that I wanted to dress. So, I wrote those stories, and the stories were 99 per cent of the time about Dakar, about how I was benefiting from in this city, from the communities of artists, from the alternative collective that I had the chance to be a part of since the beginning of my career. It gave me the courage of trying as many mediums as possible, the freedom of going from discipline to discipline.

I feel very free to take my core intention and translate it into the medium that will have the most longevity. So, when fashion is too narrow for discourse, I take it up a notch in film, and/or in creative tech, or in anything that can share a vision of how the imaginary is such a strategic space for me, and such an important one for our youth.

SD: I think one of the things that's become clear to me over the years is that my work isn't so much focused on medium, but more on curiosity. And then the way in which that curiosity manifests will dictate the medium. A big curiosity for me has always been expanding on what African fashion means; what it means to be Black, queer, and Kenyan. In some sense, everything that I'm currently developing is working towards realising some sort of Afrotopia. I'm a bit optimistic and think it can only be a real utopia where phobias and biases and violence cannot exist.

EE: What's interesting to me, here in Britain, often the first sight I have of fashion coming from Africa isn't through the pieces themselves, but visually. And to that sense, I don't make that much distinction between an item of clothing, a set of photographs, a fashion film, a piece of music. And, in a way, one of the interesting things that's happened in the last number of years is a fluidness with which creatives work.

It's easier to work that way; it's easier to disseminate work that way as well. And to that extent, the kind of imaginative possibilities that you're talking about – about how you tell this story; or how you draw from histories, even how you posit possible futures or new ways of seeing or parallel realities – all of these things become easier to realise, almost. I think about fashion less about an item of clothing, and more about, well, what's the vision that is unfolding here? And that's been so inspiring because these visions are kind of bold.

SRK: We have so many deep archives that we can share with the world through our arts. And that's a gift for ourselves to revolutionise the imaginary and to get out of those polluted relations with others, but as well to be mindful that what we bring to the table is something that is precious, valuable, radically original. And it's not romantic, what I'm saying – it's the truth. When you go through the history of Africa, the depth of heritage that hasn't been touched yet is immense. And at some point on this planet – in the far future, or whatever – I'm sure it will be needed to see how we saw the world.

Words: Christine Ajudua
Styling: Abigail Oghene, Yosa Nosa
Hair: Braiders Club
Makeup: Edima Willie
Models: Francis Emmanuel, Ayorinde Olabamiji, Ewaoluwa Onilenla
Production: Olachukwu Offor
Lighting and assistance: Okoli Isaac

This roundtable discussion was originally published in issue 3 of Nataal magazine, in partnership with the V&A's Africa Fashion exhibition.

Background image: First Three: A Visit From Time, photography series, by Ruby Okoro, 2022. © Ruby Okoro