Your latest collection places Africans in the context of Renaissance art. How did you come up with the concept?
I went looking for something that wasn’t there. My initial idea was to find Renaissance era depictions of persons of colour and re-interpret them in some way. Much to my surprise, there were very few easily accessible artistic portrayals of brown people from that period. The “Untold Renaissance” concept developed organically from there.
People have a perception of the Renaissance, and it’s usually void of black faces. However, black people were in Europe during the Renaissance. One notable black artist of the time was Juan de Pareja. Is your new direction an homage to the black presence and their narratives in renaissance Europe despite their invisibility in modern popular depiction?
Exactly, yes. It’s also an attempt to inject a cultural perspective different from what is traditionally accepted as beautiful or fine art. The African continent certainly has a wealth of art and culture that has been preserved over time, but I thought it would be interesting to intertwine different sections of the typical museum tour that a child might walk through. What would happen if the classic “Adoration of the Magi” paintings from the 18th/19th century were actually set in a Masai village, for example? What would happen if the Madonna was a single-black woman with a daughter?
There is a story component to all your pieces. How does it tie in with the pieces?
The story components are very important to me for a few reasons. So much of what we purchase as consumers are items devoid of history or any real identity (beyond the logo of a brand that generally would prefer its buyers not think about how their products are made). It’s important to me that my pieces communicate some version of history, even if it’s a fictional one. I like the idea of people being drawn into a conversation by items in their closets, much like they would were they to stroll through an exhibition. The stories I tell generally reflect some aspect of contemporary (or historical) African culture. It’s a bit of a reminder that though much of our past was not recorded on parchment, we still have a rich tradition to pass on to one another.
Take us through the process of your storytelling and writing. Do you know the narrative that will accompany the piece beforehand, or is it spontaneous?
The art comes first. At that point, I imagine my reaction is much like anyone else’s who sees the pieces for the first time. It’s a bit like watching a foreign film without sub-titles, you see the images and the words come to you. The translation may not be exact, but I write what makes sense to me. Sometimes, like with “When a Fire Starts to Burn”, I’m making a direct reference to present events; the story of a military ruler who has held his seat for generations, while the people become restless.
All the stories are intriguing, but the one that caught my eye was the “Blood on the Leaves” square. Nice touch with that reference. Younger readers might think it’s a reference to the Kanye West song, but it’s from the song “Strange Fruit” that was made popular by Billie Holiday and later Nina Simone whom Kanye West sampled. The song is about African Americans being lynched by whites. How does it tie in with the imagery of John Baptiste-Belley? Does it tie in at all?
It was a deliberate nod to Kanye, but perhaps not in the exact way that some might think. While his “Blood on the Leaves” appeared to have little to do with slavery (at least on the surface), this piece is a direct homage to Belley’s life as a boy sold into slavery, buying his way to freedom, and ultimately dying in imprisonment after fighting as an abolitionist. His story is one that was completely foreign to me, and I think it’s one many of us should know about. His story isn’t that removed from the horrors Billie Holiday sang about.
You went full Dutch print on the jackets this time around, correct?
I did. I think the brand is still finding its footing and trying to figure out what works best. I knew that Africans would probably react positively to the use of full-on prints in suiting. After all, it isn’t a new concept by any means. That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reception from Westerners who are initially taken aback by the bold use of colour, but are also intrigued by the combination of an African theme with high-end European tailoring.
When we last spoke, we discussed the New Lagos concept and Afrofuturism. This time around, you have branched out beyond Nigeria. The narrative has you in Nairobi and Johannesburg. Tell us about it.
A lot of tailoring brands reference their “heritage”. Often it comes in the guise of a generational story about the great grandfather who rose from poverty because of his skill with a needle and thread. It’s wonderful when one has that sort of tradition to draw from. However, I’m more intrigued by the idea that we (as African people) have so many possible directions that we can go in as a people. I’m very much of the mindset that if one doesn’t tell his story, someone else will ultimately tell it for him. Hence the Afrofuturism slant. All of my future narratives are rooted in real issues that affect African nations today. I attempted to telegraph into the future to consider what South Africans would be doing about illegal gold mining, or what Kenya would be doing about illegal poaching of its dwindling animal population. These are issues that interest me today, so I’d much rather dwell on what may happen later, than romanticise a past that does not affect my present wellbeing.
Will we see more Afrofuture narratives in other African cities in the future?
I think my collaborator Lekan Jeyifous (aka Vigilism) and I are going to eventually take on the whole continent. There are too many stories waiting to be told for us to stop here.
Thank you for your time Wale.
No, thank you.
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Photography by David McDowell