African Fashion Renews Ethnic Traditions at UCLA’s Fowler Museum

By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor
Photos by Lesly Hall Photography

When Harvard held its first commencement ever for black graduate students in early June, 80 proud men and women were anointed with kente-cloth stoles as a symbol of their achievement. These dazzling, woven garments worn throughout West Africa symbolize edifying values depending on the region: democratic rule, creativity, knowledge from experience, or responsibility to share monetary success with one’s relations.

For the Harvard students, the cloth triumphantly marked their success in overcoming questions of their legitimacy and capacity to be at the august university. While we in the West might remember the dashiki, that colorful garment for men widely worn in West Africa that found a market in America during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, we know little about the history and continuing evolution of African dress.

 Palisadian Rocky Dawuni teaching at Pisgah School in North Carolina as part of the Leaf Festival Community Outreach Program, May 2017. Photo: Steve Atkins


Palisadian Rocky Dawuni teaching at Pisgah School in North Carolina as part of the Leaf Festival Community Outreach Program, May 2017. Photo: Steve Atkins

The Fowler Museum at UCLA explores the expansiveness of the traditions of African dress, the transcultural connections across the continent and 21st-century African print fashion.

This story follows the familiar journey from tribal tradition to colonial intervention and the return to national pride following independence.

Around 1852, the Dutch East Indies trade routes became involved in the export of the hand-printed fabrics produced in the Vlisco factory in Holland. They were used for bartering during stopovers in Western Africa. By the 20th century, West and Central Africa were growing into a booming textile market. By the 1930s the cloth’s designs were being adapted to local tastes with factories established in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Today, Vlisco doesn’t just make fabric; they’re known for their printed designs. And unlike many fashion companies, Vlisco doesn’t name their patterns: each is given a number and then distributed to different areas in Africa. Some patterns are designed with different countries in mind, while others are distributed widely around the continent. As the patterns catch on among shopkeepers and consumers, many of them get colorful names like “Love Bomb,” “Tree of Obama,” and “Mirror in the Sun.”

As patterns vary country to country, so do styles, from the classic Nigerian ensemble (iro and buba, or wrap skirt and top) to the three-piece ensemble favored by the Senegalese, consisting of a fitted, flounced top over a long wrap-skirt and a head wrap.

In the northern part of Ghana, a distinctive industry has grown up based upon tree cotton, which is used to make the hand-woven batakari, a pleated smock with open sleeves, worn by men over pants or full-length styles favored by women.

A number of designs for fancy prints honored President Obama’s (center panel) visit to Ghana after the 2008 election. The hen, rooster, chicks and eggs represent a traditional family (upper left, center panel). The central placement of the female figure implies that the woman is the head of the family. “Eyes,” collected in Ghana in 2007, evokes the proverb that is a reminder to keep an eye on a spouse or a politician to assess his or her character. Fancy print, courtesy Fowler Museum

A number of designs for fancy prints honored President Obama’s (center panel) visit to Ghana after the 2008 election. The hen, rooster, chicks and eggs represent a traditional family (upper left, center panel). The central placement of the female figure implies that the woman is the head of the family. “Eyes,” collected in Ghana in 2007, evokes the proverb that is a reminder to keep an eye on a spouse or a politician to assess his or her character. Fancy print, courtesy Fowler Museum

“The pleats spin out like a fan so are used in dances and ceremonies,” says Palisadian Cary Sullivan, who designs her own batakaris and works with her seamstress in Accra. Sullivan is married to Ghanaian International music star, hu- manitarian activist and Grammy nominee Rocky Dawuni.

Ghanaian tree cotton is highly valued and a reflection of status. Even the new Ghanaian designers appreciate the traditional fashions and use the traditional fabrics in modern designs.

In West and Central Africa, African-print fashion is rarely purchased off-the-rack. New African-print styles are usually created in an interactive commissioning process involving seamstresses, tailors and their fashion-conscious clientele. Seamstresses in particular excel in the kuba (shirt) and slit (skirt) styles that are the most prestigious form of women’s African-print fashion in Ghana.

vening gown designed by Vlisco, “Splendeur” collection, 2014. Designer Lanre da Silva Ajayi created this one-of- a-kind gown as a communication fashion to inspire Vlisco customers to make or have made their own outfits endowed with the elegance of the “Splendeur” fabric collection. Courtesy Vlisco Museum

vening gown designed by Vlisco, “Splendeur” collection, 2014. Designer Lanre da Silva Ajayi created this one-of- a-kind gown as a communication fashion to inspire Vlisco customers to make or have made their own outfits endowed
with the elegance of the “Splendeur” fabric collection. Courtesy Vlisco Museum

For his wardrobe, Dawuni works with designers Eleke and Chocolate Clothing, who are culturally sensitive to his role as a conveyer of Ghanaian music and culture.

For Dawuni’s appearance at the Grammy awards show this year, for which he was nominated for Best Reggae album, Branches of the Same Tree, Elike designed a tailored white suit and an embroidered black shirt, “which gave it the African touch,” adds Sullivan.

Fashion designers are using traditional African prints for purses, shoes and other accessories.

Fashion designers are using traditional African prints for purses, shoes and other accessories.

Dawuni plans to wear the suit once again for his speaking engagement at the end of June at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, where he will continue his advocacy for clean cookstoves and fuels as part of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

Fashion promotes a cultural conversation, just as food and music have historically. “Fashion builds certain bridges and allows us to share our unique perspective and cultural origins,” Dawuni says.

 

Left: Classic style worn across Nigeria, African-print cloth. Right: Woman’s blouse and skirt, 2016. African-print cloth, beads. Loans courtesy Lara Okunubi and Carol Ugochukwu

Left: Classic style worn across Nigeria, African-print cloth.
Right: Woman’s blouse and skirt, 2016. African-print cloth, beads. Loans courtesy Lara Okunubi and Carol Ugochukwu

“When Ghana achieved independence on March 6, 1957, the first president, Kwami Nkrumah, commissioned a print that marked independence and a renewed commitment to Ghana’s history and culture,” says Sullivan, who considers Ghana her second home. She has been going back and forth to Ghana for more than 20 years, having initially attended the university in Accra. The couple’s 14-year-old daughter, who will enter Palisades Charter High School in the fall, accompanies her parents during vacations from school.

“On inauguration day, Nkrumah and his cabinet were wearing a traditional northern outfit,” Sullivan says. “He wore this indigenous print in contrast to the Dutch prints to show that this was a real Ghanaian thing, no longer influenced by Europe. Even more symbolic, the president, who is from a southern region closer to Cote d’Ivoire, wanted to make the statement that independence was national.”

Handkerchief Hem Dress or Summer Jaga Jaga Dress, 2013. African-print cloth. Courtesy Fowler Museum

Handkerchief Hem Dress or Summer Jaga Jaga Dress, 2013. African-print cloth. Courtesy Fowler Museum

Dawuni embraces the appeal of ethnic dress beyond Africa.

“I really am excited when I see Ghanaian traditional fashion being embraced not only by African Americans, because there is a certain cultural identity, but also by Caucasians. Fashion is created to be shared, not just for the people who created the culture.”

“When people travel they see something new, they buy the cloth (you can see it sold in downtown L.A.) and then they are taking it and making bags, shoes, other accessories,” Sullivan says. “The designers and pattern makers in Africa also welcome the expanded market and exposure.”

The Fowler exhibition features a number of designers who have attracted an international clientele. In 2002, Ghanaian/Nigerian Titi Ademola created KIKI Clothing in Accra. Her ready-to-wear line is targeted to urban professionals. Last year, KIKI’s Handkerchief Hem Dress was photographed by Mario Testino for Vogue and worn by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o.

African-Print Fashion Now! continues through July 30 at the Fowler.

On Wednesday, July 16 at noon, Azeezat Abiola Amusat, who created all the unique wraps on view, will discuss her designs and demonstrate the wrapping of one elaborate style.

For more information, visit http://www.fowler.ucla.edu.

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