Author’s note: As the citizens of Nigeria hold fast to the vision of a “New Nigeria,” my hope is that they will actualize a future that embodies the highest ideals of equality and opportunity. I wrote this article prior to the devastating events that transpired in which peaceful protestors were slain by Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in October 2020. Lagos Fashion Week and ART X Lagos both postponed their signature events in light of the #EndSARS movement. This article is presented now in solidarity with citizens who demand transformational change concerning government corruption and police brutality. My aim is to illuminate the beauty of African art and fashion in support of local artisans.
Ingenuity, creativity, and brilliance are traits that are not amplified when Africa is articulated through a colonized scope of reality. However, it is through this very scope that most of the world consumes information about Africa. Nonetheless, the truth of the matter is that we are experiencing a Black cultural renaissance that resonates globally across the African diaspora, even in the midst of a global pandemic.
On a trip to Lagos, Nigeria, in November 2019, I was immersed in the thriving high fashion and art scene that many people are surprised to learn exists.
Lagos is a prominent fixture in the global Black creative renaissance. The bustling metropolis with roughly 17.5 million people has rightfully earned the moniker “Culture Capital of West Africa.” From visually stunning couture collections to the vibrant world of fine arts, Lagos is populated with visual narratives that present fresh and nuanced perspectives on contemporary African life. Lagos’ creative economy emits a magnetic force that delightfully captivates audiences with its unique take on high fashion, art, and culture.
Similar to New York, Lagos is the “big city of dreams” for Nigeria. The unbearable traffic is a staple, yet not a deterrent, for people who are seeking opportunities in industries such as entertainment, oil and gas, law, art, business, banking, fashion, and the creative sector. During my trip, I was steeped in an energetic community of fashionistas, curators, art collectors, artists, photographers, filmmakers, journalists, socialites, and culture connoisseurs who gravitated to two signature events: Lagos Fashion Week and ART X Lagos, West Africa’s premiere art fair. As I visited art fairs, artist studios, markets, galleries, listening parties, fashion shows, and fêtes, I reveled in meaningful connections with thoughtful people who shared the same insatiable appetite for art and culture.
Western society has perpetuated a fragmented view of Africa that removes the personhood from her people. Africa, however, can speak for herself with bold eloquence in many languages. What my trip to Lagos confirmed is that Nigerians’ effervescent creativity and beaming cultural pride is creating paradigm shifts that are defining the future of Africa—on their terms.
Lagos Fashion Week was founded in 2011 by Omoyemi Akerele, creative director of Style House Files—a creative firm that helps Nigerian brands with creative direction and retail strategy. As a driving force behind Nigeria’s fashion industry, her platform elevates Nigerian brands at levels of international exposure. Her partnership with British Fashion Council in 2011 garnered the attention of high-profile fashion buyers and journalists.
Irrefutable talent that rivals the esteemed couture houses of Paris, London, and New York, Lagos Fashion Week presents itself as a platform for African designers to debut their latest collections while positioning itself as a burgeoning global fashion capital. Many convergent iterations of traditional and contemporary styles emerged on stage during the week. While wielding their sartorial splendor on the runways, designers catalyze fashion as a tool to dismantle antiquated racial idioms that misconstrue Africa’s diverse cultural expressions and notions of beauty.
Mai Atafo, Og Okonwo of Style Temple, and Frank Aghuno of Fruché are a few within the cadre of visionary designers who are actively reimagining the potential of Africa through the lens of luxury fashion. Allyson-Aina Davies, a textile designer who splits her time between London and Lagos, is passionate about preserving the tradition of Adire, a tie-dye technique that uses storytelling in the patterns. Her brand, Adire Patterns, sells a popular line of yoga pants and fuses the contemporary with traditional.
“One of the things I love the most about Adire is how people were able to communicate without saying a single word,” Davies explains. “It just shows you how powerful a fabric can be when you use it as a medium in that way. Today we use fashion as a statement. Back then we were using symbols as a way of expressing our feelings and documenting what was happening around us.”
Fashion is a vehicle many designers are using to engage people in a dialogue to define the future trajectory of the Motherland.
Tokini Peterside, founder of ART X Lagos, provides a platform for galleries to exhibit the most innovative contemporary and modern artists from the African continent and its diaspora, offering heightened visibility before high-profile collectors and curators. Artists talks, interactive projects, and live events activate ART X Lagos as a highly anticipated occurrence for art lovers. Ngozi Schommers, Nike Okundaye, Peju Alatise, and Black British Female Artist Collective co-founders Enam Gbewonyo and Adelaide Damoah were among the many talented artists displayed in 2019.
“In a way this is also the backbone behind the Black British Female Artist Collective’s purpose: to help create a more equitable landscape in the British arts industry where Black British women artists can feel seen, heard, and can forge successful careers without limitation,” Gbewonyo says. “Both are endeavors that never felt more critical than in this current moment in time.”
According to Artprice’s 2019 Contemporary Art Market Report, Black artists are “increasingly subject to international demand.” Art is an instrument used by artists across the African diaspora to document life from vast and authentic vantage points.
Creativity is so deeply ingrained in the human experience, and it is the connective tissue that binds us. The artists and designers in Lagos deftly interpret Africa through the lens of creativity in such a way that requires the world to experience African cultures without removing the personhood from the creative process. The confluence of the global pandemic and heightened racial injustices has forced the world to grapple with centuries-old anti-Black sentiments, and cultural appropriation is intertwined in that conversation, even in the fashion world.
“Borrowing in fashion design has a long tradition in fashion,” says Diana N’Diaye, a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who specializes in African dress and craft. “Designers have always drawn inspiration from the creative work of others. Whether it be art, silhouettes, textiles, patterns of different times or geographic regions or from cultures that are unfamiliar to them. Appreciation and homage crosses the line into appropriation and exploitation without the acknowledgement of the specific sources and, where possible, fair reimbursement to the community-based artisans who have inspired or produced the work used in the collection.”
In this revived age of mass protests, it is critically important for Black people to have agency over our own narratives and to define the varied ways in which Blackness can be defined and presented. Doing so broadens the scope of our human experiences in ways that dismantle reductive racial tropes used to justify racist behavior. Black creativity constructs counternarratives by which Blackness is defined and affirmed by Black people. Global expressions of Black love and beauty are radical forms of resistance that are foundational to Black creativity and antithetical to colonial ideologies.
“You can imagine the frustration that our stories are being told by people that are not representative of our culture and they are misrepresenting the stories,” Davies further asserts. “We have a rich beautiful culture. If we as Nigerians don’t preserve it and don’t share it in our own way, then we will lose out on things that are very difficult for us to find out.”
Through social sharing platforms, the common visual discourse that reverberates across the Black diasporic cultural renaissance transcends language and is grounded in diversity of thought, experiences, and cultural expressions. Fashion and art have found their way into the heart of this complex discourse, particularly in Lagos.
With coronavirus dictating the feasibility of events through the end of 2020, digital platforms have taken precedent over large in-person gatherings. While Lagos Fashion Week and ART X Lagos are both going virtual this year, it is hard to predict what the future holds for art fairs and the global fashion industry. What is certain, however, is that Nigeria has illuminated its abundance of master tailors and artists, and a swelling appreciation for Afrocentric aesthetics has entered the mainstream consciousness. As a matter of fact, I got some bespoke clothing made and did my fair share of shopping in the markets. The fashion and art scene I experienced in Lagos is upheld by a brilliant cadre of cultural workers who embody the best and brightest of our shared humanity.
Haili Francis is the major gift officer at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is passionate about art, fashion, and people and loves exploring Black diasporic identities through visual culture.