Kenneth Ize and Mowalola Ogunlesi both present a distinct way of engaging with African history but this time the lesson is for Africans themselves and concerns what Africans consider to be history.
It is the bridge and how its two lanes converge into a vanishing point, out of which emerges a group dressed in a flourish of cosmopolitan colours held in lineated, tasseled fabrics that offer soft illusions of movement, accentuating (and even inventing) poses, though these wearers stand still. It is the subtle unease that underpins all questions of African modernity (what is it, and relative to what?) and how this tension exists between the group and their surroundings, in a restlessness they exude that style can neither disguise nor anchor. For it is how, to the untrained eye, this group could be anywhere in the world. We have Italo Calvino to thank for reminding us that all cities are eventually one city, ‘only the names of the airports change,’ but it is history that explains how this convergence has not been without winners and losers. It is then against this history that in considering this image we ask why: why here? Why Lagos? Why now?
The group is wearing 30-year-old Nigerian-British designer, Kenneth Ize, and standing for a Vogue-commissioned photograph by South Africa’s Pieter Hugo. Hugo, who is not new to Lagos, visited the city in 2008, producing images of the film industry, Nollywood, that ought to make him a curious choice for presenting Ize (in orange and green), one of the most innovative fashion designers practising in Nigeria, a decade after. Hugo’s Nollywood was an outsider’s view of the industry, an abstraction of a place that has a long history of being denied decency and the dignity of rigour from ‘outsiders’. A woman lies dead with a hand protruding from her mouth—but the hand is not hers; a couple sits at a bus-stop but the man is a demon; a man stands over a dismembered cow, holding its entrails like a prize, but he is bleeding from his eyes. It is not that these images from Hugo are out of the ordinary for Nollywood, which itself is not known for ‘calm’ stories, but that they feel abstract, exaggerated, ‘exotic’, as though awaiting labels, categories and glass-panel compartments. They feel, in other words, anthropological, a gaze, in their much later photograph, Ize and his friends only manage to escape.
History and the Modern in Kenneth Ize’s Work
Lagos-born, Ize does not hide the cultural origins of his designs. His Instagram, for instance, is replete with images of African masquerades, sculptures and pre/post-independence dandies. His emphasis of detail, his specificity, is unsurprising, given his descent from a long history of cloth valuation in Africa. Colleen Kriger in her study of cloth in West African history has documented the particularity with which African buyers interacted with European merchants, preferring specific cloths in tune with the time, diligently inspecting imported cloth which they requested down to the name, manufacturer, fiber and colour.
Cloth has played a central role in African socio-economic relations with groups outside their immediate environment for centuries. Communities like Oyo, Ijebu Ode, and Benin produced cloth for export at ports in Benin, Allada and the Gold Coast to ready markets in Angola, Gabon and beyond the continent to the West Indies and South America, writes Kriger. However, with the advent of colonialism, imperialist agents deliberately erased centuries worth of such interactions to position Africa as unknown. Display and exhibition were central to the project of ‘othering’ Africa, as thousands of ethnographic images and African material culture were exported to world fairs, academic institutions, and ethnographic museums. Cloth made the transition from familiar currency to exotic curiosity as African nations themselves turned from trading partners to uncivilized subjects.
By re-imagining and re-purposing traditional looming practices, Ize not only restores suppressed history but also provides a model for engaging with such histories. Just as important to Ize as the ‘Made in Nigeria’ signifier are the people doing the making. In Ize’s work, his loomers are foregrounded, given credit as the culture’s regenerative capital, alternatively providing a way to engage with archives as dynamic forces. The inventive nature of his work emerges at a time where Africa is increasingly being looked to, particularly by its diaspora, as a source of restoration. What tends to underlie such views is a belief that the continent has the answers to the questions that black identity often raises; that in connecting or re-connecting with the continent it is, indeed, possible to find oneself. If such views require freezing the continent in a distant past, we can find in the works of artists like Ize a necessary realism. Ize, for one, does not bank on a mythical Africa but on what is available. The loomed fabric of his smart-cut jackets and tailored pants belie the pervasive idea that Africa has experienced a rigid rupture from its past. They recognize the continuity of history where the African present is inseparable from the social realities of the global modernization project. Clear in Ize’s vision is the belief that African heritage raises as many questions as it answers; that the past does not remain in the past but evolves with changing social contexts. Clearer even, in his engagement with the custodians of the culture he uses, is the fact that a rhetorical and ideological restoration of the continent must be accompanied by a material restoration, whereby resources from the global marketplace of African alterity must flow to its original creators to sustain these practices. The anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai thinks of the past as a resource and Ize exemplifies such thinking, to the extent that Ize re-introduces traditional looming practices to the world and, in turn, redefines such practices.
Mowalola Ogunlesi’s Unacceptable Histories
However, one could argue that the history that drives Ize’s work is what we can call acceptable or respectable history. Cloth and weaving practices, after all, are a part of the canon, cultures that have long been deemed worthy of study, worthy of the archive and, thus, worthy of preservation. Ize’s work is elegant but he is also drawing from histories the acceptability of which are hardly ever questioned. These are not untold histories or histories of the unacceptable as conceptualized in the designs of another British-Nigerian designer, Mowalola Ogunlesi.
Like Ize, the 26-year-old Ogunlesi’s eponymous designs are steeped in Nigerian cultural references so finely treated they are easy to miss. However, the two designers operate on vastly different planes: if Ize’s work draws from established tradition, Ogunlesi’s is inspired by a protean modernity, that is, a modernity that does not know just yet what to think of itself. Though her work is embedded in history, her work feels contemporary because it engages with a Nigeria that is still grappling with its own identity today, a struggle that is the very foundation of its largest cultural export: Nollywood. Known for its sacrifice of quality for volume, Nollywood has its own battles, ‘is it authentic?’ being the most prominent. After all, its name, which Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, has described as an ‘unprepossessing monstrosity’, is more Hollywood than N for Nigeria, as though to prepare audiences for scenes replete with Lagos-made American accents and sensibilities. For Soyinka, Nollywood, like much of Nigeria, needs to reevaluate its preference for mass production and its hesitance for refinement. Does the industry ‘still deserve to be associated with that second-hand clothes market tag,’ he asks in Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse, and Dissonance in African Art Traditions, ‘or should it be with an evolving designer-cut production catering not for the lowest common denominator in taste but for more discerning audiences’?
Style is an argument and Ogunlesi’s would be that Nollywood aesthetics and refinement are not mutually exclusive. Drawing from the 80s and the 90s, Ogunlesi’s aesthetic is most striking when it is emic, when it relies on imagery inspired by ‘old Nollywood’; when it is specific, eluding knowledge and requiring further study from its onlooker. Knowledge, as Antonio Gramsci explains, is integral to hegemonic power in that it builds worlds from which it can exclude by classifying people according to a norm, slotting the Other into comfortable categories. Ogunlesi knows what the exoticizing gaze is worth, her designs manipulate their presence within this gaze to their own liberatory ends.
If specificity implies rigour, Nollywood and specificity are not often thought of as compatible. But what Ogunlesi has been able to do is elevate precise Nollywood cultures into spaces, from archives to catalogues to runways, that would otherwise deem them unacceptable. In this way, she follows the footsteps of artists like Njideka Akyunili Crosby and Zina Saro Wiwa, who have situated critical practice in Nollywood imagery. Like Ize, Ogunlesi also presents a distinct way of engaging with African history but this time the lesson is for Africans themselves and concerns what Africans consider to be history. While Africans may criticize the world’s disproportionate interest in the continent’s distant past, Africans, too, are guilty of overlooking recent histories, especially those histories that exist beyond the traditional.
Ogunlesi is interested in a nearer past, which goes against the over-emphasis on pre-colonial African history found in the diaspora and the nostalgia for the independence era found on the continent. At the same time, the artist–whose blood-stained, image-strewn, slick leather and open-backed pieces invoke a raw, shocking, devil-may-care sexuality–relays stories of the shunned, the hidden, the tabooed. The images that tell these stories are not Hugo-esque Nollywood abstractions, but images very much in context, in dialogue with Nigerian culture. These are images that evince an understanding that, in Nigeria, stories of liberated women, of queerness, of non-orthodoxy, are only useful insofar as they are material for conventional and erroneous moral lessons. For Ogunlesi, however, stories of the unrespectable are the story. Against historical narratives of savagery and crisis, and against equally reductionist counter-narratives of respectability, Ogunlesi’s vision of the unacceptable emerges more interesting and even more redeeming.
Africa beyond Mythology and Representation
Current events around the world, especially those concerning anti-blackness, have created among black people a need for restoration. Historically, in such moments, many in the diaspora have looked to the African continent and to historical African identity for redemption. Over the years, however, the feeling has emerged particularly among those that live on the continent that framing Africa in such a way is not helpful to either the continent or the diaspora, least of all because at the heart of such framing is mythology. Most recently, the debates between Africans and African Americans on Marvel’s Black Panther occurred along these ideological differences; as have responses to Beyonce’s 2020 video album, Black is King.
Notwithstanding, Africa, scholars like V. Y. Mudimbe remind us, is no stranger to external myths; and ideas of Africa as ‘the motherland’ that awaits all black people are not new, unjustified or, in themselves, dangerous. The problem, however, is that such views tend to overlook the continent and its contemporary struggles. It is that they paint a picture of Africa as a paradise that the reality of the continent cannot live up to. Colonization, the legacies of empire and post-colonial upheavals mean that Africa today has perhaps even more questions about itself and fewer ways of answering them than its diaspora. What emerges, then, from considering the redeeming inventiveness of artists like Ize and Ogunlesi, both of whom identify as British and Nigerian, is the serious function of the diaspora in fostering departures from established modes of thinking about the continent. A function cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, prompts in his 1990 essay, ‘Cultural Identity and the Diaspora’, when he writes that, ‘We must not collude with the West which, precisely, normalises and appropriates Africa by freezing it into some timeless zone of the primitive, unchanging past.’
But a question remains: with the hope for the continent disproportionately reliant on its diaspora, where does this leave its inhabitants?
Perhaps the uncomfortable implication here is that this restoration of Africa is inevitably propelled towards Afropolitan desires. In Hugo’s photograph, Ize and his friends are draped in colourful prints that drown out the muted brown of the bridge behind them. It is an image of ambassadors. However, the image of ambassadors of youth, vitality and creativity perpetuated by the media of cities like Lagos is not so different from the anthropological abstraction that exploits Africa’s historical fungibility. Given the complexity of the continent, this abstraction serves to render Africa perpetually accessible to the West through labelling, summarizing, re-organizing and even deleting or suppressing its parts according to Western frames of reference. In other words, if you can pick out the cool kids of Lagos, Lagos becomes knowable, defined along what is cool and what is not. But who gets to define what is or is not cool about Lagos? Who gets to decide what represents or does not represent Lagos? And what is lost through such definitions? In answering these questions, perhaps we will find the ways that we as producers and consumers of culture become complicit in abstracting our own realities. Recall Hugo’s photograph of Ize and his friends: what is a bridge if not to carry one forward? What, then, is left behind?⎈
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