The designer exploring African stories through traditional fabrics

Designer Bubu Ogisi at a glassmaking workshop in Lagos, Nigeria on September 18, 2022. (Photos: NYTimes)
Bubu Ogisi was studying fashion in Paris when her perception of Africa changed. Ogisi, a Nigerian fashion designer from Lagos, was the only Black person in her class, and she had been assigned to work on a project about the continent by her teacher.اضافة اعلان

“I was adding Egypt, Morocco, everything, and my teacher told me, ‘No, do a project on Africa — Black Africa.’ I never knew there was a difference. I never knew there was this divide of how people think about Black Africa and the rest of Africa,” she said. “It was kind of a shock.”

Ogisi went on to found her womenswear brand, IAMSIGO, based in Lagos; Nairobi, Kenya; and Accra, Ghana, in 2013, in part to tell the historical stories of the African continent. Her collections are composed almost entirely of hand-crafted pieces and revolve around preserving ancient artisanal techniques and celebrating new ways to create ecologically friendly fabrics.

She has produced more than a dozen collections in the years since and has shown her work at fashion weeks in London; Paris; Lagos; Durban, South Africa; and Bogotá, Colombia. Her designs have been exhibited throughout Europe and are currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as part of the “Africa Fashion” exhibit.

Designer Bubu Ogisi working in Lagos, Nigeria on September 17, 2022.

Ogisi’s work, which is inspired by communities across the African continent, is unconventional and plays against the principles and politics of modern industrialization. As a storyteller, she is interested in communicating the complexities of identity, spirituality, and culture. And as an artist, she holds an inherent belief in the body as the ultimate canvas.

“The idea of my work is to decolonize,” Ogisi said. “To be colonized is to be barricaded, to be controlled, to not be free; so I do that with textures, gravity, mass, density, lighting, everything possible, to open everybody’s mind to a better and freer world.”

For her spring-summer 2022 collection, “Green Water, Blue Forest”, she collaborated with artisans in Kenya who hand-crocheted recycled plastic and wove together silk, cotton, and hemp from Agraloop, a company that produces textile-grade fiber from agricultural waste.

Brightly colored plastic, hemp, and cotton, intentionally left raw and unfinished, are central to the 14-look collection, which includes tassel dresses, drawstring waist culottes, hand-woven tunics, and recycled PVC bikini tops. Pieces from IAMSIGO cost $234 to $750 and can be purchased through the online marketplace Industrie Africa and other retailers.

Ogisi works with a network of artisans in countries including Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Benin Republic, Togo, Rwanda, and Senegal. The work does not rely on heavy machinery; instead, each piece is made almost entirely by hand, and the process to make a single 100-centimeter piece of fabric, which can include weaving, beading, or dyeing, can take more than a month.

“It’s about fusing what is old with what is new, preserving what is wasted, and recreating that and reconstructing that into new,” Ogisi said.

For her accessories, Ogisi has worked with bronze jewelry makers to create earrings and pendants that take inspiration from masks used by tribes in Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, and Ivory Coast for religious purposes. She has also collaborated with other well-known designers like Kkerele, a Nigerian shoe designer, and Brian Kivuti, a Kenyan jewelry designer.

“I’m in love with her idea of sustainability, the way she explores what it means to be an African designer in her materials, the way she weaves and combines materials and the way she considers the history of the materials and their significance,” Kivuti said.

Ogisi was raised in Lagos and London. As a child, she was deeply influenced by her surroundings, she said. She would often observe the differences between each city — the rowdiness of Lagos, the bustle of London — along with the cultural differences.

“Growing up, I used to be a very shy child,” Ogisi said. “I loved fashion so much that my clothing became my own medium of communication.”

She also explores historical narratives through her work. Past collections have spotlighted the power of the Amazons of Dahomey, a group of women in West Africa, and the legends of Queen Nyabinghi, a powerful ancestor in East Africa who spoke through priestesses.

The IAMSIGO autumn-winter 2020 collection, “Chasing Evil”, in which Ogisi used raffia and recycled cotton, examined her understanding of fabric as a spiritual entity, channeling the ideas of self-preservation, self-protection, and how humans connect with different cultures and different people.

The collection focused on the impact of exploitation on Congo, but it was also inspired by the Nkisi N’kondi, a Kongolese figurine and mystical idol used to affirm oaths and ward off evil. In the collection, Ogisi wanted to explore the idea of clothing as a form of protection.

“I spent five months in different parts of Congo, in Bukavu and in Kinshasa, and I saw how they took dressing very seriously,” she said.

“‘Chasing Evil’ envisions how the spirituality of a garment can create a new identity or aura of self to drive away evil spirits. It was all about addressing the idea of us as a people but also subliminally understanding how that connects to different cultures, as well as the materials that exist in these different places,” she added.

This year, The Tetley in Leeds, England, held the first major solo exhibition of Ogisi’s work in Europe. The show, “I am not myself”, which featured a handmade tapestry and original flags, examined the spirituality that exists within the African masquerade culture. In Africa, masquerades are seen as ancestors or, partly, amusing messengers of the gods, who speak in an intricate language that only those who are chosen can understand.

“I wanted to express the idea of how when you become a masquerade, you cease to become yourself,” she said. “You become something else.”

Ogisi “has an intersection of contemporary art practice and fashion”, said Bryony Bond, the director of The Tetley.

In the exhibit, Ogisi took inspiration from religious traditions that exist in several African countries including the Nwatantay of Burkina Faso, the Bedu of Ivory Coast, and the Ogbodo Enyi of Nigeria.

Bond described it as work that “crosses across both of those worlds” and brings elements of each into the other.

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