There are 55 recognised countries in Africa. Well, if we want to get into semantics, different sources will quote the continent having either 54 or 56 states (The independence of Somaliland and Western Sahara is disputed). In Kenya alone, there are 44 tribes. A small drop in the ocean if you consider that Nigeria has 250 ethnic groups. Yet, the continent is meant to fall under one specific definition of what ‘Being African’ is. That to stray even an inch outside this classification would deem you as ‘Un-African’. So, when the NEST collective released their Fashion book – ‘Not African Enough’ (NAE) – in 2017, it was both just-in-time and long overdue.
To choose a title such as NAE was a bold and conspicuous decision. But what did it mean to the NEST Collective? Sunny Dolat, the NAE Creative Director, explains that, “‘Not African enough’ is a derogatory term routinely lobbed at artists, creators and thinkers who step outside the narrow confines of what the world—and Africans—think it means to look, talk like, think like and be an African.” The 368-paged, hardcover fashion book – that unpacks the shifting aesthetic of Kenyan design – took over a year to compile. And it starts right from the book’s foreword: “This book, for us, is a part of that wider aspiration. In it we aim to dismantle this heavy super-concept ‘African’; the assembly of words, images, sounds, ideas, weaknesses, histories, and failings associated with the entire continent.”
The outcome is a combination of stunning imagery, as well as, insightful essays to confront the global idea of what African fashion is. In an interview with Meanwhile in Kenya, Dolat further elaborates, “We wanted to challenge the existing narrative of African fashion, which is often examined and analysed using a very singular lens. The designers in the book are people whose voices and vision we deeply admire. For us, their practice opens up new thoughts and creates new visual languages to understand fashion from the Continent for the infinity it is and has always been.”
In an attempt to completely exemplify the fashion industry in Kenya, The NEST Collective worked with fourteen designers, who shared their work and industry experiences. The list of designers includes: Ami Doshi Shah, Anyango Mpinga, Adèle Dejak, Ambica Shah, Katungulu Mwendwa, Muqaddam Latif and Keith Macharia of M+K, Wambui Kibue, Munga, Firyal Nur Al Hossain, Namnyak Odupoy, Kepha Maina, Wambui Mukenyi and Ogake Mosomi.
The project was an entirely Kenyan affair, working with commissioned photographers – Sarah Waiswa, Maganga Mwagogo, Thandiwe Muriu and Joseph “Nabster” Chege – as well as Kenyan models and stylists. According to an interview by Eric Otieno for GRIOT, this move was intentional as means of “‘reclaiming their time’ from a disengaged international fashion scene.” According to the Collective, the book is an ‘ultimate celebration of their small-time aesthetic activism’.
While the concept of ‘African-ness’ has come up in previous articles on TDS. For example, Yswara was told her choice of pink as her official brand colour wasn’t African. That anything from Africa must be brown, black, or earth tones. This book, however, uses wax fabric as an anchor between the varying creatives. That’s because, most of them have been asked why they haven’t incorporated colourful wax-print fabric into their design. Despite the fabrics hailing from China and the Netherlands, it has become an artistic gamut in which African designers are expected to function within. Below are some experts from the book that respond to this notion:
“My aesthetic confused people at first. Some people would even say, “Is that African? But there’s no print!” I realized some people have a very narrow definition of Africa, and it rarely ventures out of heavy, bold print and colour. My response to that idea has always been “Why do you want to limit my creativity? Are you telling me that because I come from this huge continent – with so many different people – I am only allowed to use wax print when interpreting design?” ~ Katungulu Mwendwa
“There’s a shift that’s happening with the new generation of African designers because we’re creating products that have global appeal. Someone in New York, Seoul, Sydney or Paris could look at my dress and ask, “Where’s that from?” It shouldn’t be obvious that a piece is from Africa just because it’s made from wax print.” ~ Anyango Mpinga
However, the designers aren’t renouncing the fabric. Rather, they’re reclaiming the creative liberty to push boundaries and incorporate diverse inspirations to drive fashion and design innovation on the continent. And those influences can integrate ‘stereotypical African fabrics’ such as Ankara, kitenge, kikoi, and khanga, if the creative sees it fit.
We felt it was necessary to incorporate this book in our lens series because it accomplishes a few key elements that affect the photography industry, and the creative industry as a whole. For starters, it challenges the perspective of the West by adding data and viewpoints that encourage conversations to be had. Secondly, it dares creatives to raise their bar in terms of presentation, execution and craft. Because, lets face it, the imagery of this book is spectacular to look at. Lastly, it invites designers to express their art in the form that’s truest to their aesthetic, be it the androgynous influences like Mpinga’s, the Hollywood-inspired glam of Kibue or confronting the unyielding constructs of masculinity such as with Munga’s designs.
The book is still available for purchase here, plus you do get your pick of two cover editions. So, you can still get your hands on a copy and discover the conversations and modifications occurring in the Kenyan fashion scene. Until you get your book, you can read Dolat’s opinion piece about NAE here and share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.