African textile heritages hold clues to how we can change fashion and disrupt stereotypes.
“African fashion is interwoven with values of ancient principles such as sustainability, respect, culture, and knowledge that couldn’t be more crucial in modern times,” says Durban-based fashion designer Thabiso Ncanana. These principles need to be revealed and preserved.
By capturing the continent’s many fashion folds, a new project is uncovering and discovering the continent’s rich textile heritages. Curated and produced by African Fashion Research Institute, The Fold is a Pan-African creative research residency between South Africa and Uganda, an evolving open-source glossary and a podcast. Using words, sounds, stories, and images, AFRI is exploring what lies between folds to reveal these heritages, and to connect creative communities across the continent.
“Fashion in Africa is a language of pride and dialogue that contributes to a healthy framework of socio-economic development,” says Thabiso who participated in the Fold’s first Pan-African research residency in Durban in June this year.
The act of folding is culturally symbolic in African adornment. “We see this in the tying of the sash when wearing the Gomesi, a form of Bagandan [Uganda] cultural dress, or the folding of the Iqhiya, a Xhosa head wrap originating in the Eastern Cape,” says Lesiba Mabitsela, co-founder of AFRI, project lead and contributing collaborator for the residency.
The residency emerged from the understanding that cross-cultural exchanges are an essential part of creating kinder, more equitable fashion futures. Liz Kobusinge, The Fold resident researcher and self-taught artist based in Kampala, says, “It’s important to widen access to shared histories and shift focus onto often ignored methods and ideologies by filling in the gaps of knowledge inherent in a cultural hegemony.”
The first residency explored the cultural and textile connections between South Africa and Uganda. “There are similarities in tribe, language through meanings, speech, and pronunciation of words, similar ways of dressing, marriage customs, ways of making, forms of construction, traditional technologies and ceremonies,” says Ugandan artist Sheila Nakitende who also attended the residency.
The residency found a meeting point between Uganda and South Africa in the form of a tree – Ficus natalensis or the Mutuba tree, as it is known in Uganda. During a barkcloth paper-making, the residency attendees met with the chief curator, Martin Clement of the Durban Botanic Gardens, where they (re)discovered the tree which is harvested for the creation of barkcloth. Barkcloth is a cultural heritage for the kingdom of Buganda – and by extension for all other Ugandan citizens – and has been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible world heritage.
Fuelled by the success of a common botanical heritage, the residency explored further fashion connections through a skills exchange and dialogue centered around local pleating practices, including the fold used to create Isidwaba, a pleated leather skirt worn by married Zulu women. In these ways, the residency began to explore afro-sustainable practices as a way to centre Afrocentric fashion histories and offer pathways for the decolonisation of design and the creation of future fashions.
“We were particularly proud of the pan-African nature of this collaboration. This was an example of what can be accomplished when we see what we have in common. We were lucky to have found the Mutuba tree in Durban, but also to consider the similarities in producing barkcloth and isidwaba,” says Lesiba. The transdisciplinary residency merged the worlds of artists and fashion designers, educators and students, industry professionals and local artisans, and inspired a group of horticulturalists. The two-day workshop was supported by the National Arts Council and resulted in a pop-up exhibition and panel discussion at the KZNSA Gallery.
“I hope this project provides access to diverse knowledge from the continent so that people have an informed point of view about how things are made. Hopefully, The Fold continues to link people in alternative ways while also pushing for the necessary systemic shifts in the fashion industry that need to happen,” says Liz.
The Fold uses fashion to transcend geographical and cultural boundaries that inhibit a collective development of Afrocentric textile solutions. “We remain curious and committed to a more progressive fashion landscape that is accountable and integral to our cultures as Africans,” says Thabiso.
“This shared creative research lay the groundwork for conversations into shared textile heritages across the continent,” says Lesiba. With this, we look forward to the next iteration of The Fold.
- Images supplied by AFRI (feature and second image by Bongani Tau and third image by Lindo Ndlovu of the Contemporary Archives Project)
- The Fold is curated and produced by the African Fashion Research Institute (AFRI) in partnership with the Creative Nestlings Foundation, and supported by the British Council #SouthernAfricaArts under their New Narratives Programme 2023
- To learn more, listen to The Fold podcast.
- The Fold team will soon be announcing the launch of an online course as well as a publicly populated glossary that aims to fill the gaps of archives, textbooks, and collective knowledge when it comes to ways of fashioning across the continent. Follow @afri_digital for updates.
- The residency took place from 25 June to 12 July 2023, hosted by eKwheni, a residency space in Durban.