As the UK’s first major exhibition of contemporary African fashion passes its halfway mark, Brighton Museum has been at the centre of an exciting discussion concerning the presentation of African cultures in the West. This conversation has extended even further through a diverse events programme this year; there have been craft evenings, thrifts socials and Q&As to reflect the many nuances of African fashion as exhibited in the museum. Last Wednesday night was a unique opportunity to hear from the design collective who contributed their interpretation and first-hand experience of Johannesburg to the exhibition.
The Sartists, a group of four creatives from across South Africa, enjoyed a visit to Brighton during their first international trip as a collective, part of what they dubbed their ‘UK tour’. The group officially formed in 2012, but had been working together for years before. Andile Buka, Kabelo Kungwane, Wanda Lephoto and Xzavier Zulu were drawn together by their alternative approaches to style, and shared a creative vision to communicate real stories through visual means. Their work originates from an authentic place, from what they know and have experienced. A key motif of their work is conveying black South African identities through styling, fashion and imagery.
Growing up in post-Apartheid South Africa, personal style had always been important to the group. Some members spent their youth digging through bales of second-hand Western clothing to uncover items which could be further customised to reflect their personal style. It was not how those around them dressed, but the extra effort and resourcefulness marked their individuality, and became integral to their approach to style. Their design ingenuity developed through compromise, minimal resources, and limitations which forced them to think outside the box when considering style. This thoughtful approach to dress now enriches the imagery they create.
Now enjoying international recognition, following successful collaborations with Adidas and Stussy, the four young men spoke honestly of the importance of retaining their roots. Throughout the discussion, the Sartists conveyed a sense of responsibility to other black South Africans. Observing how Westernised their country is quickly becoming through the accessibility of social media and influence of pop culture, they noted how even history has been recorded from a white Western perspective and that there are few aspirational black figures for the younger South African generation to look up to. The Sport Series (exhibited in Fashion Cities Africa) developed from the idea of putting black bodies into spaces that society did not intend for them. A compelling image of young black people stood wearing classic white suits and dresses upon a tennis court is a powerful statement against the society-imposed limitations upon black people.
Authenticity, history, success and the future were all discussed, though “stories” were a recurrent idea throughout the evening. Their lookbooks and photo series are all based upon distinct narratives. For their work, initial sources of inspiration came from their own families; looking through old photo albums and listening to their parents’ experiences of dressing. Their understanding of the individual experience of clothing is key to how they present clothing, knowing how their fathers and grandfathers felt while wearing someone else’s clothing or understanding their own tribe heritage. Despite the many international doors opening for the collective as their work gains more recognition, working within a collective means having a fellow member to keep them grounded and remind them of their true motivations.
The four creatives led an insightful, poignant and fascinating conversation with an equally engaged audience. Staff arranging the evening were overwhelmed by such a substantial turnout, and the insightful questions posed by the audience were testament to the exhibition’s role in a larger conversation of culture and race representation within museums. The lively and thought-provoking discourse perfectly encapsulated the intentions of Fashion Cities Africa; to give agency back to the cultures being displayed, and simply to tell stories of a city by those who know it best.
By Sarah-Mary Geissler
Main image: Garments and images from the Sport Series by The Sartists, image author’s own. 26 May 2016
Inset: The Sartists following the discussion in Brighton Museum, image author’s own. 21 September 2016