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Through exploring African mythology and confronting generational trauma, these multifaceted designers are using alternative mediums to address personal stories.

By Elvis Kachi

Feb 11, 2022

Fashion is regarded as an integral part of visual culture, a kind of body artistry, and a mode of storytelling in its own right. So, what happens when the intimate worlds of art, interiors, and style collide? The canvas expands and interdisciplinary boundaries blur, offering designers an increased opportunity to explore deeper interpretations of identity and self.

Across Africa, many fashion designers have borrowed ideas from artistic movements, using them as inspiration for their pieces in a way that allows the two to become even more inextricably linked. More so, designers are working to create pieces of art that exist away from the runway, be it individual projects or through meaningful collaborations. We speak with three fashion designers who are exploring themes of masculinity, collective fear, and African mythology to create art that transcends and ultimately heals.

Adebayo Oke-Lawal on celebrating individuality

In July 2020, Adebayo Oke-Lawal, founder and creative director of the fashion label Orange Culture, announced his collaboration with Dutch-based photographer Sophie Vermeulen. The collaboration, titled Flower Boy, was a photo-art installation that echoed the fashion brand’s systematic dismantling of toxic masculinity. The pieces were hung at African Artists’ Foundation, an art gallery in Victoria Island, Lagos. “Bayo and Sophie came to me with the project, so I was privileged enough that they accosted me with their story and vision,” Jana Terblanche, Cape Town-based Art Curator for African Art Foundation, tells Industrie Africa. “The project was driven by the artist first, which is how I like to work. So it’s just really important to have the alternative realities which are very precedent in both Sophie’s photography practice and Bayo’s design practice.”

Terblanche continues, “I don’t see arts and fashion and design as separate spheres. I think they all come from a creative mind and from a place of trying to solve real-world problems.” While both industries might be largely dissimilar, they share key similarities. They’re both used as a means of expression and storytelling. This was the reference point through which designer Oke-Lawal led Flower Boy. “We wanted to use the piece to tell the story of acceptance of a boy from his father, and this idea of him flourishing because of that acceptance,” says Oke-Lawal. “It’s basically just celebrating this idea of a father and son relationship where the father ‘allows’ the boy to be his best and most genuine self.”

Later that year, Oke-Lawal was approached by Design Week Lagos, West Africa’s leading annual international design event established in 2019. This birthed ‘Her Light,’ a collaborative piece between the conveyers of African art and the designer. As always, Oke-Lawal tapped into personal experiences to create this piece. But, this time, the storytelling shone a light on the amazing women in his life—his mother, especially. “In Nigeria, women hold such a huge aspect of the emotional strength of a home, especially in my own experience, and are found to be the light that brightens up a home,” he reveals.

Her Light by Adebayo Oke-Lawal. Photo: courtesy of Design Week Lagos.

Nwa-Mulamula's Tears by Rich Mnisi. Photo: courtesy of Southern Guild.

Inside Nyoka by Rich Mnisi. Photo: courtesy of Southern Guild.

Rich Mnisi on confronting generational fear

South African designer Rich Mnisi, whose foray into the art world is also premised by storytelling and inspired by his family history and African mythology. Mnisi began his eponymous brand in 2015, seeking to disband the superficial narratives surrounding masculinity, producing clothes that transcended reductive gender roles. He did this by incorporating a winning mix of bold prints, colorful garments, exaggerated patterns, artistic cuts, and intentional details. “When I design, I do it from a personal place. But in terms of describing what I do, I would probably settle with “artist” because it has fewer limitations, and I enjoy working in multiple disciplines,” he says. In 2018, he made his foray into the world of interior design, creating his first pieces of furniture, Nwa-Mulamula’s Chaise and Nwa-Mulamula’s Tears, both of which were organic-shaped items that he saw as an extension of his Nwa-Mulamula fashion collection—a collection that paid homage to the memory of his late great-grandmother. Mnisi’s entrance into the world of interiors was solidified when he was asked to be part of a group show at Southern Guild called Extra Ordinary. Since then, the designer has made interior pieces that appeal to a distinct niche of tastemakers.

In September 2021, Southern Guild Gallery announced Mnisi’s first solo exhibition, Nyoka, which means ‘Snake’ in his mother tongue. This collection featured interior collectibles like rugs, furniture, and chandeliers made from bronze, wool, beads, resin, and glass, playing with his usual aesthetics of shapes and fluidity. “My mother told me she had a nightmare, and there was a snake, and it was beautiful, but she was frightened of it,” he says, explaining the inspiration behind the collection. “My whole family is frightened of snakes, so it became something that I wanted to investigate,” he continues. 

The IAMISIGO Room at 16by16, Lagos. Photo: via @16by16.

Raffia wall hanging by Bubu Ogisi. Photo: via @16by16.

Raffia table lamp by Bubu Ogisi. Photo: via @16by16.

Bubu Ogisi explores mysticism through design

Nature symbolism and African mythology remain a strong theme for regional designers like Bubu Ogisi of IAMISIGO. “The forest is the surest guarantee of man’s duration,” she tells Industrie Africa. “I’m rendering gratitude and belief and making people use what I do to create a space that feels like an altar or shrine, where they feel protected and safe.”

Ogisi is a sustainable designer known to go through a series of thoughtful processes to ensure that her garments are ethically produced and is ensuring that these same practices are incorporated into the production of her interior pieces. For example, her Raffia pillows and ornaments are handmade, and her ornate beading is made from recycled sacks. Ogisi’s works and final representations mainly stem from family building and collaborative relationships due to her following unorthodox and non-regularized approaches. “I want to create an encompassing shrine, especially because I am inspired by the forest,” she says, “and I want to bring that environment into the interior space and transform it into a sacred spiritual place.”

The creative spheres of art and interiors are two upon which the world continues to look with hopes of finding original solutions to genuine problems. Both industries, powered by innovation, exist as mirrors of each other, each functioning to tell stories through design. “Fashion is art; when you wear fashion, you wear art,” says Oke-Lawal, “and I think that if no one saw the relationship between both, then they’ll be missing the beauty from which fashion was created.”