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How a social and environmental issue set one visual artist’s story apart

By Sandiso Ngubane

Oct 18, 2022

In a series titled Yesterday's Shopping, photographer Sackitey Tesa Mate-Kodjo (pronounced ‘Mah-teh Koh-joe’) shot two male subjects dressed in wide-leg pants and corsets made of what looks like paper and blue ribbons. In the background are mounds of used plastic bottles—a symbol of fast fashion and its effects on the environment.

Going simply by Sackitey Tesa, the Ghanaian creative’s love for visual arts stems from childhood, flipping through his grandfather's library of old magazines like Readers' Digest and National Geographic, "just looking at images," and playing with his father's vintage Pentax camera. Still, he never thought of the visual arts as a career path, instead choosing to study Business Administration at the University of Ghana. It was only after graduating in 2017 that he began to explore photography as something worth pursuing professionally.

Yesterday's Shopping, Sackitey Tesa. Photo: via Photo Vogue

humble beginnings

"The first project that I did was shot using a mobile phone, and the model was a coworker at the place I used to work at," he says. "It was a bit difficult trying to explain the concept to him, but he was willing to help out a friend, so I picked a day, and we shot the project. The feedback was quite positive. I am sure I wouldn't be practicing photography now if the feedback I got then was bad."

Collaborating with local creatives in Accra, where he resides, is a big part of Tesa’s work. This has led to working with designer David Kusi Boye-Doe of the label Boyedoe, for example. In 2021, Tesa was among several creatives from around the world that Nataal and online retailer Farfetch called on to respond to the theme ‘Black style icon’. Other creators in the campaign included Nigeria’s Lakin Ogunbawo, David Uzochukwu, and South Africa’s Fhatuwani Mukheli.

For his part, Tesa created images inspired by Fela Kuti, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Grace Jones after he came across a picture of the three celebrated figures, shot by Andy Warhol in 1986.

Fruit Salad, Sackitey Tesa. Photo: via @sackiteytesa

Atsɛɛniŋ afɔɔɔ, Sackitey Tesa. Photo: via @sackiteytesa

Black History Month, Sackitey Tesa. Photo: via @sackiteytesa

Social commentary

One of the subjects the Accra-based photographer and stylist grapples with is the effects of secondhand clothing from developed countries on his immediate environment. It’s the social commentary behind this work—like Yesterday’s Shopping—that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Seeking to inject this kind of substance into his photography led Tesa down the path of styling and art direction, both of which he took up late in 2018 after purchasing his first DSLR camera. "I wanted to challenge myself to use styling for storytelling," he explains. The result is the mesmerizing, prop-fueled imagery he has become known for.

In 2020, he did a project with WePresent titled "Atsɛɛ niŋ afɔɔɔ," which translates to "things are not meant to be thrown away." Tesa had models dressed in outfits made by upcycling tailors from Accra's Kantamanto clothing market—Ghana’s largest for secondhand clothes. Indeed, a search through Youtube reveals an abundance of 'thrifting' videos taken at the market.

According to Fibre2Fashion.com, the Sub-Saharan region is the world's largest destination for secondhand clothing, receiving close to 34 percent of total world exports in 2021. Over the last two decades, the Kantamanto market has contributed to economic growth and productivity in Ghana with more than 30 000 traders upcycling and making a living through selling the imports.

Writing for Dazed and Confused, Bryan Benjamin, a Ghanaian scribe, says Kantamanto is "the go-to place for cheap clothes and helped popularize the term 'Obroni Wawu,' which directly translates into 'Dead Man's Clothes'. Kantamanto Market is the resting place for all these clothes and is a source, not only of designer items, but of rare fabrics too."

There is much to ponder about the social effects of such—fast fashion's impact on the environment, for one, something Sackitey Tesa believes fashion conglomerates need to be held accountable for. Still, "we as consumers should also buy less clothing and recycle where we can," he says. 

Fish out of water, Sackitey Tesa. Photo: via @sackiteytesa

Changing the narrative

Through his work, the artist seeks to reimagine secondhand clothes and other waste as new, something that is not far removed from his own story and that of many other citizens of Accra and Ghana at large. "When I was a child, my family did a lot of shopping in the secondhand market. We still do that now," he says. "Some of (my) work explores different materials and objects and how they can be seen in a new light, so I source most of my materials from the secondhand market."

As the saying goes, "one man's trash is another man's treasure." Tesa's repurposing of what is essentially another man's trash into treasures through his lens is a case in point. It's an example of how the export of secondhand clothing to developing nations from the West provides utility to people there, despite its other more adverse effects, like the virtual desecration of local apparel industries undermined by the cheaper options.

Yesterday's Shopping, in particular, was Tesa's way of questioning the idea of what can be considered beautiful. Using improvised clothing and heaps of trash, he sought to tell the literal story of what was once regarded as beautiful, eventually discarded with little afterthought for the effects on the environment and society.