Africa, Meet Africa: Concoctions Of Identity In West African Textiles
University of Brighton, UK
Katherine Ladd’s interests are informed by many years’ experience as a product designer, and more recently through an AHRC-funded PhD in Design, completed in 2012. Her doctoral research, blending ethnographic methodologies with analyses of contemporary design practice in economic and cultural development contexts, involved fieldwork in remote parts of West Africa observing a newly-established craft charity over a four year period as it attempted to produce a range of contemporary woven textiles for western, ‘deeper luxury’ markets. She teaches contextual studies to Design students at the University of Brighton, concentrating on the implications of new technologies, contemporary craft and cross-disciplinary practice.
At a fashion show in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso in West Africa, a collection of western-designed, locally-made fashion is being presented for the first time by a UK development charity. Their mission is to instill cultural pride amongst the Burkinabé for their indigenous textiles, with the défilé de mode being staged to illustrate the potential of traditional cotton strip-weaving as a fashion fabric for Euro-American markets. 400 local dignitaries, together with western delegates from an international cotton conference, are gathered around an elaborate set constructed over a hotel pool. Their lavish, four-course banquet has already been served and tidied away. There is an expectant hush. To the sound of drum beats and chanting the first model appears - a young boy of about 12 years, naked except for a short, frou-frou skirt made from ecru cotton strip-weaving and cotton pompoms around his ankles. Africa, meet Africa!
This paper presents a case study of a collaborative fashion collection which epitomizes the conflicting western notions of ‘tradition, ‘modernity,’ ‘authenticity’ and ‘taste’ in a cultural sector development context.
The research addresses questions that are relevant to contemporary Africa. What is the sociology of western-driven, ‘deeper luxury’ fashion projects which link famous designers with artisanal production in developing countries? Can the identity of the products as an idea of Africa in this context be described as a construction of smoke and mirrors; an implied exoticism whose character has been shaped by a long history of colonialism and postcolonialism? How are such development projects situated within modern, global, multi-billion dollar African fashion and textile systems?