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Fashion, Feminism and Politics

On Aziz Defenders and The 100 French Women: Holding Empathetic #MeToo Conversations About Sexual Harassment

100 influential French women signed a letter protesting the #MeToo movement. According to them, men should be free to “touch a knee”, “steal a kiss”, and talk intimacy at business dinners. Brigitte Bardot, an actress that signed the letters, called the movement “ridiculous” and “hypocritical,” saying that she found  “you’ve got a nice little backside” complements charming. Do we really want a Puritanist restriction of sexual freedoms and its conception of women as “poor little things under the influence of demon phallocrats”?

This a simplistic and retrogressive view of the entire movement and of the strides women have made to create equal and fair spaces at home, at work, and in public. The crop of women that fought for sexual harassment legislation and policies in public spaces, understood that our society was patriarchal and it would be a while, an eternity perhaps, before that changed. Societal, economic and political power belonged to men, and the contributions and identities of women would be demeaned as long as powerful men who were the gatekeepers to opportunities could discriminate on the basis of, talk about, look at and touch nice little backsides.

 

Sexual harassment legislation never caught up to reality

But even this understanding and the resulting legislation never caught up to societal structures. Higher education institutions in the US have high incidents of sexual harassment cases and a history of poor accountability and strong opposing forces, many of them belonging to women, are still straining the process of devising solutions. Men with economic and political means are still members of single-gender private clubs in West London where women of lower means are exploited (for those of us excluded, Prince Phillip’s Thursday Club portrayed at the beginning of season 2 of The Crown will shed some light). And it is hard to imagine that Larry Nassar was a lone wolf and that no one knew about his predation 156 women later.

Spaces that have a reputation for liberal progress, are anything but when it comes to women’s issues and empowerment. Investors and venture capitalist are preying on women entrepreneurs looking to change their lives, the world, or both. And for a century, we have been willing consumers of women’s sexualized image in media depictions in Hollywood and elsewhere in  pop-culture – if the thriving cosmetics surgery market is anything to go by, we are buying much more than the images.

Even these cases of societal structures that have been slow to change are the hopeful cases in which the women abused have been given a chance. In other parts of the world, the women abused are girl brides languishing in poverty and forced to marry as teenagers, girls denied a chance at education, women sold in sex and human trafficking rings, and women prohibited to drive, own property or go to work without the consent of a male relation.

The breadth of experiences between women struggling with pain and abuse is staggering, and we owe them all thoughtful and critical engagement. We don’t all have to agree. But we have individual responsibilities to participate, and in doing so to exercise empathy, intellectual humility and drive.

 

Seeking nuanced answers and perspectives to questions about choice, sex and power

Writing about the Babe story, in which a woman recounts a terrible date in which Aziz Ansari was overtly aggressive, a lot of women’s commentary concludes that Grace, the alias used to conceal the women’s identity, is every woman. It is me. It probably is you too. A more productive analysis of the story could have focused on how our perceptions about sex are imbalanced across genders and how men’s entitlement should be challenged and untaught. Then the conversation could have explored strategies for ensuring that future reporting does not harm all the progress we are making with #MeToo. Instead, the story evolved into a personality war between the two journalists that could have made the conversation much more nuanced and valuable.

Grace did flirt, she did let a man buy her dinner, she did go back to his apartment, but that did not entitle him to a fuck in front of the mirror. Moreover, Babe’s other headlines should not deter us from a careful analysis of the story’s occurrences. There is no reason why a blog that publish posts about women’s fantasies about rape should not publish posts about women’s pains after real assault. Women should be able to decide when and how to experience their sexuality, but they should also be able to decide when and how not to, and their decisions should be respected each time. Men’s are.

A productive engagement with the #MeToo movement and other accompanying initiatives will demand self-examination from each one of us. We have to admit to and confront the double standards we conform to and that place us at an unequal footing in all matters sex and power. In Silicon Valley, a world whose gender problems make one gag, men who participate in orgies and sex parties grow their personal and professional networks, women who don’t lose out on making valuable connections, but those who do invite unwanted advances. A woman with gut and drive needs to do something about it. Perhaps hold women-friendly versions?

Would Grace’s cues have been clearer had she paid for her dinner, never gone back to Ansari’s apartment? Doesn’t a contradiction exist in asking young women to never go to men’s apartments and hotel rooms instead of teaching men that women who choose to be in their physical spaces retain their right to consent, distance and respect? There are no clear and perfect answers. We need to listen to each other, to think deeply, to engage thoughtfully and to take action.

 

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Fashion, Feminism and Politics Life, Work and Wellness

Unlock Your Girlboss. Stop Improperly Criticizing The Girlbosses In Your Life

She is telling it all, and we can’t wait to read it. Because even if she arguably failed, hers is an admirable tale of girlboss resilience and determination. A lot of us felt the unfairness. The intense scrutiny on her pantsuits, her marriage and her emails, even as he wore floppy suits, declined to release his tax returns and defied to extreme degrees the standards of propriety and righteousness we’d come to demand of her. We cringed that her eloquence was taken for dishonesty, and that her competence and preparedness earned her a likability penalty.

As far as the feminist movement goes however, there is little consensus about what a Hillary Clinton presidency truly represented. More accurately, the movement towards female empowerment and broken glass ceilings is fraught with fragmented efforts and incongruous opinions. Clinton’s failed bid can be mined for insights.

There are those that were convinced that her pantsuit-feminism was outdated and needed to embrace Michelle-Obama-bare-arms-dressy feminism. A greater number thought her center-leftism too corporate-friendly, and there even existed Bernie socialists that would have readily exchanged a Clinton presidency for hell. They probably got their hell. We will never know for sure. What we do know is that 53% of white women voted in her opponent, leaving in their wake bewildered women of color.

Is Girlboss Feminism Inadequate?

Feminism may be en vogue, celebrities and fashion houses may be peddling “I am feminist” shirts and music videos, women marches may be rousing crowds onto streets, but that is as far as it goes. The movement failed at making a woman the leader of the free world. The movement shall witness steps backwards in strides it had taken.

And this fashionable feminism, that proudly wears a label with little sacrifice and/or action, is a stark reminder that more conversations need to occur around the conventional neoliberal self-satisfaction that plagues mainstream feminism as it is. One author aptly describes mainstream feminism – it is “a deeply heteronormative, white-and middle-class-centric movement that’s become hopelessly stuck up its own ass.”

I agree. The Sheryl Sandberg brand of choice feminism is not accessible to many women, companies with structural failings such as C-Suites devoid of women should stay away from feminist brand messaging, and feminist consumerism is not enough, not even close.

Criticizing the Girl Boss

Scathing attacks on women working towards a women-friendly world are ill-advised, though. And society’s voyeuristic pleasure at women’s failure, happily helmed by other women in retrogressive catfights, is only a sad reflection of ways in which women continually contribute to their own disempowerment.

We can hail THINX for provoking conversations around the sanitization of women’s reproductive health and making menstruation fun even as we demand the self awareness of its founder, and the female-friendly cultivation of its workplace. We have to like neither Sophia Amaruso nor Marissa Mayer, and we don’t need to like Hillary Clinton, or her pantsuits. Bitches do get stuff done, and it’s ok if they dust off and move on when they don’t work it out.

We can recognize the failure of identity feminism to change structures, even as we admire the agency that makes identity feminism possible. Further, even as we criticize women whose privilege affords agency and choice, we have the responsibility to challenge them to pioneer real change. Over-preaching structure at the expense of agency will not give disadvantaged minorities ownership or participation in overhauling systems that are unfair, and a privileged savior approach to helping with such overhauls will be even worse.

Photo: Brooke Lark

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Fashion, Feminism and Politics What To Wear

Those Brigitte Macron Style A-Line Minis! But Yeah, That “7 Or 8 Children Per Woman” Statement Was Racist.

We love that the French first family’s mere existence challenges notions about age and gender. And we especially love the Brigitte Macron style that seems to have taken, deliberately or not, an anti-ageist stance.

Regardless, the French President might just have fallen down a peg or two in our books, following his incredibly simplistic argument that spending billions in Africa is pointless given that women over there have 7 or 8 children each. To be clear, spending billions on fragmented developmental initiatives doesn’t advance Africa, so the idea that spending billions is a good thing needs rethinking. Secondly, Macron needs to brush up on his geography, and more importantly on his data, and to probably sit in an economic sociology class.

Now that we’ve that covered. . . Don’t you just adore Brigette Macron’s choice of dresses and skirts? They are formal in their solid colors, but so lightly chic in their short A line silhouettes. Definitely a look to try!

Brigitte Macron Style Inspiration
 
You might also find more inspiration from some of Lucca Quinn’s choices

Images:
Andrea Hanks – White House official
Italian Presidency of the Council of Ministers

Categories
Fashion, Feminism and Politics

‘I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it’: Is She Right?

Emma Watson came under attack following a racy photo from her Vanity Fair photoshoot.

Well, we’re done with the policing, and so was she.

We are not arguing that our dressing does not affect an audience’s view of us. We, however,  are insisting that there are misconceptions about how such effect works. We reviewed a study on the subject here.

Given our review, Emma Watson should be free to decide how to affect her audience’s view of her, and so should all women.

Read more below to find out what our review revealed, and how you bare it all too! 😉 Also create a style account to join our network of power dressing women!

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Fashion, Feminism and Politics

Fashion activism: The Case For Feminist Panty Makers and Respectability Defiers

An irreverently toned video on the THINX website makes you muse about the observation that a lot of sanitary products’ advertisements use a blue liquid to indicate their effectiveness. The video on the website uses a blood bag. As to whether the blood bag actually contains blood? Well, that’s up to your guessing.

How did we arrive at blue liquids? How did we get so uncomfortable with integral aspects of womanhood, of humanhood.  We seem to have developed a huge tendency to sanitize experiences as natural as breastfeeding, and we seem to have in place elaborate mechanisms to enforce perceived respectability.

 

Politics of respectability and fashion as resistance

Yet a close study will reveal that politics of respectability are closely defined by privilege, and it is the underprivileged among us that are penalized for deviating.

We are okay with sexualized displays of breasts but cringe at the breastfeeding mother. Trump can dismiss his nasty talk as locker room talk, and we talk about boys that will always be boys, but we want girls to behave, to be good, to be respectable. Students and professional women of color must treat their hair to fit in their schools and workplaces, but we celebrate cornrows and outrageous afros on non-inclusive fashion runways.

This close relationship between respectability and privilege is the reason we celebrate fashion that is value driven, fashion that empowers people to live out their values, and fashion that resists the suppression endured by a people trying to fit

“Which dress to wear” seems an inconsequential question placed beside “how to deliver quality healthcare to the world’s poor.” It is however, a question we confront each morning when we prepare to go out and fight out the battles we’ve chosen, and there is a lot to learn from a long history of groups that have in the past used the answer to this question to assert their voices and their identities.

 

A history of fashion activism

In mid-19th century America for instance, a women’s publication formed as a results of the exclusion of women from reform activities publicized the “bloomer costume” a knee-length dress with pants that allowed women to get rid of the long heavy skirts that had been the norm.

In the early-to-mid-20th century, black women practiced the respectability of long skirts, modest-heel pumps, and perfectly straightened hair to preserve their image against popular segregationists’ perceptions that they were too unruly, too African, too masculine, and totally incapable of morality. Young civil right activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would later discard the respectable image in favor of natural hair and denim overalls that aligned their fight with the working class, challenged middle class perceptions of respectability, and desexualized their bodies.

The khadi for Gandhi was more than a piece of cloth. It stood for his stance on India’s self-reliance and his view that discouraged the purchase of foreign clothes.

In recent times, fashion for the likes of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton has transcended labels.

 

Embracing our capacity for fashion activism

THINX makes period panties and is unafraid of the “feminism” label. Slow Factory makes items that run counter to fast fashion. Kipato Unbranded, Yakutti’s partner brand, defies the myth that beautiful is expensive and makes jewelry that is at once accessible and elegant. The Pussyhat project just two days ago was crowdsourcing knitted hats for women attending the women’s marches against Trump.

In our digital age, we can easily identify brands whose values align with ours and by buying from them, we can reallocate wealth in the trillion-dollar fashion industry towards those brands that are working for the world we want.

 

Create an account to share style photography of your own fashion activism.

Read Obama’s and Clinton’s versions of fashion activism, or more aptly put, their version of fashion authenticity:

 

Michelle Obama: Authenticity And Style Lessons You Can Keep

 

 

Michelle Obama’s Style AT The DNC: We Learnt A Thing Or Two About Power Dressing

 

Goodbye To The Pantsuit?

 

 

 

Categories
Fashion, Feminism and Politics

Goodbye to the pantsuit?

No, not yet. Maybe never. Most likely, never. Definitely never. Pantsuits are here to stay.

The Daily Mail ran a feature on a “weary-looking” Hillary after her makeup-less appearance at the Children’s Defense Fund gala. The ugliness of the US Presidential election, in which women had “blood coming from [] wherever”, in which women were nasty, and in which they were grabbed “by the pussy”, was determined to not stop.

Yet Daily Mail’s article was only a minute detail in our society’s history of scrutinizing, policing, and criticizing women’s appearances. Such scrutiny is particularly acute for women leaders, and Clinton has had her own more-than-fair share.

She had never been seen in anything nearing sexy since her husband’s first term in office.

#Cleavagegate had her rose pantsuit revealing her cleavage on the Senate floor subjecting her peers to a discomfort equivalent to that of catching someone with an open fly. But oh wait, maybe we wouldn’t have minded so much had she revealed a bit more more. You know, stopped teasing us, the male gazers?

And what of those unsexy pantsuits?

And how could she be president when she lacked the look and the stamina befitting the role?

She can’t speak about inequality and wear a $12,000 jacket either. But we really don’t care that Obama’s are made of fine Italian wool. And we absolutely don’t care how much Trump spends on his.

Then their was scrunchiegate, and golden jewelry on leopard gown . . . and the list goes on.

We admire Clinton’s political resume. And matters fashion, we couldn’t be more wowed that her confident consistency saw her fashion critics become admirers. As far as her appearance at the Children’s Defense Fund gala, we are with Harper’s Bazaar — 🖕🏾

Of course this does not quell the anxiety of a lot of people following this election’s result, but the determination to keep working at our pantsuit nation values eventually will. We are rejecting the hypothesists that blame the celebration of multiple and intersecting identities for the Trump win — we must not silence the voices of hitherto silent groups because they upset a status quo with a single dominant identity. We must not result to simplistic explanations such as those that blame Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit feminism pitting it against Michelle Obama’s delicate-dress feminism.

Our pantsuit nation work has us boldly living our identities, ardently fighting for our voices, unapologetically being us.

 

Create an account to share your power dressing journey with us! And read more on power dressing below:

 

Image: Gage Skidmore

 

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Fashion, Feminism and Politics

Lemonade Earned Beyoncé A CFDA Award: Fashion And Diversity

Beyoncé wouldn’t have deserved the CFDA fashion icon award before Lemonade, the Washington Post argued. The visual album reveled in a multiplicity of conflicting emotions, as its costuming did in a multiplicity of styles and eras. There was no clear category, no cohesive character, just a powerful illustration that life’s a mess, and so are emotions, and so can be style.

Regardless of whether she would have deserved the award before the album or not,Beyoncé’s message rang clear. More impolitely put, shame on the labels that wouldn’t dress “four black country curvy girls”. And all hail designers that empower souls, souls that as she so rightly stated, are without color, shape or form.

If we are going to have a diverse fashion world however, one in which more than 3 African American designers showcase at major fashion weeks, one in which #CFDAssowhite would be an inappropriate hashtag, one in which Africa’s participation in the global fashion world is much more than the appearance of the savanna as backdrops for other brands’ ethnic collections, we’ll have to go to the source.

Practical steps in the US will involve much more than a few token designers and a few token icons receiving awards. Practical steps include funding art education for public schools in the US. Practical steps at home in Africa will involve much more then holding fashion weeks and declaring them an avenue for international recognition. Practical steps will involve rethinking art education in curricula, they will involve investing in talent that can credibly compete on its own merit.

On  a lighter note, here’s a board in case you’d like to borrow some fashion ideas from Lemonade. We love the whites and off-whites on her dancers — perfect color for summer! And we’re totally into the big volume sleeves!

 

Photo credit via photopin (license)

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Fashion, Feminism and Politics

Nudity, Women, Art, Media: Liberated Or Oppressed?

What’s not to love about an ever going discussion about female nudity in pop culture, female body image and the media, and societal expectations about gender performance and appearance. The dichotomies are still the same.

Proponents of a liberation movement in which women should be empowered to celebrate their bodies argue that nudity and revealing representations are a sign of liberation, both sexual and personal.

Opponents challenge the idea of empowerment and the notion that women that end up in nude and revealing media representations have agency. It’s not liberation, the opponents argue, it’s women doing what they have to do to survive in patriarchal hierarchies long established in entertainment and other cultural and economic sectors. It’s women giving in to structures that have long objectified them, and required of them unachievable standards of beauty while driving some to eating disorders and others to perpetual dissatisfaction and low self esteem.

Ysttyle, Yakutti’s content platform, is about powerful self-representation – it is about the tools, the art, and the context that govern such self-representation – gender is a powerful context as far as self representation goes. So let’s get right into it.
 

So irrevocably indoctrinated?

“Dear Prof.,

My paper explores the representation of women in Lisa Yuskavage’s paintings. Critics have interpreted this representation
differently, some accusing her of objectifying women and others applauding her efforts to give voice to women and their sexuality. My essay seeks to
reconcile the two viewpoints by pointing out that a representation of female sexuality does not necessarily mean objectification, not especially in
these paintings where spectating has been made uneasy and the implicit presence of the male viewer negated by the very fact that these women are decisively
self-engrossed.”

 

I wrote this to my professor in my first writing class in college, a class rightly titled Art & the Nude, and the class that lay the foundation for my love of the social sciences. I had written on the female nudes in Degas, Rembrandt, and other earlier works, and encountered the argument of the male viewer gazing at the female nude for his own benefit. So what was the argument when a woman depicted female nudes? Was she too, unbeknownst to her, so irrevocably indoctrinated in a partriachally organized society that she failed to see her participation in stripping women of their voices, their eyes, and their general agency?

I have not resolved this question till today. Is Vivienne Westwood continuing structures of objectification and oppression of women when she poses for a nude painting? Are pop-culture artists that girls look up to advancing such oppression by doing revealing music videos and films? How much of their participation is out of choice? And how much of it is dictated by structures they have no control and/or comprehension of?

It’s a hard question. The problem with the choice argument, however, is that our societies are still indicative of women under pressure to dumb their talents down to the attractiveness of their bodies. Media outlets still bid for leaked naked images of celebrities; careers skyrocket for women that pose nude for the Playboy or that leak their own nude photographs; Instagram and Twitter have become battle grounds for women shaming other women for being too voluptuous, or too muscular or just not good enough; women of specified shapes and sizes still parade on national stages in bikinis and gowns because apparently that is what it takes for a woman to further her professional and personal goals; women still face adverse conditions when seeking equal representation in cultural industries, from difficulty negotiating equal pay to disproportionate access to representation on museum and gallery walls. The list is endless. The notion of choice is an illusion to so many women.

 

Nurturing a path towards choice

Does a solution exist? I’m not sure. But I am optimistic. Artists like Yuskavage provoke more narratives on representation of female nudity in art. Artists like Nona Faustine not only challenge status quo, but they complicate it with dimensions such as race and black history. Women parliamentarians challenge the relationships between female nudity and sex appeal by controversially breastfeeding during their floor hours. By posing for a nude painting at 68 and after a successful career in fashion, whatever your opinion, Vivienne Westwood provokes a conversation on age, beauty and choice. By exploring  on mainstream television, nudity that challenges existent ideals of who can be nude and what his/her nudity should achieve, Lena Dunham further advances the conversation on
women’s choices and perceptions of self.

Choice, almost complete choice (almost because it is hard to conclusively say that such a thing as complete choice exists) is the path we should be cultivating towards more liberated women, and non-oppressive representations of women in media. Whether through promoting initiatives that let enough women from diverse backgrounds take control of resources and opportunities so that it doesn’t take nudity to skyrocket a career, whether through advocating for a society that does not obsess over women’s nakedness and appearances over their other facets, whether through women individually evaluating factors that go into their decisions to be represented nude, and consciously resisting factors that undermine their choice.

 

photo credit: 2011-08-03 Galaxy International Pageantvia photopin(license)

Categories
Fashion, Feminism and Politics

Made In Africa: Our Consumption And Reversing Vicious Cycles

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an exhibition on the “Kongo: Power and Majesty” runs until January 3, 2016. Part of the exhibition is an installation of Mangaaka, figures commissioned by 19th century Kongo chiefs, to act as public works of art reinforcing the civic sovereignty of the Kongo civilization even as it faced increasing intrusion from European powers. Yes, public art, and it’s accompanying advantages, did constitute the political and religious life of early African civilizations.

It’s all so easy to forget. When our leaders defend mis-prioritized developmental policies in the name of attracting Foreign Direct Investments, when our communities lose all sense of agency even as they slide into complete dependency on foreign funded non-profits, when our popular culture and our lifestyles are only slightly influenced by home-grown artistic expressions or design, it is easy to forget the intellectual premise of some of Africa’s indigenous cultures.

 

The Dearth Of  Made In Africa

No industry report on mining of precious metals and stones would be complete without a mention of Africa’s role. The world’s largest reserves of platinum, gold, diamonds, chromite, manganese and vanadium are in Africa. Yet, market reports on the applications of these metals and stones either do not exist for Africa, or when they do, they are sufficient if they cover just South Africa. African societies bear the blunt of mining’s negative impacts, with little of the benefits.

We can blame this outcome on a number of factors. We can blame colonial powers for using generations of indigenous knowledge to establish extractive industries that had no ties to local communities. We can blame post-colonial governments that have for years been unable to reverse such extraction. We can blame Africa’s population for being unable to create mining entities that can competitively outbid foreign ones. We can blame any of the myriad of factors such as corruption that sustain this status quo.

 

Vicious Cycles

Yet this status quo is a cyclical problem. Building domestic mining entities that can outbid foreign ones would take an empowered domestic population, yet empowering such a population would take the existence of resources that can be redirected to their education and civic empowerment, yet such redirection would take accountable governance that can execute redirection plans, yet accountable governance can only be sustained by an empowered civilly-responsible population, yet such empowerment would. . . We are back at the beginning.

 

Your Part, My Part In Reversing Cycles

A couple of days ago, I had an extensive Whatsapp conversation on institutions and the power of entrepreneurship. I shared Ken’s, my friend’s, belief. We are so much better off with a generation of entrepreneurs working actively to solve Africa’s problems. To reference Ory Okolloh’s worry, however, the transformative reach of entrepreneurship is limited without governance solutions. As individuals, we can redirect our intellectual and activist foci to theorizing and protesting institutional and governance weaknesses, but we can also redirect our decisions towards those lifestyle and consumption choices that help alter vicious cycles.

I do think consumption is a great avenue for individuals to personally influence cycles. At Yakutti, we can’t make any audacious claims about our social impact, but we remain true to a vision of made in Africa. No customer is under obligation to purchase inferior products in the name of activism, but when the items made in Africa are of demonstrably high quality, what we must question are our perceptions.

A consumer report written by Deloitte last year confirms that at least for apparel and cosmetics, African consumers associate international brands with quality – and yes, perhaps they’ve been bitten in the past and their perceptions are warranted. I challenge you to search deeper, however. It is through conscious efforts at questioning beliefs, that were hitherto probably true, that we can play our part in reversing vicious cycles.

Subscribe on our home page for similar content! Do not hesitate to email us with your comments at ysttyle@yakutti.com, you may also email me directly at nkatha@yakutti.com

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Fashion, Feminism and Politics

“Africa’s Fabric Is Dutch”: Art, Appropriation, And Ordinary People

“But as far as art being inaccessible — everyone has their art, even those people who are less privileged or disadvantaged–?” I was having a conversation with Wanjiku Mungai (Pen and Purple Rain) about the production of culture and art. She was replying to an idea I had advanced that self-articulation in form of art for those that struggled with basics, such as food, housing and healthcare, was complicated. Time and resources to engage in artful self-reflection was in shortage for the poor, and to some extent, even for the ordinary, I argued.

In retrospect, how could I be so wrong? Reflecting on what art is

  • not as defined by the high culture construct that attempts to define high quality in art, to market it, and to fuel the transfer of billions of dollars in its stead. But as defined by the very act of living in which the expression of beauty and emotion in us and around us is not only necessary but nearly mandatory –

and reflecting on what Yakutti does, and will be trying to do

  • the quest at building a platform in which African brands articulate their own stories, and where members in turn access thoughtfully made design items to fill their personal styles and spaces in artfully expressive ways –

brought me here.

 

We all have it

Artful self-expression is indeed accessible to everyone. The young mother that spends hours crocheting beautiful patterns onto her newborn’s socks, the farmer who dedicates a piece of his garden to herbs that have no huge economic returns but which garnish his favorite dishes, the student who is continually accused of lacking imagination in her writing classes but is attached to a notebook full of original rap lyrics, all share a common human quest for beauty, for artfully expressing their lived experiences. The problem is not in their desire or capacity for articulation, the problem is in who society chooses to listen to, to look at, and to define as an artist. The problem is in our ignorance of other unconventional processes that do lead to the production of culture and art.

This is the reason why the debate on cultural appropriation will forever be relevant, albeit tiring. Avenues for accessing an audience to see and hear are skewed against those that are marginalized by virtue of class, gender, geography, and/or race. Implying that actions that take their artistic productions without paying tribute to them are downright unjust.

 

Determining Ownership and Appropriation

Yet, what determines to whom artistic productions belong?

As it turns out, the textile prints we have come to call African, not only constitute Arabic, Chinese, Javanese, Indian, and European artistic traditions, but also owe their popularization to Vlisco, a company that makes them in the Netherlands. What, then, happens when Junya Watanabe, a world-renowned fashion designer, incorporates African style in his collection?

To be fair, Watanabe’s collection had other features such as Maasai-style layered necklaces, but even supposing he had only showcased African prints, should we rise up in arms about the appropriation of a print, that is presently popular among Africans but whose origins are nothing but African?

What of the plaid-patterned bags Louis Vuitton introduced on its catwalk? The Ghanains call them Ghana Must Go bags in reference to more tumultuous times when Nigerians wanted them out of their country.  The English call them Bangladeshi bags in association with Bangladeshi immigrants, the Bostonians call them Chinatown totes and the Germans call them Teukenkoffer or Turkish suitcases.

Both Ghanaian media outlets and Chinese Internet users did accuse Louis Vuitton of appropriation. But do these accusations hold in the context of a bag whose pattern traces its origin to China, and whose cultural ownership could be claimed by Ghanaians, the Turks, and the Bangladeshis? Should Louis Vuitton have paid tribute to the very relevant immigration and asylum phenomenon that this bag embodies, perhaps even declared a stance on Europe’s response to refugees?

 

Choosing To Live In Awareness

There are no simple answers, but many of us can take a stand. Perhaps fashion houses, in addition to setting apparel trends, should set trends in standing for social justice issues and furthering them through their corporate social responsibility and business strategy initiatives. Perhaps Louis Vuitton use of the “migrant” bag should have been accompanied by a pledge to donate to humanitarian organizations working with refugees. Perhaps Watanabe should have partnered with a less renowned African designer to put together an “African inspired” collection. Perhaps….

We can take a stand. It does not follow that all cultural institutions, including fashion houses, will respect our stances. It does follow, however, that we can act on our stances. We can choose to understand the cultural realities characterizing objects we buy. We can choose to be actively knowledgeable about the other cultures and styles we appreciate, and we can choose to live fully in awareness. We can choose to give eyes, and to give ears, to original beautiful artistic expressions by those that society does not yet see or look at.

 

Photo credits:photopin
Categories
Fashion, Feminism and Politics

Afropolitanism: An Identity Crisis? A Commoditizing Force?

Afropolitan. Taiye Selasi is credited with having coined the term. It describes the newest generation of Africans emigrants, transnational Africans in the world. Selasi is articulating the identity of “brown skinned people” who without a solid sense of “blackness” and often seen by their African families as “acting too white” might “get lost in transnation”. Her aim, to de-essentialize geographies and politics, while emphasizing cultural aesthetics.

These are the “coolest-damn-people-on-earth,” that you will recognize by their “funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes.” She posits. They remain undisturbed by this aggrandized self-articulation, because, well, isn’t it time the “African stood up”?

To some Africans, the proposition remains unpalatable in spite of – or perhaps because of – its self-congratulatory nature. Afropolitanism, according to Binyanvanga Wainaina, signifies the commodification of culture (I suppose the African culture) driven by a focus on product and design, and potentially funded by the West. Stephanie Bosch Santanaan African Studies scholar and a PhD student at Harvard at the time of writing, can only agree with Wainaina that the term, unlike pan-Africanism, lacks African-centric engagement, and subsequently a stable foundation.

Critics have had a good run with the term, with some calling it the new word for “African Identity Crisis” , and others expressing disgust at it’s elitist focus that tells the story of a privileged few at the expense of many disadvantaged others. Could Afropolitanism become the new Africa’s single story?

 

Are you an Afropolitan?

I am not an Afropolitan. Even with my exposure to cosmopolitan world spaces, and with family members dissatisfied with my masterly of my ethnic language, I have a strong sense of nationality, and find it impossible to equate my connection to the continent with any Afropolitan’s whose deepest tie could be his/her auntie’s kitchen. Moreover, I, too, have a problem with African progress that can be appreciated in terms of cool Togolese hipsters at the beach, and with the idea that what would pass me as a “high level” Afropolitan has a lot to do with the much of the world that I have absorbed –and thus with the much of Africanness I have lost – in the process of fitting in. Worse still, I disagree that one can put real effort in understanding the “ailing” in Africa while failing to conceive geographic boundaries as essential, given that a lot of Africa’s socioeconomic and institutional ills can trace their roots to ill-conceived boundaries.

While I am not an Afropolitan, I remain equally baffled by arguments about the commodification of African culture. The continent is bristling with artists, designers,
and all types of cultural production, and states and societies are at pains to provide self-empowerment opportunities for their members. Should our intellectuals obsess over bashing a narrative of afropolitanism that drives the consumption of “African-y” design products, or over creating discourses that applaud Africans that are learning to ignore the allure of the world’s Pradas for the authenticity or just ordinary heritage of African-made products?

We can surely refuse to be party to a movement in which Africa’s expressive artists and designers are governed by a Western-driven rhetoric, but we cannot deny our own communities intra-consumption, especially in a world where open trade brings home overly competitive imports.

 

A self perceived as possessing responsibility

Selasi’s was an effort at self-articulation, one that is fraught with contradiction like any attempt at articulating a complex identity– and especially one that seeks to simultaneously dispel labels and categories – would. If this self-articulation seemed to hint (or to more than hint) at possessing transformative powers for the continent, blame it on being African.

Many of us, feeling a deep sense of responsibility for a place we want so much for, are at risk of reasserting such responsibility in highly contentious contexts. Even Ekwui Enwezor, the first Venice Biennale curator of African descent, is accused in an article on artnet News, for this year’s joyless exhibit whose works descend into the world’s miseries of “Ebola, civil war, human trafficking, natural disasters, labor exploitation, environmental destruction, inequality.” Reading the article, I mused over “The Burden of Africanism”, again.

Who has time for beauty and joy with an entire continent waiting for real action? Even when we give in and declare ourselves jazz fans and aesthetes, as did Selasi, we still must mention that we have not forgotten our immense responsibilities as Africans. You only have to look at Ysttyle’s (this site’s) fashion and interior decor columns, that somehow seemed insufficient without an Africa: Design, Art, & Culture Column – which unlike the name suggests, has articles that hint at an intent to prescribe socioeconomic and political progress for oh so beloved a place!

Categories
Fashion, Feminism and Politics

Hot-Pants Verbot: Women’s Choices And Revealing Clothes

Cities in Uganda, Malawi and Kenya have seen idling men strip women, apparently for wearing revealing clothes. At this year’s 2015 CFDA Fashion Awards, Julianna Margulies worn the ”most undressed” title, according to Hollywood tabloids. We didn’t know that was a thing, but it probably can be expected after Rihanna’s all-sheer-but-for-some-Swarovski-crystals gown last year. An insatiable media dubbed Rihanna’s gown “Drake’s Revenge Dress.”

The Daily Mail2 years ago, run a story, “Men turned OFF by women in revealing clothes,” in which they reported some agency’s statistics that some 45% of British men preferred women in modest “Duchess of Cambridge” style dressing, and that only 22% of them would respect women in revealing clothes.

Much to our consternation, a common denominator in these stories is the “male onlooker.” Gazer, if you will. It’s Drake, it’s the British men, it’s the Daily Mail’s Dacre. This is the world as told from a perspective that completely disregards that of the dresser, the woman.

 

Public evaluations and female bodies

Even when public evaluation of  women’s dressing does not explicitly relay gender-related assumptions, it still portrays a world that obsessively frets over and seeks to control female bodies, and never male ones.

In Germany, a debate ranges on about the prohibition of hot pants for school going girls, dubbed #Hotpants-Verbot on Twitter. The fashion world, is broiled in discussions about the sexual objectification of female models that take to the catwalk in their early teens.The age of the women [girls] involved makes these last two discussions interesting as it might be argued that teenage school going girls are not empowered enough to make firm appropriate decisions about how revealing their dress should be. One wonders, however, why German schools did not institute dressing standards for boys too, and why the Fashion world is not worried about the sexual objectification of young male models.

 

Renowned researchers argue for “redistribution,” against “objectification.”

In More Than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification, psychology scholars from the University of Maryland, Yale University, and Northwestern University question the proposition that removing a piece of clothing affects perceptions of capacity for action, thoughts and feeling. Does dressing in revealing clothes lead ones audience to focus on ones body at the expense of ones “mental and moral status”?

In a study where respondents are exposed to dressed and undressed subjects and asked to rate the subject’s mental capacity, the scholars find that respondents do not see undressed/partially dressed subjects as objects without minds. Rather, they perceive them as “experiencers” – people capable of pain, pleasure, emotion, and desire. They, thus, describe a “redistribution of mind” phenomenon in which unclothed subjects are not seen as not having a mind, but as having a different kind of mind – one less capable of self control and moral responsibility,” but one more capable of feeling, of experience.

 

Who sees?

According to the experiment, women rated clothed women as having more mental capabilities than unclothed women, but perceived unclothed men as having more mental capabilities than clothed men. The opposite (but in the same sense) was true for men. Men ascribed more mental capabilities to clothed men than to unclothed men, but more mental capabilities to unclothed women than to clothed women. These results were not significant, and were lightly theorized to mean that seeing the opposite sex unclothed induces perceptions of mind.

I love this study (and dare you to find one that is thoroughly as done that argues to the contrary) mainly because it quells all proponents of controlling women’s dress choices. Even people that could argue that a controlled mind is better than a feeling mind ought to be reminded of artists – song writers, painters, poets – people’s whose very existence and success is predicated upon a very feeling mind.