By Anote Ajeluorou
Olujimi King is a quintessential fashion designer and artist whose vision of Africa and African ways of life lies in the authenticity of the African motifs. His fashion styles and designs say it all; his art is also an embodiment of everything African. He is a leading cultural ambassador, who has been propagating African cultural ethos to the rest of the world through his unique African fashion and art. Now, after 25 years of African cultural salesmanship, King is rolling out the drums in celebration. He shared some of his unique African vision recently in a vintage conversation
You’ve been in this business of creating unique African fashion in the past 25 years. How would you describe the journey?
I’ve been in it all my life actually. It will be 25 years this year. We’re going to celebrate next year; we’ve started celebrating already in Chicago, holding fashion shows, art exhibitions and all that. So, we’re looking at 2011, 2012; in fact, I can celebrate 25 years in 15 years’ time, really.
We’re opening a Modeling and Finishing School, and at the graduation of the six-week course, we will hold a fashion show, an art exhibition; as a matter of fact, we’re doing a monthly bazaar at the back of our building here at Ogunlana Drive, Surulere, Lagos. We have different artists coming to display and sell mixed media from painting to sculpture, and fabrics. We don’t just want to restrict ourselves to folks in Lagos; we want it to be national, even international. So, in a nutshell, we’re planning to do a fashion show before the end of the year to coincide with the graduation of our Modelling and Finishing School.
The 25 years have been memorable, enjoyable, challenging, stepping-stones; yes, the challenges were turned to stepping-stones. It’s also been a lot of learning curves, and lot of ideas; a lot of borrowing and giving of ideas to the forces, the forces of the ideas. In other words, we borrow from the universe and give back to the universe.
I started with zero; I started with nothing. So, I had no capital to start, but I was determined to start and represent our culture. And, with God on our side, with God being my partner, God, the she; God, the female, and I asked her to be my partner, and God has sustained us.
IT’S only the Ijaw people that are reputed to have God as a woman called Tamuno. You are not Ijaw; how come your own God became a woman?
It’s a process of deduction. You can deduce that everything that reproduces on earth, are 99 per cent female. Incubation done by the animals to reproduce is done by the female animals. So, who gives the male specie the right to claim that God is male? It takes two to tangle; so, I don’t feel that men should usurp the right to be God’s ambassadors; no! It’s not fair.
Are you a feminist?
No; I’m not! (laughs). I’m just a critical thinker, and I like to be fair. You’ve got to be fair to other people; you just can’t keep oppressing people forever. After all, all men came out of women. So, men can call me anything they want, I don’t care.
You really believe men oppress women?
Of course! There’s no doubt about that, especially in Africa. A simple example; they don’t appreciate the female child. Once a child is a male, they say the father is great; he’s done a good job. Not the mother! Even in some tribes, they let the male go to school, and they push the female child into early marriage. I can give you many examples where women are oppressed by men. It’s about time that some men stand up for women; I came from a woman. I feel that we have to open our eyes and let the truth be told.
YOUR fashion style or idiom is essentially African in nature. Was this by accident or design?
It was by design because my maternal grandfather, a Sierra Leonian, was a tailor in Sierra Leone; and my grandmother was a textile artist in Abeokuta. I had a textile and a sowing background on both sides. And, I studied Textile Design at the Chelsea School of Design in England. I figured it is better to capitalise on what our ancestors already did; they already finished the job for us. All we had to do now was to take it outside the envelope, push it over the edge and then take it to the rest of the world.
The Westerners are doing it; the Chinese are copying us. Are we just going to let them continue doing it while we stand aside and watch? Or we need to stand up and claim what is ours? So, that was what informed my vision of trying to propagate African culture. I’ve been a self-appointed ambassador of African fabrics and clothing for over 25 years.
What has been the acceptance of this African fashion style by the African man? Has it been what it should be?
Fashion is very fluid; it rotates and changes all the time. In some parts of Africa, they don’t even have much fabrics and styles to push forward, to propagate. But we do in West Africa; we have a lot of fabrics, techniques, dyes; different media that we can use to propagate our cultures. But the acceptance is up to the individual, up to me to make my work accepted. But I think if we aren’t accepted, we won’t be here although business was much buoyant in the past; and I know that we’re not isolated. A lot of other designers have closed down because of recurrent incursion of Western styles and techniques into African fashion scene.
Why has the African man failed to embrace that which is native to him, especially fashion? Why is the colonial mentality still so strong?
The colonial mentality is a permanent feature in our psyche as Africans; as a matter of fact, in the whole world! That small island called Britain or Britania took over the world for a long while, and they penetrated deep into our culture and they were able to convince us to abandon our roots and absorb theirs. If not, you and I will not be speaking English now. To think of it, I paid my money to go and learn this language. They didn’t pay jack to learn my language; they don’t have time for that.
So, the colonial mentality is engraved in stone in the culture of the world. If you go to China now, instead of the Chinese wearing their own traditional clothes, they are wearing shirts and trousers and shoes that are Western; everybody wants to look Western. It’s their time; it’s a whiteman’s world right now we’re living in. We have to give it to them.
I’m not saying that the West is our enemy, but in order for you to learn the market you’re trying to penetrate, you have to live among the people you’re penetrating. The whitemen were explorers first; then they came with religion and their clergymen came amongst us. They built castles, and inside the castles, there were churches, where they enslaved people. The missionaries were the spies for them in the villages; the missionaries softened the grounds for the slavers.
That is the same thing I did; that is the same thing I’m doing. I go into those countries that have oppressed us and try to show them what our batiks are, what our clothing’s are, and try to convince them to buy, just like they convinced us to buy their arms. I’m doing it with my heart.
How much have you succeeded in this endeavour?
Fantastic! That’s how I’ve been able to raise my children. I have children in college, and give scholarship to one or two people; that’s how I’ve been able to sustain my business. When business was slow in Nigeria, I was able to repatriate some funds to pay my bills, pay my staff, and I’m still in business. It’s not easy but once you’re determined, the sky is the limit.
If you were to rate between Nigerian men and women, who patronise local fashion the more?
I really couldn’t say categorically that one does it more than the other. Five years ago, I used to see a lot of men wearing Ankara, but that trend is diminishing. Nigerian men are wearing more Western look now. The women have gone nuclear; they want to look like Beyonce. The older ones still wear the Senegalise boublou and iro and buba; but the younger ones, except they are going to a party where there’s aso ebi, where everybody has to look uniform, then they go cultural otherwise, it’s not for them. Look at the streets these days, majority of the people that pass by are wearing Western styles, both male and female.
So, the trend is going towards more Western.
Is it that designers like you who are in the business haven’t done enough to propagate African dress styles for the majority of the populace to embrace?
I can speak for myself. If you look at the 1990s, there were several of my friends in this business. They are chasing contracts now or doing furniture or something else; there was no incentive from the quarters that incentive should have come from. Let me give an example; when Felix Houphouet-Boigny was alive in Cote d’Ivoire, he had a competition for designers called the Golden Scissors. Designers and people had something to look forward to at the end of the year. They competed amongst themselves; there were new fabrics, new styles all the time.
But no such thing is happening in Nigeria; no encouragement. Let me give another example; Mobutu Sese Seko, former president of former Zaire, now Congo DR, boosted the music industry in that country. I’m not saying they are not promoting music here, but Mobutu financed Papa Wemba, Sukons Stars; he opened the door to the world for them, and they were able to push their music to the world. Who is pushing Fela’s Afrobeat except Femi and Seun? Who is supporting them in the background? Nobody is saying, ‘look, we want you to do a tour of the world’. I’m not saying only government can do it; even individuals that appreciate art should be able to come up and say, ‘look, let’s put our money where our mouth is’.
Our culture is the richest instrument, the most vital instrument that we have that we can sell to the world, but we’re so engrossed with oil money that we’re abandoning our culture for the West or we’re letting the West dictate our culture for us. Very soon, our culture will fade away; other cultures have faded because of abandonment. I used to have three weavers that wove aso oke; they all left. One said her knees hurt, and doctor said it’s the weaving; another said there was no money in it.
For several reasons, the art of weaving is dying. That’s just an example. There are so many ways that we can propagate our cultures to the rest of the world that are being abandoned for the Western culture.
But I think I’m doing my best to keep alive African fashion styles. I know what obtains in other parts of the world; that is why I gave you those two examples. In England, the fashion industry is subsidised greatly. It’s not easy to import clothes from other countries to the U.K. Over here, it’s not the same. Nobody is encouraging us to export our art, different art media outside the country. I think I’m doing my best; I’ve hung on for 25 years. That’s a lot, 25. I’m getting ready to become a grandfather; that’s something. I give myself credit.
It’s not all about money; some of us get to a fork in the road, we paved the road that was uncharted instead of going the easy way. But we leave a mark; if you take the easy way, you don’t leave a mark. You make a lot of money but you may not be able to sleep well. With some of us, we’re like our forefathers or foremothers; we leave a mark so the next generation can have something they can depend on, something they can tap from.
I’ve put a lot into my work; I think properly and tap from all over the world to make my fabrics and my designs. Our aim is to make African fabrics and styles more attractive to the world. So, we’re doing styles in African fabrics that are Western and we’re using Western fabrics to do African styles. So, we’re reversing the trends. A lot of the Japanese designers, Kenzo, Isimiaki, they had financial backing from the Japanese government; nobody is backing us except God. In a nutshell, that’s what it is.
You have to have a backbone. And because there is so much fraud in our system, there is no trust. It is not easy for the government and the banks to trust people to say, ‘ok, we guarantee this loan’; that’s what the Chinese are doing. All the Chinese industries are small-scale industries operating out of small places like garages, and exporting all these things we buy here; they get funding from government or several organisations. So, there is a certain per centage of their profits that they repatriate into the system by law. You commit a major financial crime in China, you’re dead.
You get a loan from a bank in China and in weeks you’re leaving office, you’re dead. You can’t do that. But in a country where you just do things because people forget easily, there is no future. It’s been predicted that we have three more years as a country and we’ll be gone. Nobody loves this country; people just love the money and do all they can to get it for themselves and their children. There’s no passion for Nigeria. The company called Nigeria is a limited liability private company; that’s how it’s being run. It’s not being run like they care for the masses; they care for themselves. I’m sorry if I digress…
You also do visual art…
Yes; visual, flat art, fibre. I turn my fabrics into art; I paint on anything: on bottles, on paper, anything that got a surface, I paint on. But no exhibition; I’ve got over 150 pieces in my place in Atlanta, U.S.
Our culture is the richest instrument, the most vital instrument that we have that we can sell to the world, but we’re so engrossed with oil money that we’re abandoning our culture for the West or we’re letting the West dictate our culture for us. Very soon, our culture will fade away