Polly Alakija is a British born artist, who is now based in Lagos, Nigeria, where she married her husband and now has her studio.
She uses her canvas to explore her imaginations and plays around with colour to create paintings that are now in demand.
Apart from being the stereotypical oil on canvas artist, Alakija works with the White space creative agency as well as the Red door gallery to help develop urban spaces in Africa, one of which is the 'Lagos at 50', inspired by the Chibok girls.
This project commissioned by the Lagos government has raised the artists profile and now allowing her to sell her work from £1,400.
Having heard so much buzz about the artist and her technique, AFÉ decided to visit her studio space to get a feel for the artist and her work.
Her studio welcomed its viewers in with a vintage beetle painted all over it, parked just outside the entrance. The artist used what you can call classical graffiti, if that existed. Upon entering, we were greeted by one of her assistants, he gave us a moment to take in the various art pieces on display - from the designed print pillows, to the straw woven baskets and of course her larger than life paintings.
With so much going on, there is only so little time to properly observe, analyse and process what the eye makes of the artists' thought-process.
As an observer, it was very easy to get lost in her work, with various subjects and activities going on in her paintings. It takes you on a surreal journey that leaves you questioning returning back to reality.
When looking closely at some of her work, you begin to reference famous Italian Renaissance artist, Michelangelo. I immediately thought of his Sistine Chapel, not that I am trying to state that Alakija is of the same level as Michelangelo, but she is well underway.] Her work spoke volumes, yet said nothing, Alakija is Lagos' very own Michelangelo.
A personality that is as vibrant as her pieces, Kiki Kamanu is never just a walk in the park, she is a tornado that will hit you in just the right places.
Diving into a world of "I DON'T GIVE A FUCK", Kamanu talks about what inspires her collections, breaks down her creative process, which shockingly doesn't involve a moodboard and how she has achieved such immaculate results this far!!!
"I’m sorry. It’s for those who get it, who aren’t afraid not to look like everybody else."
Just the sound of Kiki Kamanu takes you on a journey that has only sun sass and #IDGAF attitude.
While being the daring designer that she is clearly meant to be, Kamanu has also touched the modelling waters. Kamanu was a model represented by the Ford modelling agency in Boston, walking for power brands, such as Chanel and Gucci.
What is the saying; you can have beauty and brains?
As much as a first in Neurosurgery sounds and looks bliss on that resume, this was not the path for Kamanu, clearly.
Having travelled to various parts of the world, due to the designer having diplomatic parents, she has been able to experience the multitudes of cultures that this world has to offer and these have inspired some of her collections.
There is never a dull moment with Kiki, on arrival at her production factory located on Ikorodu road, Lagos Nigeria, I was asked where the bottle of champagne was, of course she was joking. maybe?
When asked to describe her ideal brand ambassador, it was not what was expected. She veered away from the stereotypical tall, skinny and blonde models girls, she wanted a woman with blue hair [emphasis on the blue hair] with matching blue lashes, who can pull off those very formal suits that most accountants would wear for their 5 days a week shift.
Kiki Kamanu is not just the brand, it's the person and this interview with her explores the designers' adventures in Ethiopia and how it lead to be a predominant source of inspiration in her Balkan Rhapsody S/S'13 collection.
Q: Who is Kiki Kamanu and what does the brand represent?
A: I have no idea…No, just delete that (laughs at her response).
The brand began as the person, it was for people like me, who looked like me, who are as adventurous as I was, as I am. For people who are proud and confident of their body parts, I want them to show all their body parts, even in winter (sly) and for people who would walk into a room and know that they will be noticed and not because they are half naked but because they took the time to be different, in a good way.
I got a lot of good feedback, from clients and strangers but the one thing I heard a lot from most people was that “Oh I love your pretty shoes, but I can’t wear it” or “OH my God this is so nice but I have nowhere to wear it to” and so I began to think not just of Kiki Kamanu (me) as my ideal client and customer/consumer. So, I began to shift and adapt the way I designed but at the same time, trying not to lose who Kiki is. I still want the pieces to have adventure, colour, energy and to give you confidence, but at the same time I want to appeal to someone who is a size 2 going up to a size 26, which at first I thought was going to be quite daunting but with time I have been able to accomplish that. So not all pieces are meant for all body types and shapes, which is fine, in the same way not all styles or patterns are meant for every type of person.
You could be conservative or adventurous and you find out one piece works for both individuals.
So now, the Kiki Kamanu person is every woman. She is a 22-year-old mother who is in school, who has to think about day-care, who knows that when she comes home from school she doesn’t want to change out of her Kiki clothes to play with her 2-year-old son.
It’s also the lawyer who is a size 20, who has been in court all day, who just wants to spend time with her family and not have to change out of her boring or tight-fitted suit to relax.
Someone who knows when she walks into a venue or a club on a Saturday night, all eyes are going to be on her from head-to-toe the entire night.
I try to think, what is this person trying to be like? What is she like now? And how can I make her aware that she has the various Kiki dresses to select from.
Q: If you could describe your ideal brand ambassador in three to six words, what will they be?
A: What I’m about to say might not be what you’d expect but I’m not sure I want it to be someone who is model thin but more of someone who is tall, regal and someone who carries herself as though she is on a runway regardless of her size.
Someone who you see and your reaction is “Oh my God, where did you get that blouse?!”, someone who doesn’t give a toss what people say, someone who can walk in with blue hair (emphasis on the BLUE HAIR) and doesn’t care. Someone who can have the blue hair and the blue lashes and still pull of a black corporate suit and still be taken seriously because she does have what it takes. My ideal brand ambassador is every woman, I’m sorry. It’s for those who get it, who aren’t afraid not to look like everybody else.
Ummm… For one of my fashion shows, the ARISE Fashion show to be more specific, I had the models come out wearing bill boards/ Plaques and each one would say “I’m not a fashion zombie” and “I don’t keep up with the Jones” and as they walked out, they would rip it off and expose their clothes. I had to get approval from the head of ARISE, his production managers were like, NO, NO!!! and I said ask him and so he came and said; “Kiki, high-five girl!!! I love it, do it.”, So I had to fight to get my message across.
Q: Having been exposed to various culture background’s (i.e. America, France, Nigeria…etc.) would you say various cultural aspects have been interwoven into your designs?
A: Oh, absolutely, absolutely in every way. It’s funny because it has been unconscious. I realise the more I travel and the more I see, the more I change the way I see fashion.
My mother is a diplomat of the foreign services, so, we have lived in different places; from Jakarta to Istanbul, Cairo, Doha, Bulgaria…different places.
I have always been interested in the fashion, of course, and the culture, the people and I find that each time I go somewhere different now, I immediately sketch what I have just seen.
Summer 2013, I had just come back from Ethiopia and I drove around the Omo valley and the drive between the villages was between a 6-10-hour drive. I photographed the different tribes and captured their culture.
A lot of them were very primitive, basically what you see in Tarzan, that is what they were, not wearing clothes. I took a picture with my big camera and one of them just ran because of the flash.
Now I’d expect that at night, but, this was during the day, and they just screamed and ran and they had no beds, so I thought, it is that primitive. I captured about eight different tribes, the Mursi tribe are very aggressive. They had their 7-year-old carrying machetes.
So, as I got there, I had to have an armed escort just for that village.
When I got there, one of the ladies saw the blue beads (blue is the colour for virgins who want to be married) I wore around my waist and she was tugging on the beads and she was a young girl wearing the plate lip jewellery. She was signing that she wanted my beads, and she came back minutes later and she gave me a plate. They don’t part with these plates; they do not play with the plate jewellery but yet she wanted me to take off the beads in exchange for her plate. This shaped my next collection.
Prior to that, I spent some times in a small village, can’t remember the name, and that collection was called Balkan Rhapsody, 2013. I spent time with the gypsies there, like real gypsies. It was all just so surreal. I tried to spend time outside the touristy areas.
So, to answer your question, a part of where I have been, does always shape me in some way or the other.
Q: How would you describe being a creative in Africa, especially Nigeria? Do you feel you are not taken as seriously as you should be due to being classified as African or African-based?
A: It’s funny that you say that because I don’t see myself as a Nigerian designer because I am not, I am Kiki Kamanu. My heritage is Nigerian, it’s American, it’s rich and black as everything, so, I won’t say I am not Nigerian but I would say I am not a Nigerian designer because 60% of my clientele are outside Nigeria.
The production process is not as limiting as it used to be. Many people bring up the infrastructures and the issue with N.E.P.A (The electricity provider for the better part of Nigeria.) but those are here, so we just have to move on.
People are still able to work around those at a slightly different cost. I have toyed with manufacturing in Turkey and in China, and that means I’d have to take my fabrics there and import the finished product and so in the end, it is really not worth it. I find I have to bring in a lot of my fabric, I have been able to establish a relationship or partnership with some suppliers here, who go out to bring it in and that makes things a lot easier because I was travelling all the time, from Dubai, to Paris…etc. and so it gets tedious after a while.
It is limiting because we don’t have many retail outlets. So, you will find many designers who carry-on their own boutiques but you will not find many boutiques who carry a circle of designers.
You have the Alara’s and the Grey Velvets’ and that’s really it in the entire state.
And so, what the Kiki Kamanu label has had to do, is we now have an e-commerce site, it launched about a year and a half ago and that has been our saving grace.
So, we have partnered with DHL and this has made our lives so much easier and this partnership began in October. So, this has given my clients the confidence that they will get their package within 3-4 working days. The site brings in a lot of international clients.
We have also partnered with a French West-African website based in Paris. They cater towards people who enjoy pieces from the African continent and their clientele aren’t all black, which is very interesting.
Right now, we are shipping to clients in Bari, Italy, to France of course, the U.S and somewhere in the Netherlands. So, this has opened up a space in the international market.
We stock in America, Kenya, Barcelona and so on.
"Another thing is, do not be afraid to hear NO."
Q: Can you highlight your creative process?
A: It varies, I mean I could see what you are wearing and what I would begin to process is how to find which material, which print will complement the top. I could see something and say; “oh, I like this but I would do it in different way. Would I make it longer, shorter? Would I use blue instead of green?” or it could be the other way round, where I see the fabric and start from there. I also sketch, I spent the whole weekend sketching, just working on the floor.
For instance, my boyfriend could come up to me and ask if I am sketching and I just sit there, staring into the distance and not responding. I am sketching in my mind. It is rare that I actually have time to just spread out my plan and just do what I need to do.
I carry my Crayola crayons around with me, I just love doing things in colour.
When the sketch phase is over, I use sample fabrics to make a sample, and so once we’ve made the sample, I will tweak it a bit and once I am satisfied with the sample, we may produce it immediately or we may just put it aside for a different time. I always get an opinion from the entire team, at times I am confident, at times I need a second opinion.
The next process is creating another sample in chosen fabric and I put it on, and model it. It is easier for me to be my own model. I put on my sunglasses because I am not wearing any make-up; I don’t have time to keep doing a full face. After which we go outside to shoot and send the images to trusted friends and ask their opinions on what could be improved or if they will wear it.
At times, I will post some samples and observe people’s reactions.
My driver takes my pictures, I taught him. (laughs). So yeah, that is our process, it is organic, nothing amazing. On some occasions, I use a mood board but I stopped doing that because I just don’t use a mood board anymore. For me a mood board always takes up a lot of my time and I change so much during the creation of the mood board that the results are not what was initially planned.
Not using a mood board has gotten me in trouble sometimes because I am all over the place but I am learning to just streamline everything and make my collections more cohesive.
Q: If you could work/collaborate with anyone in the fashion industry, who would it be and why?
A: Christie Brown!!! I want Christie Brown; I love you and I know I haven’t seen you in forever!!! Hmmm, who would I like to collaborate with, I love what Orange Culture is doing. I used to be his mentor actually. I am just so proud of what he is. He is so genuine which is rare in this industry.
I like Orange culture because he takes the risks that I used to take. I stopped taking them because I had to think more of my investors. He reminds me of my first two collections and back then I didn’t care about anything. I was in New York, I was new, it all came from my heart. Now the first question is, is this financially viable? Will this sell?
I like Christie brown because her label is what I would wear if I were not a designer. Her S/S’18 is her best collection so far.
Q: Finally, what would your advice be toward the upcoming creatives trying to make their mark on the fashion scene?
A: It’s the same thing I ask all the time – Is this a hubby or is this a career?
If it’s a hobby, fine. Just use the money from whoever and do what you need to do, produce what you need to produce, just live for the fashion shows and who cares if you can produce it if you get the orders.
But if it is your career, if it is what you need to be doing and it is what you would do for free, then you have to realise that you have to get a partner. If your background is in the creative industry, great, go get someone who has a business oriented background. People fail to do this. It is hard to find a trusting partner and a production team, because you can’t do everything. Start with three or four people, teach them all you know, do not be afraid of teaching them everything because that is not possible. You always want a situation with your team running the factory or studio in case you can’t be there.
The production process should be able to run without you being there. I recall once, I had to go away unexpectedly for 3 weeks, but it ended up being six months. I was so pleased that I had trained my staff, because within those six months we made so much money. I was so proud of them. I brought back one suitcase of gifts just for their hard work.
So, that is important, the show has to go on without you and if you think it can’t you will suffer, your health will suffer. So just get a good team and know your limitations and your strengths. Above all, get a business plan, it is your bible, you don’t have to stick to it but it should be your guide.
Another thing is, do not be afraid to hear NO. I still hear it till today.
I approached some investors last year for a product I was working on. I went to about three, four, five of them and I got no, no, no no, no and it weighed heavy on my heart.
I asked this one person, he’d been there all along but I just never asked, I decided to ask and pitch my idea and before I knew it, it was mine within 24 hours. If I had been scared, and trust me, NO is a very scary word. When you have a vision, a goal and you have to accomplish it, you have to keep on going. Seriously, God is amazing in every way, my faith has gone from a lower point to a higher one.
Lastly, Apply to as many international competitions as possible. I applied to one, and I did not win but based on my participation in that, I got a call a few months later from CNN, because CNN follows them and saw that I was the top 5, read my story, saw me, loved me and did an interview with me. They came here, shadowed me for the whole day and my interview was shown twice a day, throughout the world for a month. That is PR you cannot buy. So, you never know where it might lead, people always see these things and think, I will not win.
At only 25, Nigerian-British photographer has exhibited her work at New Orleans, Texas and London. Also, gaining press from platforms such as OkayAfrica, Louisiana weekly and Blanc Modern Africa, she takes us on her journey of self discovery.
Juliana Kasumu is a vibrant individual, very accommodating but do not mistaken her for a push-over.
Having attended the Birmingham City university and graduated with a bachelor's degree in Visual Communications, she depicts the black woman, mainly of African descent, in a manner that leaves the viewer both inspired and questioning how much they actually know about the black woman.
Kasumu believes the term 'women of colour' is very outdated. Time is passing by really quick, with each generation evolving even further than the previous one. Kasumu believes it is time for black women to re-claim their place in society; not just as a black woman, but a woman of culture, confidence and strength.
I question and discuss how her projects came to be and I discover a part of my cultural roots I had been ignorant of.
"if you had a drop of black in your blood and you are black, thereby a person of colour. And that was important when trying to navigate the world because at the end of the day, there are people who are not black but are also minorities. "
Who is Juliana Kasumu?
“Oh God, that’s a terrible question [while smiling]. I feel that’s a big question to ask because I think I’m still in the process of trying to understand who I am.
So, I would say, as of this moment, I am a British-Nigerian photographer, I try to be someone who focuses on the idea of educating young female readers. So, I think to me, the joining of education and the joining of the arts is kind of, like a passion for me.
Ummm… so I got into photography because I was very much into psychology and I would like to think you can still see the psychology aspect in my work.
I picked photography as this very ‘easy- get the great subject’ but it turned out to be one of the hardest things for me. I had to adapt myself toward thinking creatively, especially because I grew up with the premise that the art is something that you don’t pursue. So, photography became this thing that I was so passionate about and so it just started evolving.
I continuously had this fear of – if I go down this route, will I successful? Will I make my parents proud? All this pressure, and I think I got to a point where I thought, this is about me and what I like and I am going to go off to uni and what do I want to learn more about and it was photography and film. ‘So I am not going to say that from when I was a young seven-year-old, I picked up the camera and there it was.’ I mean we did have this little film camera that we would take photos and I loved the process of going into Boots and getting them developed afterwards but it was never something that I would have ever imagined pursuing in my lifetime. It was at about the age of 17 to 18 is when I eventually went to university and studied it and it became clear to me that this is what I want.
And so, with Irun Kiko, it was a project developed out of my final major project and for me this became the catalyst to everything I’m doing right now. So, it wasn’t until that final year that I decided that, ‘Okay, yes, I do want to pursue photography and that’s how I grew into it.'
It is safe to say; majority of your photographic content is based and inspired by black women, especially the black African woman.
Can you elaborate on why you have chosen to explore the black woman in your work?
It comes from a very personal place, when I started off exploring my photography I was going off a different route based on the images that were around me. There were quite a few images around me, looking at magazines like vogue, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, at the time what you would often see is black women, who were often portrayed as ‘white’. So, living in the U.K., born and raised, I often felt like this built a disconnect and I think I was reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of the Yellow Sun at the time and this was possibly my second or first year at uni and I was ashamed to realise I did not know about the Biafra war [Nigerian Civil War], I thought it was all fiction. When I then researched more about the book, I found out that the Biafra war was real and I was surprised and asked myself, ‘what else do I not know about the history of Nigeria, of the place I am here making statements like, “I am from Nigeria and I am proud” and meanwhile, I had no idea of the things that were happening.
So, I went back and sis tons of research and I came across this historical information about our hair, black women and the empowerment of black women at the time.
During this research, during this process of finding out more, my thing them became;
I don’t want to say it’s my only focus, but I will say it is what I naturally gravitate to. It is something that comes naturally to me, not forced. It is something that has happened and is happening and I can’t help it.
As an individual whose job is to look, observe, analyse and capture, what are your thoughts on the term ‘People of colour’? Would you say it is an offensive term or accurate?
I don’t think it’s offensive. There are two sides to this;
There’s one side where, I understand there was a point in history where that term was really important because if you had a drop of black in your blood and you are black, thereby a person of colour. And that was important when trying to navigate the world because at the end of the day, there are people who are not black but are also minorities.
At the same time, I think we are in a time where it is even more tricky because even with the term ‘people of colour’, there is this social hierarchy where it says, if you are of a darker shade or colour then you are still underrepresented but the closer you are to being white, the more opportunities and privileges you have access to.
Sometimes, I feel there is a difference between a black person and a person of colour because there is a reason why it is a black person as opposed to a person of colour. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I am offended but I do think it is a term that we are now in a place where we can let that term go and that is something I don’t want people to hold onto.
We can decide to say black person, brown person…etc. because I think ‘people of colour’ is an outdated term.
As a British Nigerian Photographer, who would you say makes up majority of your audience?
The audience question is always an interesting one because I just remember throughout my time at university, whenever you are doing a project, they always ask you who your audience is and why, And I always struggled with it because my work could attract anyone willing to learn, anybody interested in finding out more about black history. I think it can reach out to all races of all ages. It is important for the younger generations because I feel it is important for them to learn about historical events from a young age, so that the situation is not;
At the age of 18, they come to realise they do not know much, God forbid, I would hate that for my future children.
For someone who is older, they can unlearn certain things they have taken in and internalised – for a white person to understand the everyday struggles of a black individual but also not just the struggles, but the celebrations of black people and for black people, to see ourselves represented and empowered.
I think that question is more complicated because I do not know who my audience is, I feel anyone interested in learning about black history, African history, then that is who my content is aimed at.
From my research, I noticed you address matters like the social constructs and politics behind the black woman and exploring her natural hair and the various forms of the African black hair, as shown in your IRUN KIKO series. Please, do tell me more about your initial drive to kick-start this project and how you feel about it.
Like I said previously, that started off as me finding out all of this history and all this stuff I had no idea about and wanted to delve into it. And so, from the use of archives and a lot of books. Some of these books discussed hairstyles like, Irun Kiko and the traditional hair braiding others discussed hair styles like Irun Didi and Irun Biba. So, you have the hair plaiting and a mix between threading and plaiting.
And so, I found that before colonisation, these hairstyles were used to represent what tribe someone was from, what family they belonged to. Also, little details like, were you a house girl or a gate-man. If you were married you would wear a certain hairstyle and if you were not married there were certain hairstyles they would wear to pray for a husband, there were even certain hairstyles they could wear to sow they were angry at their husbands.
For me, that then became this passion project. I found out there were these gaps in history, archives that had been lost.
I then began to question how many people know about this, how much dialogue do we have relating to this. We are in a time now where, hair braiding and Afros and even Irun Kiko is seen as unattractive.
I showed people pictures of Irun Kiko, styled on a black woman, asking if they would wear this hairstyle today and their response were; “No. It’s ugly, it’s unattractive.” I even remember getting it done as a child and I thought “what is this rubbish, you want me to go to school looking like this?”
So, for me it is trying to remove that very negative connotation away from something that was once deemed magnificent and beautiful.
Also, now, bringing it back to things like ‘The Kardashians’ where there was a lot of controversy about cultural appropriation and questioning why they were wearing braids but when black women do it, it is seen as unattractive but when the white woman wears it, it is attractive. So, let’s take that back now bearing in mind that do we conform to those connotations of wearing braids is unattractive or do we rebel against it.
Saying “This is how we wear our hair, this is how we are and what we look like, we are going to own it.” That’s what the premise of Irun Kiko, learning to appreciate where we come from.
Would you say your work inspires through education or educates through inspiration?
I think when you start something, you never know how people are going to be inspired by it. In all honesty, when I started this project it was more about myself and what am I learning in the process. Again, like I said, I was going through a phase of self-discovery, natural hair transition and learning so much about hair, especially my hair and my identity.
It was a very personal thing. It wasn’t until I shared it with my friends (all my friends are actually models in the photos) and so when we opened up that dialogue, they found themselves relating to this and most of them did not know because they were Congolese, some Nigerian and it became this really interesting dialogue. I thought sharing this is very important because it’s going to open up conversation that we are not having and need to have more of. I would definitely say it is a mix of both.
It’s about educating but it’s also about inspiring through visual representation and I think the way I did the styled the hair in the photos is more like an updated/modern version of the hairstyles.
One thing that really touched me, about 2 years ago, I went to Texas and I had an Irun Kiko presentation collaboration with a fashion designer called Ruben Raphael.
He got his clothes and I did the Irun Kiko hairstyles and this lady came up to me, mentioning the fact that she saw the hairstyles and was so inspired by it that she went ahead and did it herself.
I remember being so touched to the point of tears. I didn’t think it would actually reach someone in that way that they are so inspired by it and receiving the message that you are delivering. There is nothing in this world that could ever top that feeling.
If you could work or collaborate with anyone, this could be a magazine or individual, who would it be?
Anyone? There is this organisation in Nigeria, it’s called Strong Enough Girls
They focus on helping and supporting young girls in Nigeria and empowering them through education and activities. So, my interest is female empowerment, especially for young girls.
With the generation that we are living in, there are people, like yourself, who are doing things to create representation and I think the way our kids are going to grow up is not going to be the same as we did.
I think there is a lot more awareness, and so for me, I feel that organisation is doing a lot of the work that I am very motivated by. With what they are doing and what I am trying to achieve, I think it will be good to work with them and to host certain workshops I photography and support them as well as those girls. I feel there is a certain power in creativity. That is what I am trying to push for right now.
What are your thoughts on the representations of black African women I today’s media platforms? i.e. film, photography…etc.
Like I said previously, within six, seven years… a lot has changed and just remembering my time at university in comparison to now, a lot of progress has been made. I admit, there is still a lot of work to do and a lot more awareness to be raised.
There is a lot more positivity when it comes to black African women but it is only because our women are taking their power back. We are creating our own platforms, not waiting for other people to do it for us.
The mistake we were making in the past is, we were waiting for somebody else to give us recognition and represent us but now we do not need you anymore, we are doing our own thing.
It’s been beautiful, the transition and been positive and interesting to witness. There is still a lot more work to do but I think we have gotten to a point where people are waking up.
Finally, what advice would you leave with your audience and my readers?
The one piece of advice that I will give is, DO NOT under any circumstances, stop creating work. One thing that I have learnt is, as you progress with your career, you find that you become more aware to certain things in the industry, be it photography, film, fashion, you go into it very excited and when you see the reality of it, you become very disheartened.
You begin to doubt yourself and lose that naivety that brings that drive and that is something that I have struggled with a lot. When I realised it was not as easy as I thought, I became demotivated and that’s very bad.
As long as you keep pushing and working hard, being consistent, your work will never be in vain. Try not to worry about what you have in your bank account, whether anyone is going to see it, just put your work out there and eventually, things will set off. Especially for Africans, we need more presentation, there is never going to be enough, so keep going.