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Malaika of Togo Yeye opens up about Pan-Africanism, Community Spirit and Togolese Chic
NCO 073
2023-06-30
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N: Hi Malaika! I've been a fan of your incredible work, and it's such a pleasure to finally connect with you. Can you share a little about your background and how you found your passion for fashion? Were there any other career paths that you considered along the way?

M: Thank you so much for having me. I am so excited to be doing this interview ! I have wondered many times where my passion for arts and fashion originates, but I have never been able to find a concrete answer. I come from a very modest family and I am the first in my circle who has had the courage to explore a creative path, which means that I have not had much creative influences during my upbringing. I believe that I have a natural interest for arts and style and things that stand out from the norm.

Growing up I used to take my outfits and style very seriously, especially when there were special occasions such as family celebrations or school events. I even competed in beauty competitions such as the Miss Togo pageants. These were the small entry points into fashion and arts that were available to me at the time...

I think that is how my passion for everything creative manifested itself, without knowing exactly what I wanted to be. I also studied medicine for four years, before I started considering the arts and fashion not just as a passion, but also as a career option. My work fills me with so much joy and passion that I feel like this career choice has in many ways liberated me.

N: Togo Yeye was born from your collaboration with the Delali Ayivi, a talented photographer. Could you tell me the story of how you two met and what makes your creative partnership so harmonious? In what ways do your creative energies align, and what unique qualities do each of you bring to the table?

M: Delali and I met in early 2018, over social media through our common interest for fashion, specifically fashion in Togo. We often joke that we were destined to meet because we had an instant connection when we first saw each other.

Our work is so harmonious because we share a utopian vision of our country and its diaspora and we hope to show a diversified image of our country levelling the scales of representation and subverting the existing narratives around Togo.

We also hope to highlight our incredible Togolese youth, their individual talents while at the same time forge a sense of community. We believe that change and innovation pertaining to a country's evolution should start within a population that understands our needs. We work hard to do our part toward this evolution and the understanding of our community in order to contribute to a flourishing creative industry in Togo. Our skillset is quite complementary and unique, I was born and raised in Togo while Delali grew up outside of the country. Most of what I know about the arts world I taught myself through work experience, while Delali attended art school.

Delali is a self-taught photographer and figures out how to capture the styles we develop together, while I am a much more conceptual thinker and creator . We don't really restrict ourselves to the medium of photography only and love to develop ideas that can expand our artistic dimension.

N: Your visual direction often combines Western influences with togolese traditions and folklore, resulting in a captivating blend. Is there a particular Togolese custom, tradition, or mythology that holds a special place in your heart or that you find exceptionally beautiful?

M: I think I am much less inspired by a specific mythology or custom, rather than Togolese culture, tradition and history as a whole.

Western and more recently Asian occupation and assimilation play a significant role in our recent history and have caused modern day Togo to become a blend of influences.

This often manifests visually and I think that this whole dynamic leads back to our general commitment to portraying the lives of modern day Togolese youth in a realistic way.

I am especially inspired by the fashion and photography from the 1980s onwards and different studio photography styles. I am also inspired by Togolose cultural icons like the Nana Benz, a group of savvy business women who changed the fashion landscape in Togo as well as religion.I try to always use my culture as the basis for my inspiration instead of focusing on what is trendy, as those trends usually do not originate in Togo.

My aim is very much to create work for the West-African gaze. I would have loved to get a formal education in arts, but I have not yet been able to pursue that path.
However, sometimes I think that my "naivety" and fresh eye is actually an advantage that helps me set myself apart in my creative direction.

I think there is a certain beauty in honest imperfection and in showing the learning process within our works, while simultaneously taking pride in our cultural circumstances.

N: I want to take a closer look at the youth culture and creative scene in Lomé for those who may not be familiar with it. Where do creatives gather in the city, and what activities or hangouts do they enjoy? Are there any specific art forms or talents that thrive in Lomé, such as exceptional painters, seamstresses or musicians?

M: Our creative youth culture is small, but vibrant. And younger generations play a crucial role in our local creative and cultural industry, though they do not get much support or recognition.

Despite our lack of art schools or opportunities for formal training Lomé is full of creative talents, especially music thrives in this city. At the moment Togolese drill is a really popular music genre, created by groups such as Lomerica and Cogni Gangstar. Paul Ahyi, one of the pioneers of our artistic industry said: "Art is above all a message... If i don't have something to say, i don't do anything".

The Togolese youth has a lot to say, and they are working hard to have their messages passed on. You can see it everywhere around the city...there is a local skate group called Blood Nation who meets in a parking lot in the heart of the city and teaches kids and teens how to skate, while forging a community where everyone brings their unique talents to the table, be it fashion, painting or music.

There are also events such as Friendzone or Big Chill , where everyone comes out in their best outfits and it's a great showcase of how dynamic our youth is. Generally we have a huge streetwear culture, which certainly is largely influenced by style in the US, but with a Togolese spin on it.

The practice of street art is also popular and young people are increasingly allowed to paint murals instead of being labelled as vandals.

We have often used this in our work before as backdrops. Just yesterday I came across an application sheet calling for artists to create murals, which is fantastic. We are generally largely inspired by the walls in our city. Lomé is really quite beautiful and peaceful. It is not for nothing that it has been given the nickname "Lomé -la belle" : Lomé the beauty.

There is still a lot of work to do in building spaces and communities where we can come together and organise as one, but we have a promising foundation of motivated individuals.

N: One aspect I admire about Togo Yeye is its focus on Togo and the promotion of local creatives while also embracing a broader African perspective. It's evident that you explore the idea of Pan-Africanism. In your opinion, can fashion, being a universal language, serve as a powerful means to inspire unity across the African continent and among people of African descent?

M: Yes! Of course yes. The African continent is extremely diverse, but fashion generally can be used as a universal language. I will use one of my lifelong inspirations and Pan-African hero Thomas Sankara as an example because he has always recognized the social and economic power of fashion.

One of his policies focused on the textile industry, more specifically encouraging local production and consumption of garments by his people.

This initiative aimed not only to support the economy of Burkina Faso, but also to teach its population to cherish and take pride in their culture.

This story has greatly inspired me to create my textile brand Capzules. West-Africa is one of the largest consumers of wax and Batik fabrics, but most of the production takes places outside of the continent.

My aim with Capzules is to highlight traditional and artisanal dying techniques from West-Africa and localise production and consumption following Pan-African ideals. I also create contemporary ready-to-wear pieces with my fashion line Spicy. With both these brands I try to convey African creative values. I think fashion can not only unify the continent, but also revive parts of ourselves that we have perhaps lost.

N: As we near the end of our conversation, I want to hear your thoughts on the future. What are your personal goals, as well as the aspirations for Togo Yeye? How do you envision the African fashion scene evolving? With the world becoming increasingly interconnected, do you sense a growing global interest in the creativity emerging from Africa? I would love to end this interview with your final reflections on this topic.

M: My personal goals are to establish myself as curator and artist on the African continent as well as to combine curation and fashion. I want to further develop and explore textile and dying techniques and use my practice to raise questions on how we consume and produce garments.

It is quite a multilayered dream, but I think my generation is very much committed to change and to pushing the boundaries of what we have been told to believe is possible in terms of the evolution of our continent. I and many others remain optimistic and confident in our creative potential.

Our goals for Togo Yeye is to further establish ourselves in the art world as a creative duo, in Togo and globally. We hope to further explore techniques that go beyond photography and work with prints and dying techniques. We also want to unite creative community and hope to zone in on this more in the coming years, through physical spaces, workshops, meetups and events. Overall I would say that the African creative industry is very promising, but requires substantial investment from each individual interested in its development.

The global interest in Africa is great, but it needs to be approached carefully to make sure that African voices will not be drowned out by western voices even if they are well intended.

Africa is at an interesting turning point where we can still decide to create a system that works for us, and that has our people and cultures in its best interest. For this to happen, we need to focus on education and on mutual and equal collaborations that allow us to evolve positively.

All images courtesy of Malaika and Togo Yeye
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