United Colours of Africa

Mukhtara Yusuf Interview

I would say my most outstanding project has to be the  ?kan àbíkú project, 

because it's most of the things that are important to me wrapped up into one. Narrative, critical race theory, radical social justice theory, indigenous design sensibilities, and waste, environment, ecology, healing of trauma, challenging of western philosophical theories on subjectivity (and w that disability) all wrapped into one. It's so many things. A close second is the most recent project I did as part of my residency in South Africa. It also had this notion of drawing from the waste and devalued elements of the landscape and existing material culture and really was a moment where my obsession and love for clothing that is classed got to shine.

African design has had a really hard and long and historic relationship with the rest of the world since forever so that's hard for me to answer. From the Victorian bustles to the 60s mini skirt, which traces back to origins in Tanzania. The 90s are especially a moment to me worthy of looking at critically. The hay day of tokenistic multiculturalism in America meant that african design and fashion had a new impact and cultural political way of being deployed. We also can't forget things like Alexander McQueen's Eshu collection, John Paul Gaultiers numerous (mis) appropriations. The relationship has been a historical one of exoticism. Of claims of celebration that are deeply questionable given the context of the societies they were evoked in. And how these spaces treated the actual African bodies that would have been found in these clothes. Now the relationship I hope african design and fashion will have is an ironic model of development. I say ironic because Africans and African design alike have been historically positioned as the opposite and outside of development  (we can look at  the way african design and functional art has been canonized *out* of art history away from western art for ex )  There are so many gifts and sensiblitIes that would help the global north, thewest, neocolonial powers that be however you want to describe them -out of the problems that they have gotten themselves into. I hope through my work I will be able to illuminate them, with priority and focus on the healing of african descendant peoples, minds, hearts, countries and cultures though. 

I did a project with the National Institute of Health in the US, focussed on finding a global health solution for under-represented communities and we ended up focussing on a Somali community inside city heights in San Diego California. One of the key things that came out was that the community wanted to focus on mental health, so we had to tackle a lot of assumptions that we were making as designers. Inter-generational stress was a key source of mental health in that community and the community itself wanted a design solution that was not individualistically orientated but instead could be used by multiple people and many members of the community as once. As designers we had to shift this tendency we had to think about orientated design based on a cultural assumption based on the individualistic society in America.

In Yoruba Okan means the mind and the heart and Àbíkú is a subjectivity in your theory which is between these worlds. This project for me was a healing modality that went through a lot of narrative design processes to create an expression. One of the key things within it was the idea of cultural technology: this sense that within our cultures and these different analogue themes we actually have resources to help create solutions for us for different themes that it is important for us to not automatically assume that technology has to be digital or that that is the only value that technology has. I also use waste in my work and that is important to my sense of innovation. Value systems are critically important to me and what kinds of innovation get valued over others and I am really interested in pointing those themes out so we can look at them.

Another project I did on vernacular sustainability in Nigeria: I was looking critically at the kind of infrastructures and modes of display that get set up around different types of innovation that create the space for some innovations to be more highly valued then others. How can we think more critically about social capital that circulates around these innovations? One of my core beliefs when it comes to culture and innovation is that we have to think beyond the object or the product and really consider how innovation can exist as an ecology or a system of relationships between groups of people and make sure when we are considering creating more innovations we prioritise that.

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