Safara, a term often associated with deeply laced African roots is the name of an African-themed fashion show that will be taking place in Ottawa on Saturday, October 3rd at Tabaret Hall on 550 Cumberland Street. With a mission statement to bridge the North American and African fashion barrier, this show has successfully run for two years in the capital city. This accomplishment is undeniably evident because of the team of hardworking young men and women behind the show.
“The Safara team wanted to create a fashion show that celebrates African print and fabrics in North America”, says Sid Abdul, event and show co-coordinator. He explains, “we, as Africans want to share a part of our culture and our talents to a broader audience in North America in the spirit of respect, love and sharing. And seeing that we live in a very multicultural environment, our mission statement is to introduce and educate the North American audience on our prints, fabrics and patterns”.
It is not uncommon to associate Toronto or Montreal first before Ottawa with fashion themed events in Canada. Moreover, it is not new knowledge that Ottawa is typically called a political or governmental city filled with a fast paced working population with a sense of style that can be found in the ‘formal wear’ aisle. So, bringing a show that boasts vibrant, eclectic and flamboyant colours and prints worn and made by Africans to Ottawa is interesting to say the least. Sid echoes this, and explains that it is because of the underrated designers and artists that exist in Ottawa that he believes shows like Safara should begin to take place in the capital city, as this will not only encourage the many talented designers in Ottawa but will also help display their creative talents to an atypical audience. Sid continues, “Ottawa is a gold mine for fashion; we do not have as much fashion events as other cities such as Toronto or Montreal, and we have an enormous space to create things that have never been seen before. Anything is possible here and it is simply a question of will power”.
When urged to describe what kind of audience show up at events like Safara in the city, Sid says, “In the past shows, our audience have varied from young people in their early twenties interested in fashion to a more mature audience. Last year, our mini post-event survey allowed us to see that the age range was between 18 to 81 years old; with the median age been 34”. This is noteworthy as 34 is close to the average age of the working population in Ottawa. So, it is interesting to note that a lot of people that fall within this age group, usually branded two synergistic terms, ‘government worker’ and ‘boring’ are the audience at fashion shows in the capital. This definitely indicates that the fashion gears in the city is gradually shifting, and people have begun to embrace the revival of fashion in the capital. This bodes good news for fashion enthusiasts around Canada, and as Sid mentions earlier, Ottawa is indeed becoming a fashion gold mine.
I urged Sid to give out details on what is to be expected at the show on Saturday, October 3rd, and he immediately reveals that an amazing show is to be expected overall. He coyly states that everyone that has already bought their tickets would not want to miss the beginning of the show. Because, to kick off the show will be a breathtaking African cultural dance performance that he is sure will blow the audience away. In addition to performances, African styles, prints, and fabrics will be on an elaborate display, and will be showcased via hairstyles, jewelry, make-up and of course clothing. The designers that will showcase their work on the run-way models at the show are either from a country in Africa or connected to Africa in some way. These designers include, Catherine Addai (Canadian/Ghanian), Niapsou Di (Senegalese/Canadian), King Jector Jr. (Nigerian), Ginette Sarr (Senegalese), Charifa Labarang (Cameroonian/Canadian), Fatouma Haidara (Malian), Stacey Martin Sackey (Ghanian), and many more. It is certainly no denying that Safara will amalgamate a host of designers from different parts of Africa on North American soil.
However, it is evident that in the past few years a lot of news that appears on social media and across the cyberspace include the misrepresentation of culture by another group. So, the term ‘cultural appropriation‘ has simply diffused every news outlet and information platform with conflicts and accusations arising amongst everyone including celebrities. Over the years, this term has been used to scold big brands and industries in the world, especially the fashion industry. This is because, people believe that the fashion industry in the capitalist-consumerist society disregards culture and its significance by encouraging certain fashion trends and designs that some cultures find offensive. So, this begs the question, what does the term, ‘cultural appropriation‘ mean? Interestingly, there hasn’t been one unanimous definition for this term but this doesn’t hinder people from hauling it at anyone they find guilty of misrepresenting a certain culture. So, after I searched every single corner of the internet for an appropriate definition of ‘cultural appropriation‘, I stumbled upon a somewhat simplistic and straight forward definition by Maisha Johnson of Everyday Femisnim, who states that “cultural appropriation in terms of power dynamic is when members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group”.
With this definition in mind, I reached out to Sid to clarify the mission statement of Safara, as well as to initiate a response to potential critics of the show, and many more like it that celebrate the culture of a minority group in a dominant group society. This critics often accuse show-runners of not being from said-culture they are celebrating, as well as using models that do not generally represent the people from said culture. I honestly believe this is one set-back that most cultural shows tend to face when they aim to showcase their styles outside of their cultural vicinity because they often struggle with finding the most respectful way to display their culture. So, I pressed Sid for comments about this topic, to which he responded, “the team behind the show are mostly Africans, and we have the right to showcase our prints, our fabrics, and our cultures, and we will certainly do so in the most respectful, loving, truthful, and powerful way possible. We are all in a way, the ambassadors of our cultures”.
To further explain this statement, he continues, “as ambassadors, we view this fashion show as a platform to change the narrative of our prints and our fabrics but also as a venue to share our fashion talents and our patterns in a respectful and empowering way”. Sid explains that this show is not trying to wrongfully misrepresent Africans at large but rather to embrace what it means to be African or of African decent, which a lot of people may have struggled with upon migrating to North America. “After several discussions with fellow Africans in Ottawa, and around North America in general, as a team, we realize that for some of us, it takes a lot of courage to simply step out of the house in North America in our traditional African prints, proudly showcasing them to our neighbours and friends. The narrow outlook of some people and the bullying that some of our kids have to go through when they go to school, or sit in the cafeteria while wearing their traditional prints is what inspired the invention of Safara. This close-mindness needs to stop, and a way to do so, is if as Africans, we can proudly wear prints from our various countries, eat our food in public and then educate people around us about our culture”.
Something to note however is that some prints from Africa actually came from Asia and Europe. Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian who studied the history of African designs informs people that some of the African prints we know of today are not authentically African in the way people have come to believe. These prints have a crossbred cultural background of their own, and that some commonly known West-African prints like the wax-print actually dates back to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where locals first originated the use of wax-resist dying to manually create resin-printed fabric (known as Batik) by hand.
However, one theory that exists on how these Batik prints found a home in West-Africa is that in the mid-19th century, the Dutch enlisted some West-African men (slaves and mercenaries) to add numbers to their army in Indonesia. While there, these West-African men grew a liking for the Indonesian Batiks to which they bought and took back to their home countries. In the meantime, the Europeans noticed the growing market of Batik prints and so they created a cost-effective method for producing their version of Batik by using machines. But, this machine-made versions of Batik were imperfect as they developed a crackling effect, where a series of dots and lines formed on the fabric and allowed the resin to crack and dye to sip through. Due to this imperfection, the Europeans’ version of Batik was not welcomed in the Indonesian market, however they were welcomed in the West-African market where they appreciated the fact that no two versions of Batiks were the same. This European adapted technique of Batik is what a lot of West Africans adopted and are now referred to as African prints.
Sid comments that as a team they make it imperative to educate themselves about African prints, its history, and its application, and it is this same knowledge they want to share with their audience on show day. To further elaborate on cultural appropriation, Sid says, “We [Safara Team] are very careful in the way we present our culture and our various fabrics to the rest of the world. For example, we will not put traditional Yoruba (Nigerian culture) or Bateke/Nzebi (Gabon culture) make-up that is only reserved for special occasions on our models. We will also not put traditional wear that is exclusively reserved for special ceremonies on models. There are lines that cannot be crossed and we will not cross them one bit”.
Sid also gave away another exciting element about the upcoming show, on the 3rd of October. He mentions that a celebrity judge, Karrueche Tran, a Hollywood designer/stylist will be co-hosting this year’s show, alongside Gwen Madiba, one of the founders of the Safara show, and a recognized fashion guru in the capital city. “The idea behind Safara is to build a bridge between Africa and North America. This is why we wanted two hosts; One African and one North American,” Sid explains. Symbolism and nationality aside, Madiba mentions that having a celebrity judge will help elevate the scale and audience of the fashion show to include a wider audience, which will help achieve the goal of Safara which is to expose the North American audience to African prints and its designers. Sid resonates with Madiba’s statement, “having them [Tran and Madiba] paired up to host the show is going to be one of a kind experience for the audience and for our vision for the show”.
With a mission statement of that of Safara’s, it is no denying that it urges every African living in North America to rise up, embrace their culture, and educate everyone in their vicinity. This show will change opinions and leave audience gawking at the sheer beauty of what it means to be African. So make sure you don’t miss out on this one a kind experience in the capital city. Go buy your tickets and reserve your spot and do not miss out on an enriching experience. For more information, contact the team of Safara.
Watch the video below, to get a glimpse of what to expect at the upcoming show on October 3rd from 6-9pm at Tabaret Hall on 550 Cumberland St. (University of Ottawa Campus).