Intricately braided hair, a crowning halo upon the person’s head. Vibrantly colored jewelry adorns the body, matching vibrantly colored clothing. The way people dress undeniably correlates with self-expression, and amidst the rapidly increasing desire of peoples of African descendants to connect to their cultural roots, Afrocentric dress has become a virtuoso expression of African diaspora culture.
Fashion, of course, provides a physical platform for the link between mask, identity, and image. Unique to the bearer, style connects them to significant social, cultural, and economic realities. An example can be seen in the rise and popularity of the zoot suit. First associated with African American communities in Chicago, Harlem and Detroit, these high-waisted, wide-legged, tight cuffed suits became an integral role in the development of the Afrocentric subculture in the US. Jazz musicians, specifically band leader Cab Calloway, popularized the long and wide look associated with zoot suits. Initially worn by young African American men, the outlandish attire quickly became popular within the Mexican – American and white working-class communities. The suits became synonymous with the lack of patriotism, because of the amount of used to make them, deemed wasteful by the American government during World War II. In the words of Kathy Peiss, an American Historian and the Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, “On the one hand it may seem like a trivial style, but…we have a tendency to read style for its political and social and economic and cultural meaning.” During the midst of the war, the suit became analogous to criminality or gang affiliation.
Such an example may be deemed extreme, as the whole ordeal ended in the infamous Zoot Suit Riots. This being said, fundamentally the suit was representative of political resistance. The wearer was a part of a community simply by donning a piece of clothing.
For photographer Joana Choumali, introducing traditional African attire into her work helped create a connection between her subjects and their heritage. Her series “Resilients” features women who grew up outside their origin countries, women who are not considered to be “real Africans”. The women represented a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Baoule, Fon, Yoruba, Fulani and Malinke.
Choumali, who is half Ivorian and half Spanish-Equatorial-Guinean, personally felt a disconnect from her heritage because of a language barrier. Choumali’s late grandmother, a woman of the Akan people, struggled to pass on her cultural experiences to her granddaughter. Once she passed away, Choumali made the realization that a vital, connecting piece of her heritage was gone. Thus, she was inspired to take on her project, for other women who had the same unanswered questions as she.
Choumali describes that the introduction of traditional clothing and jewelry into her portraits made the women feel “…stronger, elegant (and) royal. Many of them talked about their mother, or grandmother, remembering and sharing stories about their family…these unexpected deep conversations had a positive impact on each of us.”
Truly the feeling is like no other, of being connected to a community rich in culturally unique practices, traditions, and ways of being. As insignificant as clothing may appear, there couldn’t be a better way for members of the African diaspora to connect to their roots when the Motherland is a few thousand miles too far away. Behind the vivid colors and prints that seem to tell a story lie a history of political resistance and cultural practices that can’t be translated any way else.
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