Wafrica: exploring identity through design

Author:Catherine Jewell
Position:Communications Division, WIPO

In the late 2000s, the Cameroonian-born designer Serge Mouangue, Founder and Art Director of Wafrica, left the world of industrial design and concept cars to embark on a journey to create a new aesthetic narrative, one that questions the idea of origin and identity through artistic design. Intrigued by his experience as an African living in Japan, and the similarities between the cultures of... (see full summary)


What inspired you to design kimonos using African fabrics?

While living in Japan, I saw some strong similarities between Africa and Japan. African and Japanese people may look different, but each country embraces the spirit world of animism and each is highly codified and hierarchical. The relationship we have with elders is also the same. In these similarities, I saw a story that could result in a new aesthetic by bringing together two strong cultural icons – wax fabrics from West Africa and the Japanese kimono – and that would allow audiences to explore the meaning of identity.

Can you tell us more about Wafrica?

Wafrica is a registered trademark, but it is not a fashion brand. It is a creative platform where you find different collections of kimonos, live performances and a range of unique works of art that we create with our partners. The idea of combining West African and Japanese aesthetics is at the core of Wafrica. “Wa” is the old name for Japan and means harmony. With Wafrica, my aim is to move beyond the commercial sphere to create a movement or a phenomenon that draws people in and enables them to value diversity and see it as a real plus.

What reactions have you had to your kimonos?

In Japan, some are doubtful and don’t know what to make of them. They think the kimonos are nice, and are intrigued by the twist that we have put on them. Others reject them, saying that they are not Japanese. Others take the view that this is the way of the future. It is not Japanese and it is not African, it is just the way the world should evolve. In Africa, they love the kimonos. They don’t always know how to wear them, but that is good, because I don’t want to impose a way to wear my designs.

What other icons have you worked with?

Shortly after I began designing kimonos, I decided to do something similar with Japanese lacquer and African sculptures. That is how “Blood Brothers” came about. I went to a region in Cameroon where they sculpt stools used by pygmy chiefs at village gatherings and took them to Japan, where I began working with a Tokyo-based urushi lacquer-maker. He actually works exclusively for the Japanese emperor, but when I explained my project to him, he was on board immediately. Using ancient techniques, it took two years to complete the lacquer work. Blood brothers and similar lacquer works give these old traditions new life. They are a conversation between two ancient, strong and distinctive identities. They embrace the new...

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