In Conversation with…. Amma Aboagye
As part of the official Year of Return, Amma Aboagye, a self-described anthropologist, economist and founder of The AfroPole conceptualised The Wax Print Festival, 14-16 June 2019. The thirty-something creative is intent on the three-day fest extraordinaire being a celebration of African culture, through various art forms of textiles, fashion, film, music and more. But underneath the colourful displays is a profound desire by US-born-Ghanaian Amma to create a safe space for open dialogue around some of the more complex issues relating to African identity and social constructs. Indeed, the discussion around cultural appropriation in the wake of global fashion houses showcasing African designs and fabrics without clear attribution to the originators is a live wire and is one that Amma wants to ignite, being “very passionate about the intersection between identity and culture”. She also wants to provoke more introspection around the desire of Africans to hold onto batik and wax prints as emblems of our heritage, “since neither are indigenous”. Indeed, the energetically-coloured Ankara prints readily associated with the African silhouette, have been popularised by West Africa particularly, yet find their origins in Indonesia.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Amma one Thursday afternoon for a crepe and a coffee to better understand who she is, what she stands for and social consciousness within the creative industries. Here’s a snapshot…
(Songhai Advisory) Could you tell us a bit about your background and the inspiration behind what you do?
(Amma Aboagye) I was born in the US to Ghanaian parents and when I travelled to the UK, I realised how distinct black experiences are. It struck me how African black people were in the UK. It was so interesting. While black people in the US are American, in the UK it was different. When people asked you where you’re from, especially other Africans, they really want to know where you’re from (i.e. your African roots).
But then when I moved to Ghana, I had a different experience of blackness. I got asked, “what’s your name?” “Have you been to your village?” “Can you speak a (Ghanaian) language?” It was clear that people expect that you should be able to answer such questions, whereas in the US, no one would ever probe like that.
SA: How have these experiences shaped you and your work?
AA: This exploration about identity was so fascinating to me and it was through this voyage of discovery that Afropole came about. Everyone has a story, an identity and what I realise is that these stories need to be heard. My thing was, “How do we bring to light other stories and the uniqueness of the black identity?”
SA: Specifically, what is it about having both an American and a Ghanaian identity which equips you to engage in such an open conversation about finding one’s sense of belonging?
AA: There is a duality about my identity. I belong to two worlds. And that’s the future of black identity. The fact that in the US, no one is American so everyone is American, means that in the US we can have certain types of conversations that we’re perhaps not allowed to have so openly elsewhere.
SA: Why is having this debate important, in your view?
AA: So much is evolving. We have the children of migrant parents in the Diaspora who are coming of age in the internet era. Who and what is African? The Jumia debate for instance: is it an African brand? Who owns brands we consider to be African? We have to wrestle with these things so we can come to an agreement, so we can reach a place where we know ourselves, understand ourselves and can build a united front. Identity is a major pillar for economic growth and development.
We have an opportunity to make profit. If the entire product value chain is seven steps and we only benefit from one step, then we should be asking ourselves if there’s space to fit into more. Along the textile value chain for instance, we should be asking ourselves who we are along the value chain and where do we have a comparative advantage and profit from that.
SA: And if you were to sketch out some ideas regarding where the African comparative advantage sits along the textile value chain for instance, what would you say?
AA: I think there’s an opportunity to talk about textile innovation, for instance, we can make leather from pineapple leaves. We need to innovate so the materials reflect us. We can create a circular economy.
Distribution is also another segment of the value chain we should look into. It costs a lot to distribute from the continent. But perhaps we could build services around haute couture which are industry standard. Kaba and slitis a universally West African thing. Can we do that quickly with our set of textiles and reach a wider market? I mean, as long as we accept what is ours and commit to evolving and growing it, we can have an advantage in any field of human endeavour.
SA: So tangibly, how will the change happen? Who should be sat around the table?
AA: Let’s find people who are at higher levels of the value chain and let’s map that out and build stronger relationships. We can form these powerful relationships that govern the way we do things. We have a voice and a presence across various industries. We should use it and invest in ourselves. I do not push the buy black narrative as much as I do the “build black” narrative. We should invest time, talent andtreasure into ensuring our communities have the right resources to develop innovations across a value chain.
Once again, many thanks to Amma for sharing her time and thoughts with us as we continue to discover, learn and share more about the stories of transformation around the continent.
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