Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Oroma Elewa -- Feminist Fashion Icon

(Photo of Ataui Deng by Oroma Elewa)

This is the first of a number of group posts from the Fashionable Feminist Bloggers community. This group, begun a few weeks ago by a number of fascinating bloggers, examines the intersection of fashion and feminism. If you're interested in becoming part of the group, request an invitation at the Google group linked above. Our first topic is on Fashionable Feminist icons: each of us was asked to write about a woman who, to us, is a personal feminist/fashion icon (which could be, for example a feminist with great style, a fashion person who also works on behalf of women).

I love fashion editors: Diana Vreeland, who was the subject I first intended to write about, was a fashion icon and a free spirit, a person of contradiction and taste. But there's much written about Vreeland and her rouged earlobes, so instead I wanted to talk about a much younger, newer editor: Oroma Elewa of Pop'Africana. I was super excited about this magazine because of the representations of Africa in the West are severely lacking. In the world of fashion industry, they are either non-existent or limited to shameless appropriation of "tribal" esthetics (and boy, I can talk a lot about the awful "tribal" trend and its ontological cousin, the animal print - so African! So exotic!)

Thankfully Pop'Africana has an online presence, and it is edited by a woman of Nigerian extraction, who not only edits but blogs eloquently about her world in fashion and her personal history: "When my mother is happy or playing with me, she calls me by my full name - O r o m a m a y a t u n a h i a - it means my mother's home cannot be bought in the market. My grandmother, her mother truly gave meaning to this name because her love, her spirit and her home can never be bought Period."

Fashion industry in the West often has an exclusionary air about it -- a shortcoming, I feel, too often shared by Western feminism, when most of the world is ignored, and they're concerns and problems are overlooked. To many westerners, Africa is a large monolith of Third World (a term too problematic in itself) suffering, and they only look to it for "inspiration" -- that is, stealing textiles and esthetic movements, appropriating them without giving back, focusing on how these experiences are beneficial for Westerners' individual growth and enrichment. (I already spoke a bit about one-sidedness of African representations in literature here.) Women's issues are similarly ignored, under the assumption that the generic Western feminism IS about all women, even despite its continuing failure to engage with issues other than those of white and middle-class western women. Meanwhile the role of Africa and African diaspora as movers of fashion and feminism rather than its passive objects is rarely discussed.

Well, Oroma Elewa is editing Pop'Africana to affect a change. Her photography is beautifully idiosyncratic, her articles are incisive, whether she is talking about music or fashion or deconstructs representations of Africa. Her role as an editor of such a forward yet fashion centered magazine assures her role as a fashion icon; but what about feminism?

I believe that the third wave feminism with its focus on intersectionality of oppressions -- that is, the complex and non-linear interactions between gender, class, race, nationality etc. -- was meant to remedy the unfairness of focusing exclusively on Western issues. Voices like Elewa's are necessary, and hers is clear and assured. Rather than speaking for people who can speak perfectly well for themselves, we need to listen and to pay attention. Oh, and buy an issue or two -- Pop'Africana is an amazingly vibrant magazine, with a great editorial hand.


Anonymous said...

What a great fashion find! The lack of ethnic diversity in mainstream fashion is something that bothers me too, so it's great to find another resource that tries to fight it. Thank you for this - from one intersectional feminist to another!

poet said...

Great contribution! We need to hear from these perspectives too, lest feminism become - remain? - a privileged white intellectual movement. Thanks for reminding us of this.

Claire said...

I just spent eighteen pounds on a magazine

Curse this post!!

But not really. Thanks for the knowledge!

cervixosaurus said...

Wow thank you so much for making me aware of her!! Her blog is incredible and that post you linked to is really beautiful.

feministified said...

Thank you for this truly important acknowledgment. Much needed. xoxo

Reddest Roar said...

Really good post - thank you for raising the issues about intersectionality and bringing these - and her - to our attention. I think we're entering an exciting phase in feminist history, with more challenges and voices in the mix. It's how it should be, and Oroma Elewa is certainly an inspiration.

Franca said...

thanks so much for this post and the important points you make. I've just spent forever on the popafricana website, there is so much there! Her photos and words are wonderful,

Fish Monkey said...

Thank you everyone for your comments! I'm so glad to see that you all are enjoying Elewa's blog and Pop'Africana as much as I do!

Matt said...

I really am glad I found your blog. I am very interested in the intersection of fashion and feminism, and I am interested in the google group you linked to as well. I found this really interesting and educational, I'm sorry I don't really have much to add to this conversation though. :)