In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, Managing Director Makhtar Diop talks with Senegalese fashion designer Selly Raby Kane about how artists can help design the future. They also discuss how Kane’s international experience and exposure to diverse forms of art inform her work today, and how artists can create ecosystems to support other artists.
Makhtar Diop (MD) : Hi and welcome to the podcast, Creative Development, of IFC. I’m your host, Makhtar Diop.
We are [here] today with Selly Raby Kane, who is a designer based in Senegal, West Africa, but who has been working everywhere in the world with the most famous artists in the world: Beyonce; she works also for industries like IKEA. So it's great. But why, Selly Raby, I just wanted to ask: we are talking about creative industry to bring a very thing together, the urban culture in Africa, Africa is becoming more and more an urban continent, fastest urbanization rate, I wanted to bring youth, I wanted to bring modernity, and I wanted to give a sense to all of you of what is really happening in the cities in Africa, not only to get an impression that things are stuck in Africa, and people are doing things the way they used to be done decades ago, to get a sense of the modernity that we have currently on the continent.
So Selly Raby, we see that a lot of your work and inspiration is Dakar. Can you tell us more about it?
Selly Raby Kane (SRK): Dakar has been like, first the playground, then a space in which you can create an archive of everything that the city has given us as creatives. The first time that I decided to enter creativity and design was in 2008. And that's because I took a year off, came back to Dakar to be more clear in what option I wanted to take in my life professionally and in terms of studies. I came and I saw that my city was completely different from what I knew as a Senegalese young woman. I saw an evolution. I saw creative births everywhere, I saw the emergence of an alternative scene in music and architecture and fashion and in fashion installation. Everything was so vivid, and everything was so clear that it was obvious for me that I wanted to go back [to] study fashion and come back to Dakar, because that's where it was happening for me.
MD: A few years ago, I was visiting one of the universities in the US and I met an African student there. And that was the first time I heard the word “Afropolitans.” I had read about it, but I didn't understand exactly what it meant. It looks like you are one of these Afropolitans. It means that you're located somewhere in Africa, but you feel that you are a citizen of the world.
So can you tell us a little bit more about your international experience, and what Afropolitan means for you?
SRK: Yes. My international experience arrived, let's say around 2012, when I finished my studies and came back to Dakar and settled myself as a young fashion entrepreneur. And I had made the choice to be represented by an agency named Anatole PR that represents fashion designers and other people that are based on the continent. And I think from the first collection, the conversation with international platforms started quite early. Around 2013. I really started to travel for fashion to talk about what I was doing, to talk about our relationship to the city. And that really helped me realize that it was important as a young creative as well to take advantage of the opportunities of being present in different spaces at the same time. So, I was a young Senegalese, young African creative, but I started conversation with the world through the know-how and the expertise of an agency that was as young as I was, actually, we're both starting at the same time. And that led me to meet so many other trans-African creatives in so many other fields, people that were animated by that thirst to sometimes just tell the truth of what our spaces really are, because you hear so many things about yourself. And you look at yourself and you don't see those things at all, how we live, where we are, and what is our vision, our gaze on the world.
MD: Selly, you are working in a way which is very, more than you're working on science fiction and fantasy. You're using virtual reality. You are working with artists who are very modern in the way that they are approaching art. So, tell us a little bit what influenced you to use all these. Is it just the world you’d been living in before getting into fashion?
SRK: Yes, I think it's first a matter of exposure. When I was younger, I had been a lot in contact with diverse forms of art. Art has always been present in the family, music, free jazz, everything. So, I think there was a basic education and a taste to watch our movies, animes, etc. So, I think that type of thirst for, the marvelous thirst for fantasy has gradually infusing my fashion work. I was so eager to find all the mediums possible and imaginable to express that will to translate the magic that I see in our cities into something. First it was garments, and I found film and I found virtual reality. So, this is how it happened. And the intention and my personal thirst for creation led me to those mediums.
MD: Selly, when people think about Africa, they don't think that there is an audience for virtual reality or anime. Can you tell us a little bit [about] the atmosphere in Dakar? Are people totally in that world, is there an audience, or is it something that you feel alone doing?
SRK: At the beginning, there was a kind of a challenge, because my garments were really a bit strange for what was used, what people were used to seeing, or that people were used to wearing. And I think with the brand, we came [up] with something that was a bit more experimental. And that went beyond the will of dressing but was truly a discourse about what was Dakar at that very specific time.
So there was an effort of translation, let's say, between what was the character of the brand and the Senegalese scene that I had in front of me. But once that translation efforts, by knowing each other, became solid, I found a lot of support in Dakar. There is a thirst for seeing new things, there is a thirst for the unknown, as in any other part of the world. The thing is that people like to be sure about what your intentions are. So there always has to be a story. And for me, the story goes with some type of militants. I don't know, militant is the right word in English. But there's really a political intention behind all of that.
MD: Is there a way where you are organizing yourself as a group of young creators who are trying to push the limit, to be able to access those markets or access these agents?
SRK: I think the collective part where creatives get together and create a business model that works for our contingencies here. That's where interesting things are happening. I knew that from around 2010s, I was in an art collective named Petit Pierre. Before that, I was in a group of people that worked on my project very hard. And I have been in several series of collective adventures. Right now I am looking for the collective adventure that will really be a space of dignity for artists that don't have the platform or that don't have the connections or they don't have any exposure, but have raw talents. And I really want to make sure that we get together and see how people that have assets, or people that are further in the line, can bring to the table something that the others that are not at that same point can benefit from it. And it can go: from how do you show your product, [to] what is the language that you use to show it and to make sure that people that want to buy it can feel that they're in conversation with you? How frequently do you have to sell, what is your pricing. Very basic things. But we have many artists and designers that struggle with that. For me, that will be the next step for me, to make sure that we create an ecosystem that is very, I don't know, it might even be inspired by biology of how the body works. But make sure the assets that we have as individuals are as equally distributed within the group and to study as well: why those collective stories end the way they end? How we can make sure that the organizations, when they are created for artists, can live years and years after the founding members, etc.?
I was making some research this morning to prepare [for] our interview, and I came across an article, whose title was “culture and finances, an uneasy relationship.” So I wanted to know how you felt about this.
MD: Yes, it's not an easy relationship, because to make money out of art and culture, there is a higher level of risk. You don't know how the people will evolve and how they are unless the culture industry is very mature. And even when it's mature, like the film industry in Hollywood, you don't even know that it will be a blockbuster or not. So, there is a level of uncertainty, which is quite high and more when it comes to an ecosystem, which is not as developed and as mature. So, I think this is a tension that I feel. But I do believe that when you get it right, the impact is multiple. You have any part, as you see on the imagination of people, only talk about development is not only incentive is imagination of people, what are their preferences, what are their beliefs? And I believe, strongly influencing the way they want the economic relation between people to be evolved and to be structured. So, I think that art has been very important.
Secondly, we are in a world where people are more and more looking at finance, not only from a profit motive. When you talk now to investors, we're talking more and more about impact investment, impact of financing people say that, you know, we need to take care of things which are greater than our pocket and the profits that we are making on things. So that's why you are seeing more and more green bonds, you are seeing more impact investing, you are seeing more bonds on oceans, all these type of things to be able to take care of the environment, which is an important topic, but also about inclusion, the issue of gender, which is an important and essential issue, or to give opportunity for people who don't have access to finance to be able to have access to finance. All of that to say, why is it the relation is not always very easy because of the level of uncertainty.
I do think that we are making progress on two fronts. First of all, people want to go purely out of the profit motive only when they're investing, they want to have a new social impact. But also at the same time, we are seeing more and more professionalism, even in emerging economies in the art industry. And you are a good example of the connection and the link between the market in the continent and what is happening in the rest of the world.
SRK: How would you advise independent artists to successfully approach and build a relationship with investors?
MD: That's a tougher question. That's where I think that, as you say, it is a joint project. We need to really sit together. I think that what we need is to be very humble about it. I think there is a certain specificity to each reality, while there are also commonalities. So, I think that, when you talk to different people in the creative arts, the theme coming back often is a training of people to be able to develop that industry. When you talk to musicians, they say, okay, we need to have better schools, because you can be very creative, you can know your own art, but you need to communicate it to people. So, you need to be able to read, be able to structure it, need to have a good sound engineer, you need to have good studios, you need to have a venue where you are playing, you need to have good copyrights. You talk to people in the film industry, and actually, I was talking to someone very recently about an African country, which is thinking of moving and displacing some of the power of the industry in the US or in Europe to Africa. So, when people want to shoot a scene using some colors that are only in Africa, they will find there the skilled labor, the equipment, to be able to do everything they need to do to be able to have a product that can be used for the movie. But that requires investment. And that is the same when I talk to people in fashion, we say, you know, we are very creative, but some time we want to move to the next level and scale up our production, we are not sure that we are have the value chain that is needed to be able to to compete with people who have an ecosystem, which is more mature. These are the types of questions that together we need to think about, which will include, certainly people like us who want to finance, we will include government because there is part of a training of it. But we also encourage philanthropists, I hope that we have more and more rich Africans who are ready to put money in art and in creative arts, not only because it's good for the imagination of people towards Africa, but also for the old dignity of the continent, but also for the economic development of our continent. I believe that a big problem of employment can be solved through art and creative arts, as a lot of young people see themselves investing in this area. So, I don't know if that’s advice, but I just tell you what, what I'm struggling with also, when I think about creative arts and what I'm doing in my job.
It's interesting because I know that you are, as you say, you're an activist on a certain number of topics. We just had in a previous series of our podcast, Don Cheadle and Baaba Maal, who are a very well-known actor and Baaba Maal is a singer. And both of them have been very active on the climate change agenda from a totally different ecosystem and world, one of them looking at the Sahel, and one of them looking at it more broadly from where he stands in the US. We see a lot of people now considering that is it is the big topic of this century.
What is your take on climate change?
SRK: My take is that I feel like it's first a question of imaginaries and making sure that what is the way we approach what is living, what is alive, has to change. And I feel like since it's a matter of imaginaries, artists and creatives have a lot of work to do with making sure that this question is not just a question of the environment and us humans, it's a question of totality. And that's how we, as designers, as people who produce things and make them appear on this earth, that's how we have to think about it. I've recently, just earlier this year, I had the chance to collaborate with a company named Little Sun. And Little Sun has that series of films that were focused on renewable energies, and artists had to tell a story that was based on climate change and on renewable energies. And the intention of the project was to make sure that the creatives see the conversation, and to see if the artists could get it further than it is actually with policy, politics, etc.
MD: It's interesting you are working on science fiction and fantasy, which is not very common in the continent, but worldwide, but also you are collaborating with artists like [Omar] Victor Diop, who's also a very active photographer on the Parisian scene, who tries also to project modernity.
So how are you all collaborating for the same generation using the modernity of your art to make sure that it's reflected in the way you are talking about Africa? Can you tell us about this movement that we are seeing before us?
SRK: Personally, my first collaboration started when I came to Dakar in 2008. I think that was the best year of my life, because I met everybody, and I met half of the people that I'm collaborating with right now. And it happened through contests, art competitions, all those things that make people that have the same interests gather. So, collaboration started to become something like a DNA and a way of approaching what we wanted to build as youth in this country.
There's definitely something interesting to investigate the cultural, and material, immaterial heritage of trans-African countries, mainly countries like Benin, which has a superb approach to how you make sure you protect forests, for example. They have a divinity, if I'm not mistaken, that is named Oiudoh. And they're managed to instill such respect to the cult of Oiudoh, that the forest in which Oiudoh was created and was born has never been touched for hundreds of years. So that's as well as going through myths, that is as well going through beliefs to make sure that we protect what is important for us on this earth–maybe policies and money and capital is not enough, there's something that needs to go further into humans.
MD: Now it's very exciting to hear what you are saying because you're not talking about just the economic incentive for people to think about climate change, but you are bringing the cultural dimension to it: preserving the environment, preserving biodiversity, somewhere, somehow. Talking about the imaginary and so forth, and that is interesting because you said that the collection that interested Beyonce was a tribute to Joe Ouakam, a lot of people don't know Joe Akam, was a very postmodern figure back in the 70s in Senegal in Dakar, as an artist on the fringe of what was the mainstream art. He was a painter, writer, orator, storyteller and he inspired a lot of people who are now in their 60s. It is interesting that someone like Selly Raby who is not with that generation made a tribute to a Joe Ouakam which inspired also Beyonce and finding it was a trilogy; it is quite nice to see how things are evolving over time. And obviously a representation of how the happenings on the continent can inform what is happening today. Does it ring a bell to you what I'm saying?
SRK: It definitely rings the bell to me and the country. The other movement happened because you saw–was it an album?–Beyonce and Jay Z with a bike, the Mambeti bike. I mean, all of that is happening. There is some type of cross-pollination that is happening within all those creatives’ minds. And I think this is a strategic moment to truly look at what's happening on the continent and help and assist the initiatives that are changing our communities. That's what I want to do. That's where I want to invest my creative energy for the coming years,
MD: This album from Beyonce, I don't know the title of the album, you guys know it. So why and where they are riding a motorbike with horns. In fact, it is a picture of a movie in the 70s in Senegal by a film writer, named [Djibril Diop Mambéty], and the movie was Touki Bouki and it was very much, as I refer between Joe Ouakam and people like Mambéty Diop, this postmodern movement that you had in 70s. And he says some things that were used by Beyonce as a cover of one of her albums. The music of Manu Dibango was sampled by Michael Jackson, Soul Makossa. And the influence of the continent on the rest of the world’s culture is clear.
So, let me ask you one question now: For people like us who are working in development finance and who like to support creative industry, looking at where you stand, what do you think that we could do to support that creative industry in Africa and make sure that it's as competitive as possible?
SRK: I think the first way to approach the matter would be to really understand and know who those creatives are, and what their ecosystems are, how they function, and to be able to understand it and to be open as well to create new models or new paradigms of how these industries should work. Because I think there are many models that we try to implement from continent to continent, but it doesn't really work as it could when the model is taken from elsewhere and applied to a place such as Senegal, for example. I think there's a matter of co-construction as well as a reflection of what is our definition of how the creative industry should be. Maybe there are new jobs or new needs that are prompted by the ecosystem, the Senegalese ecosystem, the trans-African ecosystem, that don't exist elsewhere. And we've seen it in many other fields like the [latency adaptation] of all of that happen because of specific needs of these ecosystems. So I think the more the ecosystems are known, and the best people to ask are the people who practice it here and who are living it every day, the better it is known and the better it is looked at horizontally. I think that will give the clearer vision of where money should be invested and how circular industry can be created. And I think it's a huge opportunity right now to be at the phase where we can still reflect on what the fundamentals should be. That means that we can create something that is radically new, and it's not a utopia, it's very accessible.
MD: The more you dig into it, the more you see there are so many links to virtual reality, you talk about mobile payment, we talk about a futurist views, all these things are very much linked. And people of this generation, your generation, who can together think about it and provide us with solutions. So I can commit that IFC is engaging with you guys. And it will be done through colleagues of your generation, because I feel the dialogue would be easier.
SRK: I just wanted to [say]that I didn't have a generational issue at all. I think the mindset is where we connect, and we are not part of the same generation, but we actually are because you are pumping this project. So I don't see it at all, as a generational cluster. It is something that is transgenerational, and that's how our societies function as well. We need to have a balance between all of that. All our voices are very important, but we need many other voices of many other age groups to make it functional and to make sure that people that will consume what we do are as eclectic and wide as possible. So, I don't have a generational obsession, but there's a mindset indeed, that we can talk to and another mindset that is just closed off to anything that we have to say.
MD: So that is good. You are telling us: stay young at heart.
But a last word from you. What are your projects? What are you working on right now? What are the big things that you can disclose to us in terms of a new project?
SRK: Yes, I'm working on a brand. We've been a bit slow with the COVID. But right now is the right moment to take it back again. I'm working on several film projects, among which there is [an Extended Reality] xR film project. It will be VR and other mediums as well. And the basis of that project is a mythological tale of West Africa, basically. So I'm working on that. There is a lot of film, there is fashion. And there is also that project of how do we make sure that we create a space where people can gather, create art, have studios, creating a space where all these ideas, all this will for experimentation, that taste for the unknown, can be learned about, transmitted, and exercised by people that are by like-minded individuals, let's say. That's one of the reflections that I'm actively on currently. The last one will be having a production company that is interested by those less-shown or less-known stories of our continents, [like] sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, all of that.
MD: Thank you so much, Selly.
SRK: Thank you so much for the invitation. Bye bye.
Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.