In 1978, Chinua Achebe wrote an essay entitled “An Image of Africa.” This essay was also published in “Hopes and Impediments,” one of my favorite books of all time written by Professor Achebe. In the year 2015, this essay is still worth revisiting and frankly because the opinions shared by Achebe still lives on till today. In the essay, Achebe critiqued Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which he projects the image of Africa as “the other world, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.”
For me, Conrad’s image of Africa which hold true for the present day projection of African fashion to the world by Western media influences, comes down to the following sentences by Achebe:
Towards the end of the story, Conrad lavishes a whole page quite unexpectedly on an African woman who has obviously been some kind of mistress to Mr. Kurtz and now presides (if I may be permitted a little imitation of Conrad) like a formidable mystery over the inexorable imminence of his departure:
She was savage and superb, wild eyed and magnificent …. She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself,
with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. (p. 137)
This Amazon is drawn in considerable detail, albeit of a predictable nature, for two reasons. First, she is in her place and so can win Conrad’s
special brand of approval, and, second, she fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined, European woman with whom the story will end.
She came forward, all in black with a pale head, floating toward me in the dusk. She was in mourning. … She took both my hands in hers and murmured, “I had heard you were coming.” . . . She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering. (p. III)
The difference in the attitude of the novelist to these two women is conveyed in too many direct and subtle ways to need elaboration. But perhaps the most significant difference is the one implied in the author’s bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other.
I highlighted the two points made by Conrad to illustrate why this image of Africa particularly in the realm of fashion still persists. To the western world, ours is a fashion which is superb to some extent, but very much savage or tribal like they tend to say. No matter what we do, no matter the fact that we may have the same attention to detail that even the best Italian seamstress would, our fashion to the global world is almost always impossible to understand with the “air of brooding over Africa’s fashion inscrutable purpose.”
Contrarily, if you have been following the various fashion weeks and with collections that clearly do not make any sense or would not stand next to Africa’s top designers in terms of quality, because it comes from the West ushers in this “mature capacity for fidelity, for belief,” in the quality of the designs never mind it’s sense and sensibility.
The point of my observations should be quite clear and it is namely that this image of African fashion, this image of a fashion that is difficult to interpret, one that dehumanizes our worth, eliminates or diminishes the role of Africa as a true contender of fashion and style. My question then is how long will this dehumanization persist? What will it take for this age-long attitude towards African fashion to change and not just change in words, but also in profits like in the manner of online marketplaces for example thanks to Zuvaa.com. This image of African fashion as one that is difficult to interpret is grossly inadequate. The time is long overdue for Africa to rightfully take it’s place in the global fashion industry. At least thanks to the advent of social media, we do not need to wait for Western media influences to have good opinions about African fashion. We can now do it for ourselves, thanks to the platforms like Instagram.
Source: Chinua Achebe’s Image of Africa.
Image Credit: Zuvaa.com