Interview with Anita Quansah
The thin line between art and fashion
I'd like to start by saying how much I truly love your work. I've been following it for a while now and I can see how it's evolved and matured over these past few years. You are by trade a jewelry designer, but I find it difficult not to appreciate your pieces from an artistic or sculptural standpoint (of course there is always that thin line between what people consider art and what they call fashion). Where do you see your designs fitting into the worlds of art and fashion?
Thank you for your questions Brie. I trained as a textile designer at Chelsea College of Art and Design London which is part of the London Institute. Jewelry Design was a path I stumbled upon due to my curiosity to see how far I can push my creative skills as a textile designer. When I launched my brand Anita Quansah London in 2006, I was still working and freelancing as a textile designer and still researching on the handmade jewelry industry. During that time jewelry was just jewelry. Something simple, wearable of course yet to me not considered art and beautiful enough. I found it disappointing that natural materials were used with other components, but used in a very simplified way. It was not yet real statement jewelry. So after studying this movement and the lack of creativity in the jewelry sector at the time, I decided to start experimenting with the techniques I invented whilst at Chelsea. I was then known for my diverse experimental skills, so I wanted to use that in the jewelry to see what happens. At the time I wasn't expecting anything, I just wanted to fulfill that urge to create something that will fill that gap that was missing something considered as statement jewelry. Not just any statement jewelry, a jewelry that is considered wearable art as well as fashion, using several textile techniques which I took time discovering. I believe wearing jewelry should be fun; it should set you apart from the rest and why settle for something that will blend into the crowd. Just like artists use paints onto canvas to paint the most amazing paintings, I use beads and found materials to create sometime different that celebrates the art of craftsmanship. Also I found it also very interesting that in many paintings, several artists painted the most amazing jewelries in their work, yet this was not seen in the market.
Yeah that's so true. Your jewelry is reminiscent of something you would see in a painting or illustration, but some how you've managed to bring them to life. And it seems you haven't sacrificed any creativity when you translate them from the picture in your mind into 3D form. Can you take me through your creative process?
Thanks for your compliments. When I start any collection I usually carry out a research first on the story/theme that I am focusing on for that collection. This usually involves a lot of drawing, library/gallery/museum visits: gathering various [bits] information and building up a sketchbook with lots of creative ideas which will inspire the colours, shapes, patterns etc. Once that's done, I start to work on my mood board, pinning my ideas onto a large scale board which I have in front of my work desk. Doing this allows me to carefully choose my colours and materials wisely. Once that's done, I start to sketch out my design ideas onto my sketchbook. Although I must say, that some of the pieces I've done in the past and still do come as I work. They come to live as I pick up the tools, I even surprise myself, because I have no ideas what the outcome will look like. But I always keep a sketchbook, because that is where all my thoughts and ideas are jotted down. Once I've done the drawing, I start pulling the materials together and then I start the making process.
I have so many questions now! Since we are on the subject of inspiration does history (including your personal background) influence your work? I saw in your bio how you mentioned your family's background in textiles in Nigeria, I believe.
My cultural background influences my work a lot. I am very fortunate to come from a very mixed background, half Nigerian and Half Ghanaian. Both countries are very diverse and rich in cultures. Although my work might look African I tend to fuse it with that of my British upbringing too. That adds an interesting twist. A lot of the colours and textures I use in my work are very African inspired. For my latest collection and past collections I have looked at African artistry and craftsmanship for inspiration. I was amazed with my findings and I’ll continue to use these furthermore in my future designs.
I actually studied in Ghana while I was in university and I was buying art and cloth everywhere I went. I actually have a pile of material by my bed right now that I have been telling myself I'm going to sew into dresses or cut into head wraps, but haven't really gotten around to it yet. I can see how your background has clearly influenced your designs, but it is also clear that you have reinterpreted those cultures in a way that represents you as the designer. Speaking to the aesthetic of your work, besides being bold and just impossibility perfect, it's also interesting to me because I think it challenges in some ways those fashion shoots you see in Vogue and Elle every year about the "tribal look". (That term even makes me cringe now) I always assume those shoots are put together by people who are very much removed from whatever culture that are trying to reinterpret and very often the result is a blonde, blue eyed model in "tribal" accessories and prints in a Sahara desert scene or on a Safari. When I see your pieces I don't have that immediate question about motive or the exploitation/exoticizing of cultures and places. Yours feels more informed, perhaps because of your personal story. Do you see cultural appropriation like this as an issue in the fashion space or is it just a result of globalization that we need to learn to accept and appreciate?
Thanks Brie for your compliments I am truly touched. I feel any work that's done out of love and passion has to have a personal feel to it. My work has a story fused into each and every one of them; from my childhood story, or story of my culture to the personal story of my creative journey whilst making each piece. My cultural background plays a major role in my work. Some might perceive my work as tribal, yes [it’s] the word used by many who have no clue about the beautiful side of my cultural background. It's not tribalism. African or ethnic inspired pieces are not primitive and should not be seen as out of touch and not current. The term tribal is used by many who still see Africa as still stuck in the colonial period. Africa is the way forward and many in the fashion industry who are not African are trying out many ways to portray their own version or interpretation of modern Africa. These are seen in many fashion editorials, some have used a black painted face on a Caucasian model to portray a tribalistic look. Sometimes the fashion industry is ignorant and still needs educating on African heritage and culture. Coming from Africa am using my work to educate and portray the beauty in African wearable art asides from raffia and body paint which a lot still think of Africa. I strongly refuse to be type casted and put into a box of native art that needn’t be appreciated. We still have a lot of work on hands to do. And educating when we can is very vital. If you have a product you can use to portray that message even better. You will be amazed how many people are willing to learn about the real African experience that is not portrayed negatively in the media or written badly off in history books. Am delighted the fashion industry is finally visiting my beautiful continent and appreciating the beauty of it.
I think that is a profound approach to battling some of those misguided representations of the continent. What better way than to produce something that represents it truthfully and from a place of love and familiarity. I was also intrigued by the way you identify yourself as a jewelry curator. Being a curator myself, I know what it is to put together seemingly disparate objects to create interest and lay out a narrative for the viewer. You have mentioned that stories are woven into your work, what is the story of your latest collection?
I chose to identify myself as a jewelry curator, because I realized that I place materials in no other way others can. This is because the way I work is only significant to the brand and I approach designing from a quirky creative perspective. I don't just view the materials as an object. I create a mental relationship with the materials I use and work with, placing them in scenarios which can be of the present or the past, then fuse that experience or connection with the current piece I am working on. Many pieces I've used in my work are sourced from Vintage stores. Prior to me owning those pieces, someone in the past have owned it and probably has gone on several journeys before mine So I go back mentally to that era for instance 1940's or so and go on that creative journey trying to discover and find the person that owned that piece to try and question what kind of person they are and try and develop some form of relationship with them, that I can relate their personal experienced into my work. It might sound crazy, but I like to delve into the emotional sides of my work. Guess this makes each piece I design different with a unique twist.
And it's easy to see how each piece relates to the theme. I picked up on the Queen Elizabeth references before I even knew the name of the collection. They are quite intricate. I'm sure each one takes a lot of time and skill to produce. Would you be willing to talk us through the production process? What happens after you gather inspiration and design the collection? Do you make them all by hand yourself or is there a team involved?
Once I've gathered all my research, I proceed to design and then the production process which is very exciting, as all the designs I've imagined begin to come to light in a 3 dimensional form. I design all the pieces myself in my studio. Some of the piece can take several hours to weeks. The time spent making each piece is a real treasure to me, because I discover more interesting techniques along the way.
Wow! So every piece is handmade by you and completely one of a kind? I love that. It really creates a bond between the wearer, the artist and the work. Before we close the interview I have a three more burning questions.
1. How can we get a hold of one of your magnificent pieces?
2. What other projects should we be on the lookout for from Anita Quansah London in 2014?
3. Where can your fans and supporters connect with you online via your personal website and/or social media?
Yeah every single piece within any collection I've ever created is all done by me. I'm very passionate about my craft and I'm very meticulous about things. I like things to be done to the uttermost perfection. The pieces are one of a kind; some pieces can be replicated but not all. I like the fact my client are getting something that is not seen else where or worn by the masses, this makes it very special. 2013 has been an incredible year for the brand. 2014 is even going to be busier. For 2014, I'll working on new exciting pieces, I'll be doing a lot of international shows, collaborating on many projects such as one with the Bezos family foundation, Students Rebuild and water organization Concern Worldwide on a Water Challenge design programme. This collaborative programme between Anita Quansah London, the Bezos Family Foundation and Student Rebuilds will mobilize young people to connect, learn and take action on critical global issues. I'll be designing a large scale wearable art using recycled paper beads made by the students. All proceeds raised from auctioning the art piece will help bring clean, safe drinking water to schools and communities in Tanzania. I'll also in 2014 continue to further my design enrichment and creative mentoring programmes in junior schools and higher education.
Thank you so much Brie for featuring me in your interview. It's been such a pleasure. Thank you once more for your continued support, it really means a lot to me. Good luck with everything and have a Happy New Year.
And thank you Anita for so graciously taking time out of your schedule for this interview. It has been absolutely enlightening and I am so looking forward to seeing more of your work in the future. Happy New Year and God bless you and yours!
Photographer asiko fine art photography
Stylist: Crystal Deroche Styling
MUA: Mikhaila Pratt