Wafrica: exploring identity through design

December 2018

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

In the late 2000s, the Cameroonian-born designer Serge Mouangue, Founder and Art Director of Wafrica, left the world of industrial design and concept cars to embark on a journey to create a new aesthetic narrative, one that questions the idea of origin and identity through artistic design. Intrigued by his experience as an African living in Japan, and the similarities between the cultures of Japan and West Africa, he set about creating a new aesthetic, one that fuses the elegance and sophistication of Japanese cultural icons with the vibrant colors and flamboyance of West Africa. The designer talks about his work and why it is so important for creators to use the intellectual property (IP) system to protect their work.

The work of Serge Mouangue (above) fuses the elegance and sophistication of Japanese cultural icons with the vibrant colors and flamboyance of West Africa. “I play with deeply embedded symbols and icons and twist them a little so people confront new perspectives,” he says (Photo: James Duncan Davidson).

What inspired you to design kimonos using African fabrics?

While living in Japan, I saw some strong similarities between Africa and Japan. African and Japanese people may look different, but each country embraces the spirit world of animism and each is highly codified and hierarchical. The relationship we have with elders is also the same. In these similarities, I saw a story that could result in a new aesthetic by bringing together two strong cultural icons – wax fabrics from West Africa and the Japanese kimono – and that would allow audiences to explore the meaning of identity.

Can you tell us more about Wafrica?

Wafrica is a registered trademark, but it is not a fashion brand. It is a creative platform where you find different collections of kimonos, live performances and a range of unique works of art that we create with our partners. The idea of combining West African and Japanese aesthetics is at the core of Wafrica. “Wa” is the old name for Japan and means harmony. With Wafrica, my aim is to move beyond the commercial sphere to create a movement or a phenomenon that draws people in and enables them to value diversity and see it as a real plus.

What reactions have you had to your kimonos? 

Serge Mouangue’s stunning kimonos took center stage at a cultural event hosted by the Government of Japan and WIPO during the annual meetings of WIPO Assemblies in September 2018 (Photo: Violaine Martin / WIPO).

In Japan, some are doubtful and don’t know what to make of them. They think the kimonos are nice, and are intrigued by the twist that we have put on them. Others reject them, saying that they are not Japanese. Others take the view that this is the way of the future. It is not Japanese and it is not African, it is just the way the world should evolve. In Africa, they love the kimonos. They don’t always know how to wear them, but that is good, because I don’t want to impose a way to wear my designs.

What other icons have you worked with?

Shortly after I began designing kimonos, I decided to do something similar with Japanese lacquer and African sculptures. That is how “Blood Brothers” came about. I went to a region in Cameroon where they sculpt stools used by pygmy chiefs at village gatherings and took them to Japan, where I began working with a Tokyo-based urushi lacquer-maker. He actually works exclusively for the Japanese emperor, but when I explained my project to him, he was on board immediately. Using ancient techniques, it took two years to complete the lacquer work. Blood brothers and similar lacquer works give these old traditions new life. They are a conversation between two ancient, strong and distinctive identities. They embrace the new possibilities created when the unique cultural icons are merged to form a new and enlightened international consciousness. They are all about hope.

How did you get into design?

Blood Brothers, a collaboration between
Serge Mouangue and a Japanese urushi
lacquer-maker using ancient techniques
(Photo: Véronique Huyghe and Mario Simon).

Drawing has always been my thing, that’s why I studied design. I started out with interior design and then moved into product design. After my studies, I worked in Australia for a while with Glen Murcutt, winner of the 2002 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Then I went to China to design footwear and, upon returning to France, eventually ended up designing concept cars for Renault. They sent me to Japan, which I found really interesting and intriguing, so I decided to explore different creative avenues. I wanted to create something that reflected my experience as an African in Japan. I took an icon from Japan and an icon from West Africa and merged them into something that not only tells a story of two cultures but carves its own new territory and offers a third aesthetic. I designed my first kimono in 2007 out of curiosity really. It created a real buzz and people started asking me to make one for them.  A friend suggested I ought to start putting a name to my creations and so eventually we came up with the name Wafrica

What does design mean to you?

I don’t actually think about it too much. I focus on building and changing the environment by creating a new narrative using things that we can touch, hear, smell and live with. Design is a way to tell a story through things that we can feel. As human beings we are much more driven by our emotions than we like to admit. In the West, we try to bring functional logic to things, but in reality, emotional values are far more important and have a much greater impact on how we feel about the things that surround us.

What inspires you?

I am very interested in the idea of our origin and our birth. It is the most precious, intimate, luxurious, fragile thing we have, and yet it is the most common thing we share. That we all come from somewhere and that we all have a journey to share is what interests me. I am very sensitive to how people move in space and their body language and physicality. Sound also inspires me. I always wear headphones when I design because it brings something emotional to the process and triggers new ideas. If you listen to John Coltrane you may design a teacup in one way and if you listen to Amy Winehouse you may come up with a completely different design. I like to be taken up by music when I design.

What do you most like about your work?

Serge Mouangue describes his work as
“a conversation between two ancient, strong
and distinctive identities” (Photo: Yuji Zendou).

I like it when my work destabilizes an audience. I like to take them on a journey that forces them to confront new perspectives and to explore a new world through elements that we know intimately. I play with deeply embedded symbols and icons and twist them a little so people confront new perspectives. My role is to connect objects and ideas to make people feel that we are closer to each other than we think. We often get caught up in the idea of identity as if it is something static that we can own, but that is a meaningless fantasy. I like to go beyond narrow definitions of identity and to focus on our shared universal origin. Our identity is constantly evolving. It is more like a journey, and that is what is most interesting and important to me.

Has globalization been an opportunity for you?

Yes. That’s my story. From a creator’s perspective, globalization is a great opportunity for artists and creators from different parts of the world to get in touch with each other and work together to come up with something new and different. We are all human beings and there is much more than the “identity” story to tell. Let’s bring things and people together. Let’s keep creating together, share each other’s stories and question our origins and identities. There is so much we haven’t discovered yet.

Why is it important for designers to protect their work?

Designers are creative people and need to protect their work. Unfortunately, many creators aren’t aware of how important it is to do so. Creators exist because they bring unique works to the market. They have to protect that uniqueness. If someone copies their work they can’t make a living from it and can’t survive as a creator. So intellectual property (IP) rights are more than important. IP rights also oblige designers to be more creative and to come up with new ideas and approaches that stand out from those of other creators. If you want to keep creating and be useful to the world as a human being, you need to protect your creations. Otherwise you won’t survive. Nobody ever made it without protecting their work.

Creators exist because they bring unique works to the market. They have to protect that uniqueness. If someone copies their work they can’t make a living from it and can’t survive as a creator. So IP rights are more than important.

Serge Mouangue

How would you like to see the IP system evolve?

As creators often don’t know enough about IP rights, it is really important that WIPO and other IP authorities reach out to creators and explain what IP rights can do for them. But that is a challenge because creators often don’t recognize how important IP rights are and don’t take the time to look into them. That’s a big mistake. The cost of protection also needs to come down. It is still too expensive for most creators to protect their work. Those who don’t make much from their work prefer to put their money into buying new tools and materials. They are wired to create. They just don’t find the administrative side of things very interesting. It would be a real breakthrough if IP protection could be made cheaper and easier. More creators would buy into it then.

“I like it when my work destabilizes an audience. I like to take them on a journey that forces them to confront new perspectives,” says Serge Mouangue (Photo: Violaine Martin / WIPO).

What is a high point of your career?

The highest point so far was in 2011, when the Museum of Art and Design in New York featured my work on a poster for an exhibition they organized showcasing the work of 100 top African artists. That created a big buzz around my work and was a very proud moment.

What are your plans for the future?

I am not looking for volume but for the quality and depth of my message. I want to keep finding new ways to fuse the aesthetics of Japan and West Africa to see where it goes. There are various interesting projects in the pipeline. 

What advice do you have for aspiring designers?

Feel it, draw it, put it together, share it, listen to what people have to say about it, and keep going. It’s all about making things happen and having fun!

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