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Selly Raby Kane: visionary fashion designer, cultural archeologist, innovator  / Text Enrica Picarelli

In Something we Africans got issue 7
Enrica Picarelli

Claiming to create clothes for young Afropolitans and citizens of the world, she develops a distinctive aesthetic of African modernity that reflects the continent’s history of cross-cultural contacts and exchanges.

Selly Raby Kane © Ibrahim Canaan

Talk of innovation in Africa generally includes discussions of the home-grown tech geniuses and fintech masterminds who are re-routing international economic flows and boosting Africa’s contribution to global development. Less attention is paid, especially in Western circles, to African artists, in spite of their contribution to social innovation and empowerment across the continent. Such artists, who operate in a variety of fields spanning curation, performance, are developing new solutions to social problems by re-shaping the categories to understand and engage with their experiences. 

One such innovator is the Senegalese fashion designer Selly Raby Kane. At 32 she is widely recognized both on the continent and internationally, boasting features in international magazines that include Vogue Italy, Paris Match or The Economist, and hailed as a leading figure of the African design boom. Her appointments include serving on Dezeen’s board, a global program that awards excellency in architecture, collaborating with IKEA on the Afro-pop range “Överallt” launching this year, and creative directing Design Indaba 2018. Kane is also active in Dakar’s art scene, where she curates and takes part in exhibitions alongside local artists like her fellow members of the collective Les Petites Pierres. The last show that she curated, “The Past, The Present, The Future and the Praying Mantis” (2018), reflected on the relationship between generations of Senegalese artists and their bond with Dakar. 

© Selly Raby Kane
© Selly Raby Kane

Since launching her eponymous brand, SRK, in 2012, Kane has been hard at work promoting her own Afrocentric vision inspired by the values of sustainability, playfulness and non-conformism. A polymathic artist, her work crosses over from fashion to design, the figurative arts, film directing and writing, coalescing into a visionary production that envisions an alternate Africa. Her designs have been called avant-garde, phantasmagoric, alternative, playful and afrofuturist. She describes them as pop art for citizens of the world; the demographic of mobile Africans with a cosmopolitan lifestyle that she identifies with, being a passionate traveler and cultural archeologist who has spent years in France and even more ones reading science fiction and learning the histories of the ethnic groups of Senegal. This mix of stimuli inspires a surrealist collage aesthetic that lays out and stitches together different sources of inspiration, preserving their uniqueness while creating a sartorial signature of cross-cultural contact and contamination. Components are mixed, matched, and overlaid in SRK’s garments and accessories, resulting in unlikely encounters of contemporary and traditional elements like fake fur and bazin, PVC and leather, dye-resist fabric and velvet. Volumes are another source of experimentation: narrow silhouettes are juxtaposed against voluminous dresses, boubous – the classic flowing robe worn across West Africa – are destructured and repurposed into tight-fitting garments, flowing robes stand side by side with bodysuits, kimonos and mini-skirts. Quilting and embroidery add a further layer of opulence to this patchwork, embellishing the garments with colorful decors reproducing insignia as different as table fans, birds, parrots, diamonds, bulging eyes, flies, and sea shrimps. This is Kane’s bestiary: the repertoire of visual cues that she has amassed while simply observing the world around her. 

Kane often speaks about her fascination with Dakar’s vernacular aesthetic, which she considers an unacknowledged form of spontaneous art-making and the main inspiration of her visionary style. Her signature mix-n-match of elements replicates the visual overload that one experiences while being exposed to the idiosyncratic overlapping of visual stimuli that include graffitis, decorated minibuses and shop insignias, unlikely shapes and patterns of the urban geography and unique sartorial styles. Arguably, the Senegalese capital, with its bustling urban life, rich sartorial history and many ethnicities, is Kane’s main referent and recipient. It is the canvas on which she projects her hopes for the future and the ecosystem that feeds and takes in her creative endeavors. More importantly, it is the recipient of her innovative efforts aimed at promoting the citizens’ involvement with the urban texture.

© Selly Raby Kane
© Selly. Raby Kane

Kane is known for reclaiming abandoned and everyday spaces to revive a sense of community, enlisting fashion as a tool to foster dialogue across class, cultural and religious divides. In 2013 she collaborated with a number of artists in Dakar to create the fashion show “Be Street” which spread across 4000 sqm of settings and recreated typical Senegalese urban scenes. This was her first attempt at experimenting with her type of site-specific design, the approach with which she emphasizes the mutual relationship between fashion and place, making visible and reshaping cultural traditions and in the process originating new audiences and forms of engagement with the city. This approach is consistent with the artistic vision of the Les Petites Pierres, the collective she joined in 2009 which implements change trough artistic interventions that foster dialogue across Dakar’s compartmentalized neighborhoods. In 2014 Kane launched the project “Save the Old Lady” to preserve the dilapidated site of Dakar’s historical train station, hosting a two-week art show inside this structure. The event created an alternate reality and featured works by many local artists. On the opening night a labyrinth installation was mounted in the station’s forecourt, preparing the audience for the sensory experience awaiting inside the building. The station was refitted to resemble an alien village of the year 2244, where Kane presented “Alien Cartoon” (Fall/Winter 2014), her most surrealist collection to date that fantasizes about an encounter between humans and fantastic creatures. (…) find the full article in something we Africans got issue 7.

In Something we Africans got issue 7
Enrica Picarelli, PhD