A fellow Northwestern Wildcat and twitter friend @whitneyljordan forwarded a link from Jezebel.com entitled “Fashion Enthusiasts Ponder Vogue Africa“. Originally taken from some musings by Tanzanian blogger Rosemary Kokuhilwa, both blogs contemplate the work done by Cameroonian photographer Mario Epanya. All ask the question: What if there was a Vogue Africa? Man, as an African, Africa-phile, media-phile, and a general all-things-colorful/pretty/shopping-related/awesome-phile, I’ve asked myself the same question since having the experience to travel around Africa for a while.
Perusing through the comments section on these blogs, I generally see three camps of criticism towards this idea, summed up and enumerated as follows:
- Africa has enough problems already! Why the heck would they care about a magazine when they’ve got other issues like poverty, war, disease, famine, etc.? This should not be on the list of priorities.
- Africa is not a country! Why can’t people get it through their heads that Vogue Africa ≠Vogue Italia or Vogue China in the sense that Africa is not one sovereign country with a homogeneous cultural identity? It will never work!
- Vogue is not the right magazine for this venture. What, with all of Vogue‘s history of displaying black people in simplistic and problematic ways? Also lets not forget that exporting Western ideas of beauty, body image mindlessly expensive and materialist consumption could clash with African values and beauty ideals.
Here are my responses to some of those concerns, and here is my attempt to try to re-conceptualize the issue as to argue as for why Vogue Africa is an appealing concept.
- It’s a little insulting to say that all of Africa is a whirlpool of suffering and that Africans need to figure out how to fix themselves before enjoying the privilege of entertainment. Really? Everything I read lately about the plight of the poor single black woman in the United States, with us being worth $5 , most likely to die from HIV/AIDS, or the majority of us who will remain eternally single, I guess none of us should ever pick up an Essence magazine, watch “Girlfriends” or go see a Tyler Perry any movie ever again, since we’ve got too many problems. To offer an anecdote in the way of evidence, every time I brought home a fashion magazine to my family’s house while I was in Ghana, my female cousins and even my grandma loved to borrow and peruse through them. True, we faced lots of difficulties like not having water or electricity, or occasionally coming down with malaria, but sometimes, it was just nice to escape all those issues, if only for maybe a short while. Don’t we all have various methods of escaping our problems sometimes?
- Echoing an argument I think I saw in one of the comment fields, let’s take two non-Western Vogue markets. Vogue China serves a country with 55 distinct ethnic groups. Vogue India is serving a country with 2,000 distinct ethnic groups, followers of every major religion, and many different language groups. Wikipedia reports that the only region that surpasses India in terms of cultural, genetic and lingustic diversity is Africa. Obviously, Africa’ diversity is unparalleled. What if our hypothetical Vogue Africa had regular sections in every issue devoted to the goings-on in West Africa, North Africa, Central, Eastern, and South? Or it could be grouped by language, as in for Anglophone Africa, Francophone, Swahili, Zulu, Afrikaans, etc. It’s not perfect, nor does it claim to be representative of every tribe and tongue on the continent, but just because something is difficult, does it mean that it shouldn’t be attempted?
- The last criticism I would tend to agree with. Vogue has a great track record is not always the most sensitive when it comes to race issues. I would hope that our hypothetical Vogue Africa employs an African editor who has lived and worked in Africa, and is intending to produce a magazine that would appeal to Africans who are interested in art and fashion. While I lived in Ghana, I had to resort to buying $25+ (!) secondhand or excess-stock European/American Vogue, Elle, or Harper’s Bazaar magazines from stores or street vendors to satisfy my fashion fix. I sometimes felt awkward reading about Western products, designers, and beauty ideals, when I was surrounded by Ghanaian products, had been exposed to amazing Ghanaian designers, and constantly encountered some of the most beautiful people on the globe! Why not use Vogue Africa to combat misconceived notions about the African body and the culture, cuisine, and environment that produced it?
A Vogue Africa could have huge benefits. First of all, a publication like this could have economic pluses. A publication like this could revive interest in African textiles and fabrics, perhaps reviving the cotton industry in Africa. (Check my other post about the 1 million shirts fiasco and the cotton industry) A magazine of this scale could have employment benefits for African journalists (Happy Press Freedom Day!) photographers, models, and designers, and give them exposure on an international scale. Africans could then also learn about other African cultures, maybe helping to improve mutual respect and understanding between nations, regions, and tribes. And heck, how excited would some of us in the States be to see a Vogue Africa sitting at the magazine display at Barnes and Noble!?
I actually don’t think the wishful thinking or the skeptical side-eyes about Vogue Africa should be directed at Conde Nast’s Vogue. I would challenge people to not think of this as actually bringing Vogue itself to Africa, but maybe rather what Vogue, as an institution symbolizes. Like it or not, Vogue is the gold standard, the prototype, the Platonic ideal of a medium that communicates culture, aesthetic, and beauty to a huge global audience. Vogue is to fashion what the BBC is to broadcast journalism. Or what the New York Times is to print journalism in the United States. They are media publications with massive global influence in which only the elite of the elite writers, broadcasters and photographers are featured. So it’s maybe not so much if Africa had Vogue, but rather, what if Africa had a wide reaching mechanism of regularly communicating provocative African aesthetics, that would be respected and influential not just in Africa, but around the world? Fashion is communication, it is expression, it tells a story. Africa has, in so many other realms of the media, had it’s story told by everyone else. I don’t think the underlying issue is about Vogue itself, but rather, Africans telling their own story.
What do you think?