This Conversation is featured in Gossamer Volume Six: the Garbage issue, which you can order here.
I feel like my whole life has been on a trajectory toward La Réunion. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but everything becomes clear in retrospect.
Textile art and quilting and making clothes have always been side things for me. My grandmother immigrated to Oklahoma from Nigeria when I was eight or nine—she was the one who taught me to sew. She spoke broken English, so it wasn’t always easy for us to communicate. I had all these white friends who were really close with their grandmas. I didn’t really have that experience because she was from a totally different place, and that wasn’t normal.
If you’re Nigerian, you’re supposed to respect and honor the elders in your life. So that’s how I was raised, and the things that she shared with me were a lot heavier than your typical American grandmother. I was very stubborn and impatient with her a lot of the time, just because I wanted to know what she was saying, and I wanted to relate more to her.
But she taught me how to sew and I felt like that was super meaningful. She didn’t teach my siblings—she picked me.
My grandmother was a seamstress in her village, which is a very revered position. I didn’t realize I would be revisiting this in my twenties, but here I am. I’ve always had the impulse to make things—I think that’s a very Nigerian thing, too: being creative with what you have. My mom, for example, was always eating the pulp of her smoothies and finding another use for scraps. I was raised with the mentality that if something can be reused, why would we throw it away? When I was younger, I used to get yelled at for throwing away paper towels. That’s been hammered into me. I thrive off of those constraints now. Going into a fabric store is so overwhelming, I’d prefer to be limited and industrious and find a way to make it work.
The name La Réunion comes from a little island off the coast of Madagascar called Réunion. It’s a French territory, but it’s part of Africa. I just loved everything about how it is a kind of hidden gem. I was like, this is an untold story, why don’t we know more about this place? And then I was thinking about all the stories in Africa that we know so little about. This project has been a constant turning over of stones.
I feel like I’m reuniting with everything about Africa that I either suppressed growing up—because it wasn’t the white narrative that everyone else was learning—or that I wasn’t given the opportunity to discover. My uncle contacted me when I first started this project and said, “This is exactly what your grandmother would have wanted you to be doing.” I had no idea because of our language barrier, and she passed away when I was 14. But I remember when I was really young, I tried to ask my dad who my ancestors were because I had this project due in the history class. And he said, “You don’t have any ancestors.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I feel like it was symbolic. I mean, colonization wiped away so much.
I feel like I’m reuniting with everything about Africa that I either suppressed growing up . . . or that I wasn’t given the opportunity to discover.
I came to New York after studying art therapy in grad school. I didn’t have any fashion experience, but I wanted to work in fashion and focus on sustainability. My first internship was with a company that supported African artists and was Black-owned. But the way I was treated, it was probably the worst experience I’ve had in New York. I felt like I was constantly being gaslit. People would say, “Well, maybe this isn’t for you, maybe you’re not tough enough.” There were a lot of traditional fashion culture standards that they were trying to meet because they had won some awards, and I think they wanted to come off as like, Oh, we’re big dogs. They felt that they needed to appear a certain way.
So that was my first experience, and it taught me that no one has it all right, no one’s that cool. I had to take everyone off of the pedestals I had put them on and get back to the reason I was doing this in the first place. Afterwards, I worked at Caron Callahan and Mara Hoffman. I’m really grateful for those experiences, and I continued working in fashion up until the pandemic, really.
The official launch of La Réunion was in December of 2019, but before that, I was planning and sewing while working my desk job at Mara Hoffman. During that time, I volunteered with this organization called Wide Rainbow, where I taught girls how to quilt and sew patchwork pieces together. I felt like it was such a good transition into a more intentional practice because, before that, I hadn’t really nailed down a cadence or anything.
This project was always in the background; I was just making it for myself and whoever else cared. It was all very sporadic. But when the pandemic hit, I was able to think about it more seriously. I knew about the dresses of the Herero women—a tribe in Namibia—and the style of dress they adopted from their oppressors as a symbol of resilience and rebellion, but I had never made one myself. So I wanted to honor them with the style. And I actually made my first few dresses with scraps from Caron Callahan, so those dresses are really incredible because of her.
Around that same time, when everything was really hitting the fan, I went to this vegan taco place with a club called Black Flamingo with my partner and two friends. Before we left, he made us firecrackers, which is basically peanut butter and weed that you microwave and then put between two crackers. It takes a minute for it to hit. So I ate one, and an hour later I didn’t feel anything, so we ate another. Then I remember it hitting me all at once. We were talking, it was super loud, I was feeling light-headed, and I was like, Oh my god. I have to go outside. I feel crazy. I have never been that high. Edibles are fun sometimes but … wow. It’s hard to gauge where you’re at. Normally I like smoking joints. They just make me really relaxed. It’s nice to have some relief at night and feel like I can fall right asleep.
It probably seems like I’m still in fashion to some people because I’m making these dresses, but really they feel more like art pieces to me.
It probably seems like I’m still in fashion to some people because I’m making these dresses, but really they feel more like art pieces to me. At this point, I’ve already made over 100! Pretty insane. I’m just working all the time—I’ve never been busier.
I design every single one of them, and it takes a long time to make each one. It’s just been a really great, humbling process for me to try to learn how to meet expectations in a way that’s ethical and sustainable. The messages I get feel really good. People are like, “Oh, this is exactly what I wanted,” or, “This feels like it was made for me.” I love the idea of someone feeling like they were heard and that their dress reflects them as a person. That’s special.
I’m just hoping that it will be a timeless thing that people pull out for years and years to come. And at the same time, I’m also thinking about ways to share stories from Africa and how I can best do that without making it seem like I know everything. I mean, I’m definitely learning a lot as someone from Oklahoma who was raised in a very Western society that doesn’t teach about Africa. It’s been amazing talking about the Namibian women on my platform and sharing the random little stories that I hear. I think that’s one of the big reasons I started this project in the first place.
I have a lot of different references for my work, all African. Right now, I’m really inspired by photographers and filmmakers. People like Malick Sidibé. He was a photographer in Mali who shot a lot in the 1960s when Mali first gained its independence. He was photographing Africans in this celebratory state—the same kind of energy I felt in New York when we found out that Trump wasn’t going to be president for another four years. His work is very carefree, very unapologetically African. It’s very tangible. He captured a lot of streetwear and fashion, which actually inspired some of the styles I’m making now.
Another example is Ousmane Sembène. He created a lot of films that I can very much relate to, even though they’re decades old. He made the film Black Girl, about a Senegalese woman who is sent to France to be a nanny but ends up being treated like garbage. When I first watched it, it was one of those full circle moments, because I was able to fully connect with my African heritage in a different way. Even though I grew up here, we have these experiences of sameness, of Black experience in the diaspora. I could relate to how she was treated in France in the film because of how I’m treated as a Black American woman in this predominantly white space. So there’s a lot of parallels there with my work—trying to reunite with my African heritage, what was always there, while still keeping and honoring where I currently am. We can fully acknowledge these parts of ourselves, and celebrate and pay tribute to all of them.
There are also things about myself that are new to me because of La Réunion but, at the same time, I think I have always known. Like how I love warmth; that’s such an African thing, you know, wearing a blanket when it’s hot outside and loving the sun. Small things. Reconnecting with this project has been like a bridge to my Nigerian heritage. It has shown me that this is kind of what I was meant to be doing all along.
If you’re a Black artist, you don’t really have an option about whether or not your art is political.
It also makes me feel like I finally have a foot to stand on when it comes to talking about what’s happening in Lagos, what’s happening with SARS and police brutality in Nigeria—and in the U.S. So I have these two different perspectives of police brutality and violence against Black people. It is exhausting, but it’s also really important to see these parallels happening and to know that my Blackness in America can be so connected to my Blackness in Nigeria, and that my experience here can be so directly correlated to their experiences there. It’s been really eye-opening.
If you’re a Black artist, you don’t really have an option about whether or not your art is political. It’s a privilege to be like, Oh yeah, this is not about anything; it’s just art for the sake of art. I wish I could do that. But if you’re any kind of minority, I feel like your work or your art is expected to have some kind of connection or attachment to what you’ve gone through and your experiences as a human. I just don’t know how I could not have some political side of my work. Even just saying that this is a sustainable art practice is a political statement. Some people don’t get that. I believe it’s really irresponsible to make stuff that’s brand new, but I also know it’s such a privilege to invest in something like this. I don’t expect everyone to spend $435 on a dress. It’s not a necessity, and I never want to come off as an elitist who says you have to shop sustainably when that’s not always an option.
At the end of the day, La Réunion is really for anyone who wants to participate in revisiting themselves in the most authentic way possible. I hope that people can look at these themes and feel inspired to try to do that for themselves outside of this project.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Sarah Nsikak photographed by Stephanie Mei-Ling in Brooklyn. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.