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Mwamby Wassaky: fashion as a cultural act

Mwamby Wassaky vestido por si Mwamby Wassaky vestido por si When Mwamby designs clothes, he is already thinking that these garments, so creatively put together, may contain little bits of Angola, in its various facets and with healthy cultural cross-pollination. What interests him is the pop aspect, bringing back patterns, fabric and ways of dressing, to be recreated in an original way. What we are talking about is fashion as a cultural act.  

He tells us of his life, his eyes soft and his voice well modulated. One of the foundations was the fact that he was born in a Luanda which had strong cultural tendencies. More specifically, he was born in Cazenga, the biggest district in the city.  “I grew up in a confused society, caught in a rut between layers of tradition and western folklore, between the suburban average and the stereotype urban.” Mwamby (or José da Silva, the name he was given on baptism) uses rich concepts to say that he is part of this hybrid mass, since his creativity comes from his own Luanda. But the world beyond here also exists. And the fact that he lived in Cuba for 8 years on a scholarship means that he was influenced enough to consider himself culturally Cuban. 

His craft comes from experience, from much observation, but it’s as if he had been there before. On top of this, he often repeats that there is a cultural sense to making clothes, like a gesture that happens every day but goes back to the very roots of humanity. “It all comes from the divine idea that “Adam sewed leaves and God sewed skins.” Sewing is also cultural. In all families and in all societies we come across those who have this strong cultural element. It’s like learning how to make home-made bread.” His grandmother was a seamstress, his mother a fashion designer who worked until the end of the Singer operation in Luanda, in the Coqueiros neighbourhood, where she had her sewing studio. This is how he learned, by watching, “Working out a style is no more than understanding, breaking the image and creating something new. The only thing I know is that we get dressed every day.”

Mwamby Wassaky vestido por si Mwamby Wassaky vestido por si The most active part of his career begins in 2002 with his participation in Moda Luanda (he returned in 2004).  He was awarded the Red’s Style prize and the diploma of merit from the fashion agency Mangos. He also put on “Estreia em Luanda”, in the Elinga Theatre, as part of the Artemoda project. He presented the same collection in the Ambassador’s residence in France, in a gathering with a number of Angolan artists, in the Chá de Caxinde Association and with a programme put on by TPA. He is becoming well-known to the Angolan public, with his African, naturalist and ecological motifs.
He has always been involved with the theatre, through friends and by involvement, above all because his fashion has a strong performing flavour. He designed the dresses for Morte e Vida Severina, put on by José Mena Abrantes at the Elinga Theatre (January 2003), Woza Alberth by Miguel Hurst (August 2003) and the choreography for Passagens by Mónica Anapaz  in the Avenida Theatre (May 2003).

Some of his work was presented in Expo Japan in 2005 and in 2006 he won the prize as best Angolan fashion designer in Moda Luanda. Meanwhile, in the capital, the triennial Luanda Movement was on, culminating precisely (in the first phase) with Angolan Contemporary Fashion (March 2007). Mwamby was enthusiastically applauded on the catwalk with his collection full of symbols of Angolan history, some ironic, but leaving nobody unmoved.

In terms of day-to-day work, Mwamby Wassaky’s studio could not be better situated. It’s in the heart of downtown Luanda, inside the Elinga Theatre, which is a meeting point for artists. But there is no stability there at the moment, since it is now official that the building will be pulled down. So Mwamby does not know where he will settle next. His studio acts as a point where customers can be seen but it also works as a research centre. Many of his customers are young people but he also does work for men and women from a variety of backgrounds and for state and private institutions. He makes uniforms for example. As he says: “We all need space, but for this it’s necessary to be up there, and to get there you have to convince people. I did this by winning prizes and getting diplomas and more than anything I created my own clientele.” You can order a garment with a pretty clear idea in mind, or you can start with just a vague idea, or leave everything to the artist’s imagination. Mwamby looks at a person and tries to create a garment according to the personality, because what you wear is in fact a continuation of what you are. He creates clothing that suits or may come to suit a person and for this he uses African cloth such as denim, jute, coconut shells and others stylised objects from various regions of Angola.

Mwamby Wassaky Mwamby Wassaky  “I work from a socio-universal point of view. By this I mean that everyone can find part of their culture or maybe themselves from a specific starting point. This is underpinned by traditional urban culture or afro-modern or popafrokomteporâneo.” Don’t get worked up about this big word. Just look at it as one side pop, another African and another contemporary. This fashion is a reflection of our society and brings with it hints of more traumatic times when it was a problem to find solutions and do justice to the good taste that has always been there, in a struggle against desinterest, in which the Angolans have never given an inch.

It is in fact impossible to separate Mwambi’s work from the social side of Luanda life, since he “focuses on an urban style, which is connected to socio-political moments and events. This makes it possible to knit cultures together and to find a context for reworking ideologies and fixed ideas.” Seen from this angle, Mwamby Wassaky is part of a new line of artists who are reflecting on what Angolan culture is or should be (he took part in the Nationalist collective exhibition and was in on the Luanda Triennial). It is always necessary to find a spur to continue progressing and Mwamby, who is now 36, would like to learn more, to study abroad and give an international slant to his work. “Of course I would like to travel and show what I do, and studying would be a real catalyst and what I would really like in the field of fashion,” he confesses. He is looking for opportunities.

He is preparing a session with three other designers, among them Rui Lopes. These are collections for those who are not standard (the usual super elegant figures), but bodies, shall we say, that are more natural, fatter, thinner, taller, shorter, more like real people.  
“Speaking about fashion in Angola is like looking for something sparkling that we think has fallen but it’s really still in the air,” Mwamby concludes, sure that fashion is part and parcel of the country’s way of life. 


in AUSTRAL nº 67, article provided by TAAG – Linhas Aéreas de Angola

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