Fashion as a Reflection of Society: A Dialogue With Nick Pagemat
Ndingalinda Nicholas Matambeka known as Nick Pagemat is a writer who gets his inspiration from fashion and his surroundings. In 2016, he released a piece titled “Taxi to Pimville” which focused on Feminism in a taxi. Later that year he released a photographic narrative series titled “PROGEM : Black boys are Gold”.
The young storyteller, fashion director and exhibitionist released a fashion film called Anonymous Sitter in 2018 gaining a lot of recognition in the writing space and pioneering the South African fashion film industry with the narrative that defines the identity of fashion.
Nick went to further release a fictional series of a fictional fashion icon called “Frank Fortress” the story focuses on the black fashion icon who’s life revolved around law and textiles. Nick’s writing uniqueness entails storytelling through fashion an art that exalts a dynamic storytelling essence.
This conversation took place within a vast universe, in a small corner of the world in Gaborone, Botswana and the Eastern side of Pretoria in the Gauteng region as well as the town of Umthatha in the Eastern Cape of South Africa via Email.
Bame: First, I am super excited to be talking to you because I have a great interest in fashion, particularly curating fashion events and initiatives. I found your project really expansive and artistic and futuristic. Everything I love really!
Outside fashion, I am a fifth year law student at the University of Botswana and my research is on the legal protection of traditional knowledge and expression, essentially culture appropriation, which is something I look forward to exploring with you.
Tell me about yourself. Which city are you in right now? And who are you binging on in the fashion industry right now?
Nick: My name is Nicholas Ndingalinda Matambeka, but then one’s power source or rather alter ego is better known as Nick Pagemat. I am a Fashion storyteller, Art director and Exhibitionist. Born 19th November 1995 in uMthatha, Eastern Cape of South Africa and raised in Cape Town.
I am currently in between Pretoria and uMthatha at the moment. I am currently binging on amazing young talent, the likes of young designers like Akhonke Khema, Fashion directors like Bonga Mgidlana that have been exposed to a new world of fashion through visuals. It is quite a beautiful moment to be able to collaborate and bring new and fresh people into the industry.
Bame: I completely agree with you. I believe that creativity should be inclusive and that’s what happens when we collaborate. The end result are usually more amazing as many minds birth a project.
I am obsessed with the self and its ever evolving aspects and how most of the time we have many facets. Watching the film, Anonymous Sitter was an experience for me. I will start with what you relayed in the film, that the Anonymous Sitter is an expression of self, can we start exploring what is the inspiration behind the project Anonymous Sitter?
Nick: This is quite an interesting question because I get it a lot, but the answers differ every time because so many souls were portrayed in the film.
So we live in a society that views fashion from a very glamorous perspective but I’ve had fashion experiences in the rural areas, the townships and suburban areas. The inspiration behind the film was first an exhibition by Simphiwe Ndzube, a South African visual artist based in the United States now, his ways of expression through art are very fascinating.
So, before anything I had to ask him to put my own narrative on his Exhibition but in a fashion film format. I didn’t abandon his narrative but I wanted to touch on a lot of subjects through the film: cultural appropriation, self-expression, fashion identity and the manufacturing of fashion.
The core inspiration was the people, their everyday lives. Through the film, we are telling ordinary African people’s stories in fashion. My dearly loved statement now is that “Fashion is basic”, I wanted to emphasise on that, fashion affects us all. Nobody has ever tackled fashion from a very basic angle. They are people who do not even know they are pioneers of trends that occur in the fashion space.
So, through the film I was like “why not portray a fashion for the people by the people?” I am a very observant individual and within the lives and daily activities of Africans no matter where they exist, I believe that fashion exists with them.
Bame: Fashion is basic! That is powerful. Carl Jung said that people should be allowed to express their experiences and that no one can tell a better story than the person who is living it. This is one way to achieve self actualization. And I believe that your film is a representation of an individual owning and telling their story. Especially with the statement: why not portray a fashion for the people by the people?
What stood out for me when I watched the Anonymous Sitter was culture appropriation or what some term as “culture appreciation”. This is a very important topic, especially for peoples who for a long time have been oppressed by the western countries or society. What are your personal perspectives and feelings when it comes to culture appropriation?
Nick: This is a very vast topic to tackle on and it is a two way street. Africans have been oppressed for the longest time, further introduced to a different culture of the western. Even today, our cultures are diluted with western influences. My perspective is that maybe there is not even something called cultural appropriation to begin with. There was an incident where Louis Vuitton released a collection based on the baSotho traditional blankets, when you look at how the baSotho clan acquired the blanket, it gives you a different view to question yourself if cultural appropriation is a two way street.
The baSotho blankets are believed to have been a gift from a white traveler to the people of Lesotho, so they took the blankets and embraced them as sacred items. Now, ask yourself, where are the blankets manufactured? By whom? The blankets aren’t even manufactured in Lesotho, let alone the material.
So, does Louis Vuitton has no right to use the fabric? It’s very tricky because now the fabric is considered sacred somewhere in Africa. Another example would be the NAVADA brand in South Africa, it is only wore by Xhosa men, boys cannot wear the brand. There are mythological aspects within the name of the brand and how it is tailored and the simplest details of each blazer. Now, you have to ask yourself what were Xhosa men wearing before that, definitely another brand.
So, African culture has a way of expanding to create barriers and further claiming or taking possession of things that aren’t ours. Now, what happens to a white that decides to wear NAVADA? Which is a Scottish brand. They will be considered disrespectful to the Xhosa culture. It’s a very tricky situation, because big white brands also partake in stealing traditional items in Africa and commercializing them. Do you see how much of a two way street this thing is?
Bame: I understand. The African had to learn to assimilate and absorb into this new culture that was suddenly introduced to him/ her. And maybe when it comes to fashion, cultural appropriation is a two way street thing, as you put it. And probably because we live in a global village there has been so much advancement when it comes to methods of interaction across the globe, we are more closer as humanity than ever before. However, I don’t believe we can completely say there is no cultural appropriation, the main complaint is that these big brands get to economically benefit, whereas the minority is left with almost nothing, especially when you look at the pharmaceutical companies, using a tribe’s knowledge on certain medicinal plants, and rarely ever give monetary credit to the custodians of that culture. I do believe even in the fashion industry, there is cultural appropriation. I recently read a thread on twitter, where someone was highlighting that the costume designer(s) from Black Panther Film, should have been sourced in Africa. Culture is also dynamic, as time goes on, new cultures are adopted and some old cultures may be abandoned. Culture Appropriation is indeed a vast topic, and has many facets to it. You have already mentioned that the film Anonymous Sitter also seeks to explore the manufacturing of fashion?
Nick: This a beautiful process in the fashion field, a process in which people are not exposed to the most. The process of textiles is a very important one, because it is a job-creating process.
However, the education of textiles requires one to enter the premises of fashion school, it is then one gets educated about how textiles contribute to our GDP, and how much money does the industry make.
Majority of the people wants to be fashion designers, but nobody seeks to be a textile designer, create the fabric from scratch and supply many companies across Africa. So, the film aims to let people occupy that space of creation and bring the education to the people. Thus, I said on the film “in textiles, we grow”. Fashion can feed millions of Africans and create wealth.
Roughly, the fashion industry contributes 3.6 trillion dollars to the world’s GDP. So, it is an industry in which we as South Africans need to bring forth to the people through education. From jewelry to every corner of the fashion industry.
Bame: I do not have much knowledge about the manufacturing process of fashion. I have never really put much thought into it, if I were asked, I would have thought the Maasai of Tanzania and Kenya are involved in manufacturing, also some communities in West Africa. However, what stood out for me is that for one to be an expert, one must go to school first. Which raises another problem that most creatives or the general population suffers from: lack of funds for university or college. And in a country like Botswana, where the Government grants free education even for University, it’s a matter of people not being aware and also not doing it, as people believe that Fashion cannot give you the societal respect that other professions such as medicine or law (not meaning that these professions are not noble pursuits).
Now, what is your fashion identity?
Nick: When I speak of fashion identity I am not creating a box for anyone to put themselves in. Identity evolves, you are not feeling the same today as you were yesterday. My fashion identity is defined by how I feel but when culturally inclined, it has to abound within my culture which is a society of Xhosa people.
The inspiration is vast. I am the last born of Nocawe. I am the teacher that students look up to. I am the director that most creatives look up to. I am a father that my daughter looks up to. These aligned create my fashion identity, I am within a space where I have to be guided by how I feel and how I am contributing to my surroundings. In a very common way, I possess an Afrocentric identity, a very futuristic and observant one.
Bame: True, the self is not dormant. We are always in the process of becoming. In most of your work, you tend to reflect a lot on being Xhosa and being black. I have come across your reflections where you said you believe that the word Kaffir should be embraced by the black man in South Africa. You have also documented new fashion trends that used to be associated with the white South African. I am interested in understanding this view, as a born free South African.
Nick: I believe that the word negro was used in America as a word to identify black people and bring them down. If you follow the history of a negro man, you will understand how he has come to embrace the name as an identity to his fellow brothers and sisters but an identity that the oppressor cannot identify you with.
So, when you look at the skill of creation of this reverse oppression you are to find out that this reflects as an Art of war. Simply using your opponent’s arrow to fire back. In the United States today, black people refer to each other as “niggas” which is derived from the word negro.Now, white people can not refer to black people as niggas, even though they invented the word to demean us.
We are yet to breakdown the word “kaffir” and bring it forth to a context that is very similar to the word ‘negro/nigga’.
Firstly what is a kaffir :
- an insulting term for a black African.
- an insulting term used by some Muslims for non-Muslims.
- a member of a people of the Hindu Kush mountains of NE Afghanistan, who did not convert to Islam until the 19th century.
Now, we need to understand that the word was taken from Islam, it doesn’t exist in the English vocabulary. And it possesses the same oppressive power as “negro”. So again, I believe an art of war could be applied, silence the oppressor while we remain vocal with what was meant to oppress us. I personally would love to see South Africans create a reverse verbal oppression through the word.
Create a heavy shield with it, so that it shows how unified our struggle is. I have used fashion as a tool to express and raised conversations amongst people of South Africa. I have dwelled in the presence of oppression even today. South Africa is a political free country but economically, mentally and physically the black masses are still oppressed. Racial incidents take place daily, black farm workers are killed with no remorse.
We are racially profiled daily. A few months ago, I was shooting “The darkie boer boy” trend in which was a reflection of how black farmers dress up in South Africa. How we drew inspiration from also the white men in the farming space. So from the day we were shooting that campaign, we came across a white old folk and he said we are not welcome in his neighbourhood, he doesn’t want “criminals” in his land, mind you this is a free country. We are in a neighbourhood street which is called lekkerwater street. The man violently threatened me and my colleagues, luckily a group of other people passing by saw the incident and called him out.
These are the situations we live under in this free country. As a born free, I am trying to imagine how it was for the not so born free people. If today I have to suffer racism and discrimination. So, the word I put out is controversial but yet educational and I believe we can all create a better society if we find the beauty in each other’s cultures and try to draw inspiration from.
As a young black man in South Africa, I ought to tell my people’s stories without censorship towards freedom of expression. Also, I have the responsibility to practice freedom expression that doesn’t negatively affect someone else’s freedom.
Bame: It always baffles me how black bodies have to always fight to be free in whichever space they inhabit in the society. I may not have experienced such incidents like you, where you always have to fight to be allowed to live in a place peacefully without prejudice, however we now live in a global village where we hear all these stories on social media. Black lives matter is a prime example, where even here in the motherland, we are somehow affected even though it’s not happening in our backyards. I am truly sorry that you still experience this hate.
The film Anonymous Sitter also touches on futuristic theme, (outward look on life) especially on navigating being black and ownership of our stories fully as black bodies. Let’s dissect the meaning behind that theme. What did you want to convey?
Nick: With the theme, I wanted to convey how the future truly unfolds and changes what we think and how we see ourselves. In 1800, who would have thought that a Skinny Jean would be a thing? Let alone the society within the early 2000s.
The film emphasizes mostly on the power of fashion, I normally say that “Fashion is a fabricated reflection of the people, for the people by the people”, we seem to be focusing more on trends when we should be focusing on fashion because fashion gives birth to trends.
Again, one cannot always dwell on the power of yesterday, but the power of now to shape tomorrow. The Anonymous Sitter is each and everyone of us, you do not have to be into fashion in order to become fashionable, the fact that you partake in the clothing space means you’re fashionable and you contribute towards fashion.
So, the film is made for everyone because everyone is fashionable when we dissect the basics of fashion. The futurism in the film symbolises how everything changes through what we wear.
How we can simply define an era by an outfit, that now reveals to you what or who the Anonymous Sitter is. It is simply an observant being that keeps on learning yet wondering what the fashion world may be about or how the fashion world re-invents itself. It’s simply self discovery and a therapy session for all of us, that is what the Anonymous Sitter is.
Bame: That is so true. Fashion is a representation of a certain time. As a woman, the current society accepts how women dress, for some people they think it’s showing too much skin whereas I think it reflects on how free people are, the sexual freedom revolution. I like how you have observed that in the 1800s no one would have thought skinny jeans would be a thing, but isn’t it funny also how in those times African women (or let me say Southern African women, I do not want to lump the whole of Africa) wore traditional attires that some people now are saying are too revealing. A paradox really.
You said “that we should put fashion education, in order to tell our story as Africans, and stop from adopting toxic in our spaces”. What are the practical ways that we can put Fashion forth in Africa?
Nick: Yes, Fashion education is vital and it ought to be executed to the public, there are quite various ways to go about doing so. Exhibitions and Masterclasses serve a purpose of being educational, especially when they are drawn closer to communities.
The strive to build a possible synergy between textiles and fashion is the way to go. These two sectors consist of ways to build the fashion industry and building it means starting from the ground up. I am currently doing a fashion masterclass which is called “what if the art” the masterclass is very educational and it puts forth a foot that involves the community and fashion.
Bame: Interesting. You also said that we need to stop adopting toxic things into our spaces. What are these toxic things that Africans are adopting in our cultural spaces?
Nick: The most toxic energy exalted in black spaces has to be colonialism, it has its perks and attributes that separate people daily from who they are and what they stand for, These toxic energies exist amongst religions also, and are further creating a barrier within people of the same tribe or culture.
We are sometimes unable to express ourselves to the core because laws built upon colonialism segregate us all and further launch a spiritual division. So, religions and western cultures adopted by Africans are toxic to us as a people of Africa.
Bame. The Anonymous Sitter film project is a conversation that the world is currently having and it brings its own perspective into the debate. The film’s narrative aims to change how Africa views fashion. I wonder, what do you aspire for the Future of African fashion?
Nick: There is a huge misconception on African Fashion, it’s like we were never able to create jewellery, our kings never wore Gold pieces and crowns. The purification of Gold took place in Africa without even the word “Technology” existing in our vocabulary.
Haute Couture did not start in France, it started in Africa, because our kings and Queens were more than just leaders but they executed the most beautiful, high quality and high fashion garments.
The story of Cleopatra further alerts on how Haute Couture existed in Africa before any of the French people could blink. I love talking about Afro-futurism when engaging on this topic because our past as Africans without the disturbance of colonizers is the future we are actually gunning for so it gives you a clear brief of what Africa was and is capable of.
The future of African fashion is rich, it is exciting and it needs to be well-executed. The movie Black Panther played a huge role in portraying Afro-futurism even though I have a few problems with the movie, but I believe it has drawn people to the essence of Africa. Fashion not only being a once of cultural thing but a lifestyle.
So, Anonymous Sitter also draws a line of one introspecting themselves into what is it really that they are standing for and how? Fashion is bought and it has many feathers for us to brush off ourselves with but the main thing is that African Fashion industry is growing to become a force that will be unstoppable, a stream of creativity, royalty and self-identity.
Bame: That is inspiring. Thank you so much for engaging with me in this dialogue. Looking forward to some of your future work.
Bame Mogami is a fashion curator, exhibitionist and musician. She is a law student at the University of Botswana and guest interviewer for this dialogue.