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Interview, Pop Culture

Cultural Enthusiast, Visual Artist: An Interview with Yo Yo Lander

January 25, 2017

by Dominique Michelle Davis

(above image : “Uncomfortable” by Yo Yo Lander; all images: Yo Yo Lander)

I had the honor to interview Yo Yo Lander, visual artist and self proclaimed Cultural Enthusiast. It was a pleasure to speak with someone who is inspired from life to have created a platform of self-expression and artistic direction to create dialogue. Her medium of canvas and paint – which she employs to promote and highlight dissension with societal norms to help bridge the gap of culture – is an interesting play of art imitating life.

Dominique: How did you first discover art and how did you choose your medium?

Yo Yo: I was introduced to art from my Uncle Boykin who traveled to Africa and would send us postcards from Africa that pictured indigenous people. I would stare at the jewelry and that’s where I developed my appreciation of color. It was very different from the very bland color of Sumter, South Carolina of blacks, green and orange. I began traveling to Africa with my uncle in summers who led a group to Ghana and Ethiopia for the African Diaspora Heritage for 21 days. My uncle is a professor at Virginia Union University.

I’ve always been interested in indigenous people of Africa, Indian (Native American, and Mexican cultures). I was always excited for international food day to explore the cultures of others.

Another uncle (Uncle Curtis) was also an artist. His medium is wood. I would go visit his shed where he kept all of his work, but he never shared it with anyone. He has a great gift but he keeps it all to himself.

I was drawn to canvas for creative expression. I was not good at blending which allowed me to create my own lane and I began to highlight my “weakness” to turn it to strength, which is where I get my block coloring.

Dominique: What was your path toward becoming a visual artist?

Yo Yo: I found it difficult to verbally articulate and use art as a way of expression. I went to Howard for undergrad, but I’ve always been an eclectic person an explorer who wanted to see and experience life. I kind of just always did my own thing. I don’t want to be defined by social norms or job labels… which is how I coined my term cultural enthusiast. I’m a cultural enthusiast, a person who is able to monetize off artistic expression and who is invested into culture.

“Market Lady” by Yo Yo Lander

Dominique: Is there a therapeutic component to your artwork? Healing through art and how so? How does your artistic expression become a reflection of self?

Yo Yo: Yes. What you paint is a reflection of what I feel inside. It’s a relationship. One of my pieces was about relationships and as I was painting it helped me to reflect and understand on a deeper level the relationship I had with my sister. One of the first relationships we ever have in life. It helped me to create my work on sisterhood.

It usually takes me about 1 year to complete a group of work. I never touch my art when I’m not in the mood and I tend to find my answers in the silence. Whatever I’m seeking I always find it out. One of the most therapeutic components to painting is you get obsessed with painting. You get lost and you just want to be alone with your thoughts and lock yourself away. There are three steps to painting (1) the idea, (2) draw, (3) paint.

Dominique: How do you use your platform to inspire, create conversation and work for social justice?

Yo Yo: There’s a message in everything. Figuring out how to tie art to a story to create dialogue; a conversation piece; sometimes I don’t choose my subjects my subject chooses me.

My first commissioned piece was a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. with commissioned pieces it usually takes a month, but my spirit must align with the work.

My current catalog is heavily influenced by Ghana (last summer 2016). I’m working on a group work for the African American Museum of Art. This will be featured from October to December 2017. It is a collection of 20 pieces and I’m waiting on the spirit to guide my direction. I’m thinking of “the problem with going nowhere.” The problem with going nowhere – like Good Times; the circle of the cycle, it started to sit with me. Be patient. Every breaststroke has a meaning. To rush is a waste of time and material. [Art] is time, patience and love.

“Black American Girl” by Yo Yo Lander

Dominique: What is your advice to youth and aspiring artist?

Yo Yo: Don’t be obsessed with grades in school. Be obsessed with relationships and experiences and encourage kids to play. People forget who we are, we lose the essence of self we lose our light. In Caribbean culture youth play, let’s change the culture of how we teach our children to encourage them to explore everything and see what you like.

I never thought I would make a career from painting, but we also need to make sure we get the parents involved.

Artist Statement:

YoYo Lander is an autodidactic painter living and working in Los Angeles, CA. For YoYo creating art is therapeutic. Yoyo’s visions emanate from all that surrounds her while abroad. YoYo’s work explores unconventional color palettes, bold color contrasts, and womanhood. Her subjects are comprised of an arrangement of brown color harmonies, placed on backgrounds of both subtle and loud color blocks. Yoyo creates her interpretations using personal photographs and stories from indigenous women as her inspiration. The figurative artwork enjoins a conversation between itself and it’s audience regarding joy, identity, sisterhood and community.

Fashion, History, Interview, On the Street, Pop Culture

Sankofa Couture: Interview with School of Thought Collection Creators

December 15, 2015

by Stephanie “Rhythm” Keene 

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photo credit: Mike Ryan/Brick x Birch (all photos in this post)

I recently I sat down with Maryam Pugh of Philadelphia Printworks and Donte Neal of Mars Five to discuss their fashion design collaboration, the collection “School of Thought.” The “School of Thought” collection “imagines a different world where colleges and institutions have been established based on the philosophies of Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and James Baldwin. The collection represents the double consciousness experienced by” African diasporic people in America  “and creates a safe space for the praxis of liberation.” [Editor’s Note: The interviewer, Stephanie “Rhythm” Keene, is also featured in the “School of Thought” campaign photos wearing the ‘Tubman’ shirt]. 

Keene: How did this idea come about?

Neal: I had an art studio at the Window Factory in North Philly, and so did Maryam. I got to see the beginning of what Philadelphia Printworks was, and I always wanted to collaborate with them. Then in the beginning of 2015, we came up with this cool idea to do collegiate sweatshirts. I always wanted to do something that had a collegiate theme, and [liked] being able to do that with Philadelphia Printworks by way of using very significant black intellectuals.

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Keene: How did you choose which intellectuals to use? Will others show up later?

Neal: There was a much larger list. We wanted to, at least for this run, to do names that were a good balance between men and women.

Pugh: Any time we design a collection, there’s always that balance of trying to find people that we think are impactful and someone that has done things that we feel deserve to be brought to the light and recognized and honored. If it goes well, we can expand the collection to include other names and other products.

Neal: We wanted to make sure that we grounded ourselves somewhat in reality; if these schools existed, what would be the cornerstone of their educational system? So [for example] Garvey Industrial Institute. So we focused on the technology of industry, the building of factories, etc. Ida B. Wells was one of the writers who started writing about the lynchings in the South in the height of it, when it was going down. [Someone going to that fictional school] could be someone who maybe wants to be involved in politics, bringing important subjects to light regardless of what kind of adversity they’re [facing] at the moment. So we didn’t want to pick names out of a hat because these names are cool. These are the ‘schools of thought.’ These are the ideas of importance, and here are some people that represent these ideas.

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Keene: The timing of this project feels really important given the current state of affairs for black people, particularly in America. How intentional was that, and what are your thoughts about the images of this line, juxtaposed against images of what’s happening in America right now?

Pugh: Philadelphia Printworks has been doing this for 4 or 5 years and it’s interesting to see how the climate of the world affects the things we do. Specifically now, it’s very important that we have these positive images and think of ways we can manifest the future we’d like to see.

Neal: I hope this collection and this effort can bridge the gap between people who started with the same fire that [the youth] have now. It would be great to have youth adopt these names into their way of thinking and draw a comparison between what they’re going through now in their fight and what was going on in the times of the folks that appear on these sweatshirts.

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Pugh: Historically, the younger people are where the revolution comes from, but we can’t lose what we learned in the previous generations. It’s the idea of Sankofa – going back and trying to apply what we’ve learned from the past. With the concept of this collection, we were able to take past revolutionaries and apply it in a very futuristic way.

Neal: This is very Afrofuturistic. We are imagining our future, planting the seed for a manifestation of a bright future.

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Keene: The “A Different World” [late 80s and early 90s NBC sitcom about a fictional HBCU called Hillman College] connection is seamless. How did the idea to make that visual connection come about?

Pugh: “A Different World,” [the films] “School Daze,” “Higher Learning,” they all talked about really important topics, that unfortunately we’re still experiencing now. And I’ve seen the younger generation reach out to these shows [and films] that we grew up on and use them as a conduit, so it made sense for us to also tie our collection into it.

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Neal: For a lot of black folks, that alternate universe in which these characters existed, there was hope in this show. Being young and impressionable, seeing that show I was just like “Wow. Here are these completely normal… They don’t fit like a stereotype. This black person is like this and this black person is like that, and they’re friends and they exist in the same [space].” Seeing that was really inspirational. The impact and the positive influence that show had on black folks, that was imagined. That was written by somebody. If someone can imagine that and make such a great impact and inspire black people, why can’t we at any point imagine a product, whether it’s a book, a movie, a piece of clothing, art… We can imagine things and create a space in the future in which these ideas can exist. Who knows? Maybe one day we might have a Tubman University.

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You can purchase items from the “School of the Thought” collection here.

Follow Philadelphia Printworks on Twitter, IG, and Tumblr: @philaprint

Follow Donte Neal of Mars Five on Twitter: @donteneal_

Stephanie “Rhythm” Keene is a Philadelphia-based writer and performer. She is a co-host of The Harvest, the largest open mic experience in Philadelphia. A proud graduate of The Lincoln University (PA), she is an ally and advocate fighting for the freedom of all people. Follow her on Twitter and IG: @rhythmkeene

Fashion, Interview

Interview with Christianah Ajanaku, founder of African Fashion Week-Chicago

November 6, 2015

By Dominique Michelle Davis ( photo credits: Law Agyei; [photo below only]: Dominique Michelle Davis)

Earlier this week we posted here my review of the 2015 African fashion Week-Chicago show that had the splendid theme “The Art of Fabric.” The following is an interview between I conducted with Christianah Ajanaku, the founder of African Fashion Week-Chicago. Our meeting took place at the Virgin Hotel located in downtown Chicago. Although we experienced minor distractions from childhood temper tantrums, we had a delightful discussion complimented with delicious food from Miss Ricky’s restaurant.

Dominique: This was my second year attending African Fashion Week – Chicago (AFW). Wow! Huge transition. How did you decide to produce and launch AFW?

Christianah: I’ve always had a love for fashion. It played a huge part in my roots growing up. I’ve always been in love with colors and fabric. There are African Fashion Weeks all over the country and the world and I thought it was time for Chicago to have something like that. We have so much talent in this city. I was waiting for somebody else to do it… I thought I would just be a volunteer to show up and help out, but I noticed there was a void and when no one did it… I just did it!

Dominique: So how did you get your team together?

Christianah: The first year I pretty much did everything on my own. I pretty much knew everyone that I worked with, but this second year I targeted people to choose from their strengths and finding people with the same passion that I have.

Dominique: How did you choose this year’s theme, “The Art of Fabric”?

Christianah: “The Art of Fabric” was the theme for Friday night’s event and kind of set the tone for the weekend to showcase fabric, where does fabric come from and how it is used.

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Dominique: I saw a variety of fabric in the garments for the collections. I think that was pulled off very well. What do you think makes AFW-Chicago unique?

Christianah: I think we incorporate music and art, which is different from other runway show. We had Nola Ade, amazing performer.

Dominique: Who was your favorite designer/collection for this year’s show?

Christianah: I don’t know if I can answer that. I truly loved them all.

Dominique: As I’m sitting here and listening to you speak. Something just struck me. You are a trailblazer. You’ve created something that does not, or has not existed in the city of Chicago. Have you stopped to take that in?

Christianah: No, not really, I just do it… because it needed to be done. I know that our shows are different, and that’s what I strive for, to create an experience.

Dominique: Now that African fabric has been embraced by mainstream, what are your thoughts about that?

Christianah: I think it’s exciting. That’s another reason why we chose the “The Art of Fabric” as the theme for this year’s event. Even though it’s mainstream, I want to educate people on where the fabric comes from and it’s more than just fun and [aesthetically pleasing], a lot of history goes into making these fabrics. So, I think that’s important for the audience to know and learn… I mean, everything is being called African fabric now, and its just not. People like Stella Jean have made African Fabric really popular. Beyonce and Rihanna wear a lot of her work.

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Dominique: Educate me. What is the difference between true African Fabric and something that just looks like African Fabric? How can a person not well versed tell the difference?

Christianah: Let me say, for example, there’s a fabric called Adire. I’m Nigerian, and this is a fabric from my culture. There’s so much history in this fabric and something that not a lot of people use now. There’s a new material called Ankara, it’s African and used a lot in Africa but actually originates from Switzerland. …We didn’t do a lot of marketing around the education piece. We missed an opportunity to provide that educational aspect as well.

Dominique: What has been your biggest challenge, and where do you see AFW going?

Christianah: The first year was gaining awareness. We didn’t know what to expect, which was our biggest concern. Once we knew that we could attract the crowd it was a challenge to continue to build and grow to make it bigger and better each year. It’s a lot of pressure, because I always want to do better than the previous year. I eventually would like to see this become a weeklong event. Next year will probably stay three days.

Dominique: One thing that I’ve noticed in Chicago is duplication of services and products. How do you stay focused on collaboration to minimize duplicating services and build your network?

Christianah: I’m really big on collaborating. I want to meet people. I feel like the purpose of AFW is beyond me, it’s to benefit other people. It’s not to bring shine to myself it’s to bring shine to the designers. I don’t believe in creating unnecessary competition. I don’t believe in competition, I don’t bring it into the things that I do. I believe in staying in my own lane.

Dominique: What advice would you give to designers, entrepreneurs, people trying to get into the field?

Christianah: There’s a lot of chaos that goes into [things], but I love the chaos, that’s why I do it. If you’re interested in doing something, especially if you’re creative…just do it! Do the research, do as much as the legwork you need to do and just do it.

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Dominique: My last question. How else are you involved in the community, or other civic work that you may be doing aside from AFW?

Christianah: Eventually, I’d like us to grow into an organization that gives back. We’re still trying to figure out the logistics of how we see AFW creating a space to give back. Right now, we’ve created an opportunity and space for people to show their work and network, but I’d like for us to continue to work on developing a platform to give back.

If you’re interested in following Christianah and AFW, please follow them on Twitter  @afwchicago or visit the website afwchicago.com.