Abstract x Ghanaian x Handmade Art Gear
by Sionne Neely | photos by Jane Odartey
About a month ago, our CHALE WOTE 2013 planning team was meeting at Brazil House like we do every other Saturday. This was the last in a series of meetings to hone down the theme for this year’s third annual street art festival in James Town [Save the Date: September 7 + 8th!]. We’d finally locked in our main idea – to reimagine African folktales in new and exciting ways that push toward futuristic visions of possibility, cooperation and inclusion among Ghanaians. Since the festival is held in James Town it became important to understand what folktales mean in this particular place.
Mantse Aryeequaye shared his excitement over a chart of Ga symbols he had recently come across – some of which he had never seen before – and how this document signals how many indigenous stories are lost, misplaced or hard to find. Ato Annan, artist and Projects Officer for the Foundation of Contemporary Art Ghana (FCA) then piped in to say that symbols are not static but always moving. This shit blew my mind. Even though the symbol appears to communicate only one stable and visible meaning, it in fact is comprised of a multitude of stories that are continuously on the go – simultaneous narratives in constant motion.
Similarly, JANE ODARTEY – the brilliant design mind behind MAWUSI – happily works from this premise of creating fresh, evolving stories with Ghanaian prints. Mz. Jane is a Krobo homegirl by way of Tema who now calls Queens, NY home. Grad student @ Brooklyn College by day, eclectic designer by night, Jane’s work is fun, inventive and full of Ghana’s gold sun.
MAWUSI is a vivid interplay of symbols, a colorful combination of braided yarn and old school prints for the versatile human. The art is wearable and flexible – a headband can transform into a belt, necklace, bracelet or pendant. MAWUSI matches Jane’s multi-dimensional personality – she is instantly affable, super funny and fairy-dust fierce. We’re even more blown away to find out that she is totally DIY – the self-taught designer and poet also photographs and models her creations.
Check out MAWUSI’s abstract stories in motion and our interview with Jane below:
How did you start designing?
I used to wear a minimum of seven colors, a lot of layers and all of them would be different colors. You’d just see me and you would know that this girl is crazy. All these different colors just make me really happy. The jewelry thing kind of surprised me too. I didn’t know I had all this in my head. I just started doing things with yarn like “I want to do this.”
You’re sleeping and ideas keep popping in your head and you can’t sleep so you have to get out of bed. When you make them, they don’t even come out the way you intend because you’re getting new ideas and it becomes something different. It’s really exciting. I’m so shy talking about it because I’m supposed to be going to university to become a professor.
Are you self-taught?
I taught myself everything I know. I’m thinking of taking sewing classes maybe in the summer, but seriously I could just YouTube it because I have the sewing machine and it’s going to save me a lot of money.
Most of my fabric is from Ghana. I went around and bought a couple of one-yard pieces. I didn’t even know what I was going to do with them. But I didn’t want them to make me pay taxes. So I have like twelve of these plastic bags and I packed them in my suitcase. I put all my underwear on top of it. Some people are smuggling drugs, I’m smuggling fabric!
How were you introduced to yarn? Does it have a different texture and feel to it than other materials?
It was in elementary school. Back then, I used to be a little bit antisocial. Girls in school, they used to do it – that’s how they played. They’d just take the crochet hook and the yarn and during break, they start sitting around and crocheting something. That’s where I started it. Just being able to make something out of nothing – that’s how I see yarn. You can do anything with it. To me, yarn is like clay – the ideas just keep coming. It’s underrated.
How does using African prints help you to better tell the story of who you are?
In a sense, African prints have always been there. In my childhood photos, you see these prints. Your grandma has this print or your aunt has this print. There’s a story to it… It’s more than just “African” – it’s your life.
You want to start something fresh, something new. That’s what I do in my work. When I make something with African print – I’m careful because I want it to be new. I want it to something different and exciting, something made by a Ghanaian not something that’s already there.
I know where I’m coming from and I have all this Ghanaian music. When you start listening to Ghanaian music, there’s just something about it. You feel at home, it doesn’t matter where you are. You can be on a train and you start listening to Ghanaian music. It doesn’t matter – you’re home.
Do you work via ritual or feeling?
It’s actually a feeling because I do so much. When I started, I wanted to give it a routine, like “ok today, I will write poetry” but for some reason the day you say you want to write poetry is the day you want to make a scarf. Just sitting there trying to write poetry, your whole body wants to make the scarf. So I just let it go wherever it wishes to go. If it comes, I do it. I don’t pressure myself. I let it go where it goes.
I do want my work to be seen but for me right now, it’s not important. The creating is good enough just for now.
Do you think of your designs as futuristic?
A lot of the headpieces I’m doing right now, I think they are very futuristic. You can wear it in so many ways – also as a necklace or belt [three in one deal]. Everyday I discover a new way to wear it.
Read Part Two of the interview with Jane Odartey here.
Get Abstract with JANE ODARTEY | @Mawusiii