Among many things, not projecting onto people who are really doing this work of decolonizing — in this case Senegalese designers — our Western assumptions as if they were universal. Example: Fashion expresses identity (See Western fashion scholars who have questioned the universality of the concept identity, situating it in historic context; Bovone 2012: Bovone 2014: 42-43; Tseëlon 2010: 152; González 2012).
Since 2011, I have been doing ethnographic field work with streetwear designers, who are also graffiti artists, in Dakar, Senegal. Through these years, I have tried to follow the Dakarois into a signifying system that challenges the invisible assumptions of a Eurocentric fashion discourse. In foray into that world, two Senegalese graffeurs/streetwear designers – Docta and Big Key – will be our theoretical guides.
Dakar streetwear designers draw their design practice and their theories from a long, wealthy cultural history in an effort to prevail over economic poverty, urban chaos, and global marginalization. The artist/designers have bricolaged their city as an incubator of creativity and innovation, all the more original and resourceful for its distance from the pinnacles of global power and privilege.
In the twenty-first century, when West African artists develop streetwear brands, they may borrow symbols, images and words from the transnational hip-hop or Black liberation movements, especially from the African Diaspora. They then transform these signs within the web of Wolof language and culture. As artists integrate imported words and icons into their deeply rooted Senegalese symbolic order, meanings and visual shapes shed their apparent universality and disclose their Eurocentricity.
Docta reveals the eurocentricity of ‘identity”
Pioneer Dakar graffeur Docta created Senegal’s first streetwear line, Docta Wear, in 1998. The Doctawear logo represents a South-on-top map. Deeply connected to his sense of place in Dakar, thoroughly inhabiting its Senegalese mental structure, and conscious of colonialism’s legacy in Senegalese daily life, Docta is free from “an Enlightenment belief in the transparent, objective reality of the [standard, North-on-top] map” (Brotton). He creates an opportunity to regard the Western worldview, the universalized imaginary location, as just one possibility to which his own marginalized imaginary location is the equal.
Contrary to other graffeurs, Doctoc does use the term “identity” to explain why he began Docta Wear. Questioning the “seamless alliance between fashion and identity,” fashion scholar Efrat Tseëlon writes that they “are so regularly addressed side by side that it does appear as the most ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ of unions” (2010: 151). Docta presents a worldview in which this union appears constructed rather than natural. He couples fashion and identity as if their relation has come to him from an “imaginary location” foreign to his own.
In 2012, no one else I encounter in Dakar uses the term identity. But Docta is plugged in to American hip-hop discourse. So he adopts the pervasive term, as if recognizing its centrality. Yet he does not speak of identity in its conventional sense as “the social construction of the self,” “one’s individuality,” or “who we are” (Svendsen 2006). He recodes the term identity as he receives it from the diaspora. In a 2012 interview, Docta explains that as a pioneer graffeur and rapper in the 1990s, he discovered the need to become a hip hop fashion designer:
But at a certain moment, I said to myself, wait a minute. We dressed absolutely in everything that came from Europe or the United States. That’s hip-hop. But it’s necessary to have identities such that we can know that these particular jeans come from Senegal, this particular shirt comes from Cameroon, this cap comes from Mozambique. That therefore the same brands, the same industries can exist elsewhere. I did graffiti, I’m a rapper, I’m a slammer, but I also had to establish something. And also have an identity, to know that I must make the same style, the same cut, the same creation, but with quality, with an African identity that one can have. I’ve begun to use hand-woven African cloth — African prints, bogolan. using at the same time textiles that come from other places. I’ve made khaki outfits, denim outfits, suits, and all that in order to make or bring about an identity. (29 June, 2012).
Docta speaks of identity not as internal to himself and then externalized, but as something he produces external to himself. It begins and remains external. He “has” identity, but it resides in the clothing, as a material creation for others to view. He chooses fashion to create an identity because fashion discourse so conventionally communicates identity.
In order to approach more deeply the way that Docta recodes “identity,” let us compare his quotation with Georg Simmel’s classic theory of fashion. Simmel writes that fashion expresses the two desires to distinguish oneself from others and to belong.
Simmel theorizes distinction and belonging as encapsulating “the two antagonistic principles” of life (2004 : 290). His dialectic is based on “the striking conflicts” between “the tendency towards individuation and the desire to be merged with the group,” or “individualism and collectivism”(2004 : 290).
Here is a clue to the difference between Western and Senegalese symbolic orders. Docta creates Docta Wear in order to express Senegalese affinities with transnational hip hop, and simultaneously to create a style that will distinguish the Senegalese as peers among peers in the transnational movement. He creates the distinct fashion in order that the Senegalese will gain recognition as belonging to that movement on equal footing with Europeans. Docta has the Senegalese belonging to the movement because they create distinction within it.
He expresses distinction and belonging as a unity. And here is the crucial structural difference. Fashion theories that assume Western individualism, with its historical conflict between the individual and the collective, do not account for Senegalese fashion or its discourse, as well as those of others cultures.
Docta speaks from within a culture and a subjectivity that does not find merging with the group as effacing individuality, but rather as enhancing it. Having adopted the term “identity,” Docta gives it a meaning within this communal structure. In Europe and the US, we structure identity within a historically developed individualist subjectivity, with its antagonistic opposition between individual and collective. Contrary to Western ideology, the Senegalese communal society is far from having “a lack of differentiation” (Simmel 2004 : 299). Immersed in communality, the graffeurs assume with assurance that people will accept a wide variety of personalities and behaviors. Living daily on a very insecure economic edge, each young artist is securely self-confident of his or her unique artistic creativity within the bonds of community.
Not preoccupied with their identity as a problem, the Dakar designers reveal the hidden particularity of identity as a phenomenon of Western modernity and postmodernity. They are not modern, Oedipal subjects. Nor are they post-modern subjects who use fashion to subvert modern systems of gender and sexuality, systems themselves foreign to Senegalese culture. The graffeurs do not fit the categories we in fashion and cultural studies use to gain access to fashion consumers’ subject formations – and to formulate theory. From within a space that constructs individuality through collectivity, they create practices and discourses that decentralize subject formations.
Big Key and thiossane: an alternative to “identity”: Also a pioneer graffiti artist, Big Key unlike Docta, does not use the term identity. Instead, he creates a collection of t-shirts about “thiossane.” A key concept in Wolof culture, thiossane offers an alternative to the concept of identity. Just as the Western concept of identity is untranslatable into the Senegalese symbolic system, no word in a European language adequately translates thiossane. This very untranslatability invites us into another worldview.
When Big Key travels to Europe for the first time to attend a hip hop festival, he designs a series of t-shirts where the silhouette of a little man walks with a suitcase either away from or toward the map of Africa. Over the map, Big Key lays what he calls a “little text” in Wolof, “Bul faate sa thiossane.” While he and I are sitting with a group of friends, Big Key translates this text as “never forget where you come from.” Senegalese people often translate “thiossane,” as “tradition,” but on this day, one person in the group says it means “history,” another person translates it as “culture” itself, while Big Key calls it “where you come from.”
Big Key goes to the heart of the matter when he goes beyond translating to analyze the design. “The little man represents people who leave Senegal to go to Europe in search of new experiences, in search of money. Or people who leave Europe to come here to Africa” (22 June, 2012). Interpreting the “little text,” he says: “There is a danger, because if you forget where you come from, you lose many things, you lose many values, and if you embrace another civilization, you will never be integrated into that civilization and you will have left what belongs to you. Now you have nothing.” When Big Key says that forgetting your thiossane leaves you with “nothing,” he suggests that thiossane is everything that “belongs to you.”
He molds a definition of thiossane that comes closer to the Western notion of identity than Docta’s use of the signifier “identity.” As a synonym for “where-you-come-from,” thiossane connotes the sense of who one is as a person rooted in their history, community and inner spirit.
It might be tempting to recast Big Key’s thiossane in the discourse of Western identity. But then, to use his words, we would lose many things. Making explicit the dense connotations of “thiossane” within the linguistic network of its signifying system, Big Key makes a design that implies the rich history of “virtues and values” which Docta fears losing. Translated as ‘where you come from’, thiossane on this T-shirt signifies both the ancestral community and its core cluster of interpersonal values. Through their streetwear, both Big Key and Docta address their peers and remind them of their collective responsibility.
In itself, this impossibility of translating key Wolof terms into European languages suggests a different symbolic order. But Big Key takes us deeper. In Western fashion discourse, “tradition” fits into a structure of dualist oppositions where it acts as the secondary, derivative term of modernity (see Jansen 2014; Rabine 2002; Rovine 2015). Thiossane suggests a structure that acts like a constellation, connecting “tradition” to a pattern of synonyms or closely related terms: history, culture, values, civilization, where-you-come-from. By its close connection with history, thiossane acts as much more than the static “other” to a dynamic modernity, as in the history of Western fashion studies.
If we think about the crucial role of personal and group identity in western fashion, and the crucial role of the constellated terms embedded in the streetwear of Docta and Big Key, one similarity comes to light. In both sartorial systems, people use fashion to express, and/or to redress, anxiety about losing the core of their personhood. They create and consume fashion to resuscitate what they are in danger of losing. For EuroAmericans, that core of personhood is historically constructed as personal, sexual, ethnic and class identity. Identity, as fragile, constantly mutable, intermittent and fictive, ‘is a problem of indeterminateness, which begins when identity is considered as something to be achieved – not a fact, but a task’ (Bauman 1996:19). Western fashion works to achieve this task.
The Dakar streetwear designers, conversely, express anxiety about losing communitarian bonds that imbue people with the ancestral values that Docta sums up: ‘sharing, respect for the other, dignity, sociality, justice, the spirit of tolerance’ (Docta 20 April 2014 interview). Big Key suggests that I too am required to remain faithful to the ancestral values of my own ancestral community. The designers invite us into a whole symbolic order that renders EuroAmerican subjectivity as one possibility among many.
Big Key (Thierno Moussa Sane) (22 June, 2012), Interview, Dakar.
Bauman, Z. (1996), ‘From Pilgrim to Tourist-or a Short History of Identity’, in S. Hall and P. du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage: 18-36.
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Bovone, L. (2014), Rappresentarsi nel Mondo: Communicazione, Identità, Moda, Milan: Franco Angeli.
Brotton, J. (2012). A history of the world in twelve maps, electronic edition, London: Allen Lane.
Docta (Amadou Lamine Ngom) (29 June, 2012), Interview, Dakar.
Docta (Amadou Lamine Ngom) (20 April, 2014), Interview, Goree Island, Dakar.
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Rovine, V. (2015), African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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Tseëlon, Efrat (2010), ‘Is Identity a Useful Critical Tool?’, Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, 2(2)pp. 151– 59.