By Benjamin Mengistu Navet
Textile designer based in Brussels
Colonial and postcolonial histories occupy an important place in my family. I was born in Ethiopia and I’ve been raised in France, by a family who also has their own relation with colonialism. Especially in Tunisia, where one of my grandfathers was born when the country was still under the French Protectorate. On another side, a grand uncle died during the Algerian war for independence. Those colonial narratives had an impact on the research of my adoptive mother during her studies for example. I see my arrival in this family as another chapter, another postcolonial narrative, that invited me to have my own position.
This background maybe explains the choice of topic for my MA research and thesis, but I thought it was important to tell you more in this introduction who I am, because it has obviously influenced what I’ve wanted to create and write recently.
As a textile designer, I see my practice as a joyful laboratory where industrial processes meet handcraft techniques, where patterns are at the beginning of everything, whether they are coming from hand weaving patterns digitalised, or directly taken from letters of the Ethiopian alphabet in dialogue with the Latin alphabet.
With the desire to create completely patterned atmospheres, I am questioning the process of pattern making, by starting from the pattern that will become a surface, a space, or a garment.
After a bachelor in Fashion design at La Cambre (Brussels), I decided to switch to a Textile masters programme at KASK (Gent), with the desire to be confronted with another point of view, in another school, in another language. In fact, moving from the French speaking part to the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, offered me the possibility to see my practice from a completely different angle. Belgium has this particularity to have very different cultures and ways of thinking.
Through seminars, I was confronted with Belgium’s colonial past, I started slowly to see my point of view shifting and looking differently at my own background. In some ateliers, we were invited to speak about our own personal background through the prism of European wars, Colonial past, and other traumas that have been felt in Europe’s trajectory. We were invited to revisit our own past in order to have the ability to situate ourselves. This kind of exercise was for sure the first step to think about colonial/decolonial thinking.
I was surrounded by people that were living and feeling (de)coloniality every day.
I was also passionate (and still am) about history and the trajectory of patterns in the field of textiles. Indeed, the ‘journey’ of a pattern reveals the colonial past of a country like the Cashmere pattern or Dutch wax .
So when it came to my masters thesis, I naturally decided to continue surrounding myself with people who were also living and feeling this colonial past and postcolonial present in their own practice as fashion/textile designers.
I decided to interview three of them, to record our conversations and to articulate my reflections through different axes.
–Estelle Chatelin is a textile designer who works between Brussels and Abomey (Bénin), on a project that she started already when she was a student. She is questioning the classical approach of “north/south” collaborations with objects that speak about the vision that both sides have of each other. Recently, she was also at the origin of a new kind of exchange between art/design students and Artisans/designers from Abomey with the desire to stay in the field of experimentation and mutual transmissions.
–Leila Nour Johnson is an artist now based in Paris, but working in Europe and Africa. She is using the medium of clothes, textile and film-making to express a vocabulary of exile and migration. By using digital print on fabrics, she proposes to “give back the narrative” of people by making garments where different layers are superimposed in order to express their personal trajectories.
–Oumar Dicko is a fashion designer based in Gent (Belgium), he is developing some parts of his collections in Mali. His collections have been presented in Europe, and in West Africa. He is working in constant collaboration with malian artists and artisans, and designing his collections in Gent.
They all have their specific vision of the world, but they are all experiencing and feeling (de)coloniality in their approach.
We discussed the reception of their different projects, the perception by European and extra-European, the definition of the meaning of having a decolonial practice, and also, their views on our European society, and more precisely about our European Art Schools.
This thesis helped me a lot to understand this idea of Coloniality/ Decoloniality and foremost helped me to find my own position with my own experience, my own personal background.
As a perpetual journey, I’m trying to reinterpret and meet my Ethiopian background through pattern making and fashion. The desire to combine in the same pattern those two alphabets is only the first step of a long journey where I am trying to build new bridges between my occidental culture and my Ehtiopian background. Fashion and textiles are for me important media that tell a lot about where you are coming from and how you want to present yourself to the world.
In her book “Le triangle et l’Hexagone, reflextions sur une identité noire” (2020, Editions la Découverte), the French author Maboula Soumahoro explores through a back and forth between her personal history and global history, her trajectory as a black women Ivorian coast descendent, born in France and living in the U.S for 10 years. This fundamental reading encouraged me to think about my own position, as an Ehtiopian native raised in France, and it finds an echo in my practice.
By sharing with us her testimony about her life, as a Black educated women, racism in France, and violence during her parcours, she is giving us the possibility to say that we are existing, with all our multiple identities.
Pattern making is for me the perfect medium to express those thoughts.
By using aministive elements of my Ehtiopian past and using them to make patterns, I am trying to (re)construct a dialogue between those two identities.
Garments and textiles are for me a way to embody very personal narratives. There is this idea of incarnation that I am very fond of.
Is it possible to build a new vocabulary, with completely blind parts of our past as adoptees? I am now experimenting and developing those narratives, through textile and fashion.