/ 16 November 2022

MasaMara takes us home for AFI’s Fashion Week

Designer Nyambo MasaMara stitches together each symbol, fabric and colour in a synchronised way to celebrate African people

The multidisciplinary artist Nyambo MasaMara is on a pursuit to ensure that Africa’s identity leaves an indelible mark in contemporary fashion. Having recently showcased his work during Portugal’s Fashion Week, MasaMara is one of the African creatives who will exhibit their garments at the African Fashion International (AFI) Fashion Week in Johannesburg from 17 to 19 November, as the event returns for its 15-year anniversary. 

In his work, the designer incorporates bright colours, various prints and symbols that come together harmoniously. For the AFI exhibition, he plans to use a single print while keeping his signature bright-coloured style. 

Unlike creatives who rely on inspiration, MasaMara says he creates with his inner compass as his guide. Preparing for the show called Take Me Home, The Water Spirit, MasaMara explained he had an unsettling void in his heart. “I kept asking myself what was going on,” he said, trying to probe where the feeling was coming from. 

The answer came when he was near a river. He says he realised that we are no longer connected with our past as African people. We do not appreciate what the people who walked the earth before us have done in order for us to be able to live in the manner that we do now. 

While his inner being was giving him answers, it became pressing for him to know what was going on inside of him. “I then started telling the water to take me home,” explains MasaMara. 

After this experience, he researched the meaning of water. It is the source of life and it connects each human being with itself, which explains why some rituals happen near and on water. 

MasaMara explains that this transcendent experience usually takes place before he sits and begins work on a specific project, then research follows after. Because of his process, MasaMara believes he speaks for the dead: “I am the voice of the dead; I am the voice of the ancestors, basically, I am their dreams”. 

Using colour blocking as a technique and placing prints on prints is difficult, especially when there is a minimalist trend, he says. However, he believes in assembling his clothes in this way because he wants to show the cultural diversity in the continent while displaying that distinctiveness and multiplicity can live together in harmony. 

“When I am designing, I always look at different cultures and their ways of living, especially the older way of living — and I use what I have observed and connected with, especially symbols to put on the textiles. I want us to connect with the past, to be the voice of those who came before us, who paved the way for us to be here,” says MasaMara.

The 31-year-old designer says his elaborate clothes speak of relearning our history and decolonising our identities. “These are the stories that I want to communicate and share with the world. I want us to visit our ways and also build from there and not so much be influenced by the West”. Beyond this, he wants to tell stories of dreams imbued in children of Africa. 

The Rwandan-born creative has lived in eight countries as a refugee, including South Africa, where he is currently based — so the concept of home is profound for him. However, although he has found his purpose in making clothes, and is entrenched in his work, MasaMara did not intend to work in fashion. 

“I liked clothes when I was growing up — but I never knew the process of assembling them. I come from a big family with 14 siblings. Our parents liked making us wear the same things, but I was a curious child and I loved to be unique. So I would normally adjust the clothes they would buy for us. I’ll either cut them or do whatever to them that will make me feel unique — and stand out,” he says.

But it was not until he was in college that this unique way of dressing caught a new audience in students, who were also interested in forging their own distinctive paths. People liked how he dressed and would ask if he was working in fashion. This piqued his interest to look into the fashion industry. “I found out fashion was huge and it represented everything I believed in. Like freedom of expression without using words and bold statements. I realised that it was a world that represented me and after completing my degree in business and marketing management and a few other courses, I journeyed into fashion at the end of 2016,” he says. 

The name MasaMara comes from a Rwandan saying, “a mara masa”, which means empty-handed or something that comes from nothing. “I worked with the name a mara masa and reversed the words. With it, I am saying, I am a refugee child, I grew up in different countries and you literally have nothing to your name, besides your dream.”. 

MasaMara will be exhibiting along other designers in the continent such as South Africa’s Gavin Rajah, Alia Bare in Senegal, Eric Raisina in Madagascar, Kreyann in Cameroon and Taibo Bacar in Mozambique, as well as rising fashion brands, which include Kidunia in Zimbabwe and Gvllvnt in South Africa. 

The AFI Fashion Week will grace South Africa’s shores for the first time this year after shows in Abu Dhabi and Kasane earlier this year. AFI marketing manager Roshnee Pillay said that this upcoming show will be an even more interesting experience because it’s a celebration of 15 years of its existence. 

Fashion lovers can immediately buy the garments they like after seeing them on the runway as the event will be retail-focused. 

AFI Fashion Week Joburg is on 17-19 November at The Diamond Walk in Sandton City. Go to https://africanfashioninternational.com/joburg-fashion-week/ to register to watch the shows online.