I first met Aaron Kohn, one of the co-founders of African Lookbook, a website that combines a one-stop online fashion store with oral interviews, earlier this summer at a New York University sponsored conference on “Distance and Desires: Encounters with the African Archive.” Sometime during the afternoon session on “The end of the colonial gaze,” we sneaked out and got talking about their site (Aaron has a partner at African Lookbook, oral historian Phil Sandick) and I quickly learned about the trove of oral interviews they’ve already done with artists and curators: photographer David Goldblatt, musician Seun Kuti, Joost Bosland (of the South African Stevenson Gallery), writer Abdi Latif Ega, etcetera. On African Lookbook, they described what they were doing as: “Our interviews are primary sources: raw, academic in nature, and uneditorialized. For our shop, we work with people around the world to help us find cutting edge African products.” While I was still curious (more baffled) about the connection between fashion and oral interviews, we agreed that Africa is a Country would form a partnership with them. We plan to publish short interpretive posts once a week at the same time as the interviews go live. The first post will be on the David Goldblatt interview. But before we get to that, I sent some questions to Aaron and Phil about African Lookbook.
Some people may find it hard, at first, to make the connection, or any connection, between a one-stop online fashion store and oral interviews; is the goal at best some kind of informed consumption? Can you clarify the connection and why that connection matters? What are problems and benefits presented by this union?
When we set out to create a body of primary sources related to African creativity, we realized people couldn’t actually interact with much of what interviewees was discussing. So we decided to carry the products too. Kinda like when one views an exhibition in a museum and then has the opportunity to buy a poster, a print, a book, a keychain, etc. Do people find it hard to make the connection between a museum and its shop? The goal is to sell stuff we think is really great on both a theoretical level and a design level. And most of the products are new to the US market. We’re helping provide an entry for African designers and manufacturers.
The need to sell stuff results from the fact that oral history interviews are a substantial investment of time and money. There’s research preparation, scheduling, pre-interview meeting(s), setup, interview, transcription, transcript checking, back-and-forth with the interviewee through the transcript finalization process (which we hope is minimal), formatting, indexing, and publication.
So “informed consumption” is one way of putting the marriage of shop and archive. In terms of distributing these goods, we know we can do it in good, transparent ways, and tell the products’ stories over time. We want to distribute solid stuff that people can enjoy so that we can fund our research archive. Those are the connections and benefits.
As for problems, one could say there are significant complications arising from this for-profit relationship with a research archive. But, as Foucauldians, we don’t believe the complications are any more or less significant than those arising out of even the most “objective” academic research. We let sales fund our research, but we don’t let sales guide it.
What templates or sites would you say you closely resemble African Lookbook?
On the retail side, we’re Fab.com meets the MoMA Store store meets granola fair trade meets (we sincerely hope) critical theory gifts. On the oral history side, we’re Columbia Center for Oral History meets the ACT UP Oral History Project meets Juxtapoz.
How different are you from “philanthropic fashion” associated with Suzy Menkes, Diesel Jeans’ owner and Bono’s wife, Ali Hewson? Or what enterprises like Monocle do?
We’d have to see a label from the Diesel+EDUN collection. If there are Mbembe and Comaroff quotes on it, then maybe we’re not that different. Many of the artists behind the products in our shop don’t want to be seen as “African”. We explore these subjectivities in some of our oral histories. They want their sweaters in department stores because they exemplify good fashion design. There’s no reason good fashion can’t also be “good business” for African workers, African cotton, etc. On the other hand, some of our products are fair trade and/or buy-one give-one, but we carry them because we like the product.
How does one make money from oral interviews?
Everyone interviewed in our oral histories has chosen to be involved because they understand the importance of creating primary sources on African creativity. We don’t intend to make any money off of these narratives; that’s why we have a shop. Most oral history archives are institutionally based and/or funded (and usually at universities). We don’t have an institution financially backing us, so we’re trying a different model that we think could work: we sell stuff that, if you like, is informed by the interviews, and the proceeds from those sales fund more interviews, which support more products.
Can you tell us about the kinds of people you have interviewed and who you still have lined up? With few exceptions, the majority of interview subjects are South African btw, will that change? What can we learn from these interviews that we won’t find elsewhere?
We’ve interviewed musicians, writers, gallery directors, academic department heads, photographers, sculptors, designers, museum curators, and art critics. We’ve got more of the same plus festival directors, painters, architects, film directors, and political scientists lined up. We have a growing list of hundreds individuals, African and non-African, whom we’d like to interview. Everytime we see someone who we think we add something to the archive, we put them on the list.
There are multiple things that can be learned from these interviews. First, you can learn how an artist tells a particular story on a particular day to a particular person. (After all, that story would be different were it told to, say, the narrator’s mother.) You can learn how the person strings together memories into a narrative, thereby creating meaning to pass along to the listener. You can learn the facts as the narrator tells them. You can hear silences when certain events aren’t mentioned, informing you that this narrator prefers–for whatever reason–to skip events and elide them out of his or her autobiographical narrative. The point is that we give as raw of a version of the conversation as possible in order to facilitate interrogation through the lens of whatever research question or general curiosity the reader might have.
Most of the interviews are South/Southern Africa focused because we started African Lookbook while Aaron was living in Jo’burg, and Phil lived in Botswana for three years before that. It’s where we had the most connections, and it was the easiest for Aaron to interview. We’re now in New York and Chicago, so there will be more US-based interviews, and people have joined from across Africa to help collect other interviews. Future interviewees will be from all over.
You’ve written somewhere that the aim with the oral interviews is to create “a body of primary sources that explores the ways Africans are being represented and are moderating their own identities around the world”? What does that mean?
Olu Oguibe, in his The Culture Game, raised concerns about how African artists were being subjected to invidious interview techniques. Zoe Strother demonstrated that collecting primary sources in Africa is a contentious (postcolonial) issue. Oral Histories, though not perfect, help to solve some of the problems formerly addressed by the two.
The goal of oral history is to provide a “protected space,” as Mary Marshall and Dori Laub put it, in which people can tell their own stories. While this view has traditionally been associated with trauma interviews, Phil’s opinion is that most life events are traumatic in some form, so we try to create that space for each interviewee. We then publish their stories as they have told them to us. We don’t edit the language in the transcript. The interviewee may do so, but it is discouraged and generally does not happen to any significant degree. So rather than have one’s stories told by others, be it by Fox News or by NKA, narrators tell their own stories and that’s what we publish. We are lucky that technology has advanced to the point that the Internet publication of a complete transcript incurs zero marginal cost.
We, too, will write about ideas that emerge through the interviews, since we agree with Alessandro Portelli that the responsibility of those who gather testimony is to write about it and be affected by it. Personally, our research interests are more aligned with deconstructivist analysis of intersubjectivity than positivist collection of evidence.
You’ve acknowledged that oral interviews are fraught with “theoretical … (and) practical” issues. Can you tell us about some of the challenges of doing these kinds of oral interviews?
On the practical side, and this gets at your South Africa comment above, many of our interviews have to be done over Skype. This is dreadful for oral history interviews, where you’re trying to say as little as possible but reinforce via other modalities that you are attentively listening. So our first batch were all done in person, which meant they took place where Aaron was–in South Africa. Setting up a time for interviews across time zones can be difficult, inconsistent internet connections can be frustrating, and lack of communication from interviewees on transcript approval can be time consuming.
There are multiple issues on the theoretical side as well. Some that always come with oral histories are the power issues: the interviewer hand-picked the interviewee, the interviewer has the microphone, the interviewer has the connection to the archive, etc. Add to that the interviewer is a white American guy and the interviewees are typically black Africans (often with a long history and deep understanding of colonialism), and these issues can be magnified. It comes out in some of the interviews that are upcoming, and in one that was requested not to be in the archive. But that’s part of why we put them up, because that in itself is interesting to some people.
Lastly, interviewing artists is a delicate task, because an artist’s identity is so intricately intertwined with the artist’s career. Some artists flat out do not want to talk about life outside of their work or their most recent album, despite the fact that we’ve informed them of what the interview is going to cover (their personal narrative). When so much of the artist’s life is in the spotlight, having an interview probe some areas typically left in the shadows can be uncomfortable and downright scary. So, again, it’s important that we provide the protected space in which interviewees can narrativize their stories–part of which is making sure they know they can edit the transcript before it is published.
Have you arrived at some working definition about “who is African enough” to be included in the oral interview archive?
We toyed with this question a bit at the beginning of our process. What we came to realize, though, was that we’re trying to add voices to the conversation rather than create categories. Moreover, the longer we spent debating this particular issue, the less time we spent doing actual work. As it stands, we look for some nexus to African creativity, but we’re going as broad as our funding, i.e., shop sales, permit.
Finally, related to the previous question, you’ve written that some of the interview subjects have raised questions about a project on African creatives started and run by two white Americans?
We started African Lookbook because we’re passionate about it. We’ve both lived and worked around the continent, and then we found each other. “We didn’t choose it” sorta thing. Same goes for our skin colors and nationalities. If we find people–from wherever–who are as excited about the project as we are, we’d love to have more members of the team.