Exploring Sudanese fashion at the Karmakol International Festival, courtesy of British Council East Africa Arts
Karmakol International Festival is the first of its kind in Sudan, founded with the aim of showcasing the country’s rich culture. It takes place in the village of Karmakol, the home of Tayeb Salih - one of Sudan’s most significant literary figures - and brings together musicians, poets, artists, designers and filmmakers for three weeks. The village moved from the banks of the Nile decades ago due to flooding. This left the houses of the old village vacant, which is where the festival takes place with buildings dedicated to art, music and film found within the warren of former homes.
Against this backdrop, a group of Sudanese fashion designers and creatives assembled with a team from the UK and Kenya to shoot two fashion editorials in 48 hours. The Fashion Machine project was driven by Basma Khalifa, a British-Sudanese stylist, passionate about giving Sudanese creativity a global platform, and Sunny Dolat, Kenyan stylist, creative director and a vital cog in the ever-growing network of fashion designers across East Africa. Local talent was selected by an open call, trawling Instagram and tracking down personal referrals. The result was a live shoot at the festival in a collaborative team of photographers, stylists, make-up artists and models. Looks featured 14 Sudanese designers and a further seven from Kenya and Rwanda. According to Basma: “To be able to bring our experiences, knowledge and expertise together allowed everyone to learn and trust that as a collective, creativity across East Africa has the ability to be represented on a global platform.”
One story places Sudanese designers such as Nucy, Mayada Adil and Bishtique alongside their Kenyan and Rwandan counterparts including Katungulu Mwendwa, Haute Baso and Anyango Mpinga. In an evening gathering in Khartoum the night before, Nafisa Hafiz of Nucy spoke about the references to folk costume in her work, offering a platform for cultural heritage to be celebrated and contemporised through fashion, and how she has begun to build her young brand through collaborations with artists, photographers and filmmakers. Nawar Kamal of NK Jewellery talked about getting inspired by Ghanaian traditional beadwork and starting her business producing private orders, a practice prevalent across the region.
Hafiz’s collection focuses on the quality of fabrics and symbols of Sudanese culture, while previous collection have drawn comparisons between African and Latin American cultures. Her mission is to challenge perceptions about contemporary Sudan: “We are showing a positive image of Sudan by showing the beauty in it. We are proud to dress Sudanese. It is good to see ourselves in international media for the right things instead of negative things.” Mayada Adil imagines her Afropolitan woman from a distinctly Sudanese perspective, connecting Nubian ancestry to female empowerment across Africa. Daring shapes show a flair for tailoring and solar panels embellish a jacket hinting at a futuristic vision.
“Creativity across East Africa has the ability to be represented on a global platform”
As the shoot team trooped around the festival moving from location to location, villagers and festival-goers stopped, curious to watch the shoot unfold. Some wanted to be in the photographs and some wanted to take pictures of their own. We weaved through design workshops, film screenings, musicians warming up and the Nubian House art installation (which was presented at Venice Biennial in 2017) being built, stopping to meet people and find out what has brought them to Karmakol. As night fell, the music acts drew crowds to the main stage; artists including the Sudanese girl band, Salute Yal Bannot, through to Sinkane - a US-based festival headliner who blends electronica, funk and jazz with Sudanese pop - showed the diversity of talent on offer.
The village itself played host with artists, performers and festival-goers alike all staying in local homes. As Basma selected the looks for the second day’s shoot, our hosting family came to look at the toubs laid out across the room, helping to tie them and breathing in the sandalwood scent they were steamed with before they were folded up. Toub means ‘bolt of cloth’ and it is an item of traditional dress unique to Sudan. In contemporary society it remains the go-to choice for important social occasions. As such, there are many designers who focus primarily on toub. It is one long piece of cloth wound around the body, similar to a sari or even a toga, but looped over the head to cover the hair, shoulders and arms. The embellishments are elaborate and luxurious, hand painted with glinting metallic paints, finely embroidered or woven with bright colours and patterns.
Basma’s approach was to show that the toub is a garment that young women in Sudan choose to wear and that it can sit alongside the other items in their wardrobe, from hoodies to trainers. Around 60 per cent of the population of Sudan are under 35 years old and their choice to wear, revive or reinvent traditional dress is an important counterpoint to fears of homogeneity in the global fashion industry. Many of the young Sudanese creatives involved in the shoot were as interested in local toub designers, including Dalia Shumeina and Tiab Habab, as they were in global brands because they come with a personal touch - each toub is unique and there are many ways they can be worn.
Sulaf El Amin is a make-up artist and a pivotal figure in the emergent Sudanese fashion scene. She collaborates with photographers, designers and models across the industry including TV and events. El Amin recognises that Karmakol Festival was a chance to work with and befriend amazing professionals in her field, growing her ever-expanding network. For many Sudanese designers, the experience of being represented in an editorial shoot is a first - without a fashion media, press imagery is often limited to lookbooks, meaning it’s rare for a group like this to come together. So the opportunity to meet, exchange and mull over shared challenges and experiences, while creating beautiful images that everyone could use, was central to the project.
Fashion Machine at Karmakol International Festival was supported by British Council East Africa Arts.