African Rhapsody

Stories and faces from a continent on the rise

Text by Naomi Bikis

Photography by Alasdair McLellan

Initiatives concerning Africa usually focus on familiar stories of nations suffering under corrupt governments, of famines and a desperate need for aid – all subjects worthy of international attention and global debate. But what about the other Africa? The stories of promise and progression, for example. Diesel and Edun’s new project, Studio Africa, is an initiative set up to champion the continent and launches this March along with Diesel+Edun, a collection modelled by the people bringing about such change.

The 2011 film, Restless City, directed by Andrew Dosunmu, tells the story of an African immigrant from Senegal living in Harlem and selling knock-off CDs as he tries to swap his unstable world for stardom in New York. Djbril, the scooter-riding, music-loving hustler was a debut role for young actor Sy Alassane. Like his character, Alassane also hails from Senegal but his real-life story is even more absorbing than a neatly scripted celluloid tale.

Alassane was born in 1982 in Mauritania, northern Africa to a military father and Senegalese mother who worked for the health department. In his early childhood the normal life and the stability he once knew was destroyed. Mauritania had become a country in the midst of violent ethnic strife where war was waged on Senegalese migrants and, in 1989, the United Nations helped the family and many others escape. Initially, Alassane lived in Senegal with his grandmother before his father moved the family on again to the capital, Dakar. Life started from scratch: a new school, new friends and, with it, problems fitting into a community as migrants again. Later, in 2001, Alassane moved to France, where he was granted exile status. Whilst walking to school in Paris, his life took another turn. He was spotted by Boss Models and it was during a modelling job that the casting director for Restless City noticed the young African and picked him for his first acting role.

Sy Alassane’s story, though unique, is just one of many tales shared by creative Africans this March. Diesel and Edun have enlisted Bright Young Things from across Africa to model their capsule collection, Diesel+Edun. Alongside this, they are celebrating the wealth of talent on the continent as part of the Studio Africa project – a four week long series of events focussing on the best of Africa from pop-up shops, a Ghanaian restaurant at Diesel’s London headquarters, exhibitions, film screenings and parties.

For Diesel and Edun, celebrating Africa is far from a gimmick. Last January, having travelled together in northern Uganda, entrepreneur and Diesel founder Renzo Rosso, Bono and Edun founder, Ali Hewson, arrived in a cotton farmer’s field. Standing in the plantation that Edun works with, holding the raw material in their hands, the three realised they could do so much more as a united team. Diesel+Edun, sourced and made entirely in Africa, is an opportunity to empower the continent in becoming a force of savvy business men and women, not to simply hand out aid. Moving beyond philanthropy to business, the three saw a continent that, far from being poor, was rich in land, natural resources and people. So, too, do the people they have chosen to front the collection’s campaign.

I See A Different You is a group of three photographers from Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Together they run a blog that documents their continent as they see it. Their Africa, that is; not the relentless news of conflict and corruption we see in the west. Picking out friendly locals or using themselves as subjects, they take photographs in areas that are notoriously dangerous. Innocent Mukheli and his twin brother Justice met Vuyo Mpantsha when they were young teenagers singing in a church choir. Although interested in photography, the idea for the collective didn’t arrive until Mpantsha visited Kenya, and saw afresh the beauty in the architecture of the place and the people. He realised they needed to document how they saw home through their eyes.

As photographers in the south challenge perceptions, Abdellah Taïa rallies against prejudices from within his native Morocco. Taïa is the first openly gay, autobiographical novelist in the Arab world, having chosen to publicly declare his sexuality in an article for Tel Quel magazine. Author of the award-winning Le jour du Roi, his homosexuality, whilst a scandal, has not prevented his work being sold in Morocco.

For model Flaviana Matata, her route to international recognition was a little different. She was encouraged by friends to enter the Miss Universe Tanzania pageant in 2007 – a world apart from the electrical engineering course she was studying at the time. Matata won, and has since walked for Vivienne Westwood, Tommy Hilfiger and Alexander McQueen and worked with Mario Testino and Nick Knight. Alongside fashion, she is using her status to run her own charity helping orphaned girls access education. 

Much like Matata, Laurence Chauvin-Buthaud is merging smart business sense with fashion. Her label, Laurenceairline, employs locals from the Ivory Coast who have all been trained by the designer to manufacture the label’s collections. The profits from sales are then reinvested in the company. Having grown up between Switzerland, the South of France and the Ivory Coast, the latter is now her permanent home and driving passion. Based in Abidjan, Chauvin-Buthaud was moved by the civil war that broke out in 2010 after controversial elections degenerated into violence. The label, which produces eclectic shirts, is a chance for the designer to invest in a positive future for her country. 

Alassane, I See A Different You, Taïa, Matata and Chauvin-Buthaud are just a handful of the Diesel+Edun campaign faces from the far reaches of this vast continent. And they represent a nation that is shifting out of its historical shackles. Africa is on the up, firmly believes Diesel+Edun.

Studio Africa will run for four weeks from March.

Diesel+Edun is available in Diesel stores and online from March.

Image 1: I See A Different You and Flaviana Matata (just seen) and Abdellah Taïa

Image 2: Laurence Chauvin-Buthaud and Sy Alassane

Image 3: Flaviana Matata

All clothes by Diesel + Edun


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  • Diesel and Edun
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