In rural Tanzania, a surprising collision of cultures and craft / by Karen Frances Eng

A impromptu collaboration between an Uruguayan documentary photographer, a Nigerian fashion designer, an American cellist and three Maasai herdsmen in rural Tanzania sparks an unexpected artwork fueled by music, fashion, photography and poetry.

When Urugayan documentary photographer Christian Rodriguez met Nigerian fashion designer Wale Oyéjidé in Arusha, Tanzania, during TEDGlobal 2017 late last month, conversation turned into collaboration at the speed of light. Before they knew it, they were hiking a dirt road with three Maasai men they’d asked to model Oyéjidé’s menswear from his label Ikiré Jones. With them, they took another TED Fellow, American cellist Joshua Roman, who would provide music for what would be an impromptu spoken-word performance by a Maasai, Papakinye Lemolo Ngaiyani.

What started as a pragmatic exercise—doing a fashion shoot—became a brief and wholly unexpected collision of people and cultures, leading to a spontaneous moment of profound connection. Below, see the fruits of this extraordinary moment and how the crew behind it experienced it, each in their own words.

Front, left, and right: Papakinye Lemolo Ngaiyani, Siphael Shomet and Lebaati Yakobo. Photo: Christian Rodriguez

Front, left, and right: Papakinye Lemolo Ngaiyani, Siphael Shomet and Lebaati Yakobo. Photo: Christian Rodriguez

The Photographer

When documentary photographer Christian Rodriguez isn’t on assignment with National Geographic, he’s at work on long-term projects exploring global issues of identity and gender, with a focus on the rise of teen motherhood in Latin America and its social effects. Soon after he arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, for the TEDGlobal conference, he and another TED Fellow, fashion designer Wale Oyéjidé, hit it off.

“Walé and I realized that we had a lot in common in our respective work, and we decided to start collaborating right away in Arusha,” he says. “Although this is a series of ‘fashion’ portraits, my usual perspective and way of working is documentary — using natural light and working with a single objective. This approach gave this series of portraits a veracity that brought them closer to what Walé wants to convey with his designs. Working in collaboration with Maasai people, rather than with models, reaffirms the idea that with fashion, we can still talk about values and ideas.”

Maasai prints meet Nigerian-European hybrid fashion. Photo: Christian Rodriguez

Maasai prints meet Nigerian-European hybrid fashion. Photo: Christian Rodriguez

The Fashion Designer

Wale Oyéjidé’s designs meld African-inspired textiles with European tailoring and Renaissance-era art in his menswear line Ikeré Jones.

“As a designer, my work is focused on giving people from under-represented populations a voice through my art,” says Oyéjidé. “Maasai men being photographed for Western audiences is an old and clichéd idea — particularly in the fashion industry, where Maasai are often used as backdrops for Western models without being given agency or narratives of their own. Many of us admire their regal, yet casually worn, garments. But I’ve always wanted to hear directly from the Maasai people, and hear their perspectives on a modernized world that has slowly encroached upon their way of life.”

“At one point, the herdsmen confessed to me they were shocked to discover the designer looking to photograph them was a black man. They’d never met a person that looked like them who worked in the creative sphere. I was happy that they appreciated the aesthetics of the clothing they modeled—a mix of African and European design. Meanwhile, they were delighted to collaborate with someone who wanted to engage with and learn from their culture, not just be a voyeur of it.”

“As is often the case when one opens himself up to make art while traveling, I learned much from these kind men, Papaakinye Lemolo Ngaiyan, Siphael Shomet and Lebaati Yakobo. The experience was magical, and a continuing reminder that some of life’s best lessons come when we open ourselves up to listen to the people around us.”

This is an excerpt. To read the full article, visit the TED Fellows blog >>>