Accra’s Kantamanto market is the largest market in West Africa where over 30,000 people work and where 15million items of second-hand clothing arrive from the Global North each week. This mother load is sold in bales to traders and then recirculated across the market and beyond.
It’s a complex industry that supports an entire eco-system and offers a source of affordable fashion for all. However, it represses local textile cultures and has a significant environmental impact with up to 40 percent of product ending up in landfill or dumped and burnt informally, causing floods and pollution.
The OR Foundation, a non-profit organisation raising awareness of the damage done by what Ghanaians call obroni wawu (Akan for ‘dead white men clothing’), condemns this trade as ‘a by-product of colonialism, oppression and injustice’.
Kantamanto is also where many of Accra’s creatives are drawn to be inspired by the irrepressible microcosm of life and enterprise found here. Fine artist Zohra Opoku, photographer Sackitey Tesa and stylist Mawuli Daniel Quist all make vital explorations into the myriad permutations of second-hand fashion through their work. Joining them in this important inquiry is multidisciplinary artist Sel Kofiga whose photography and gestural abstraction paintings challenge the power structures and politics of representation in Ghanaian society. And with his latest wearable art project, The Slum Studio, he is using regenerative fashion practices to tell the untold narratives of this market.
“My personal interaction with second-hand clothing goes all the way back to my childhood. My mother objected to obroni wawu and wanted me to wear locally made clothes, which meant I had so many unanswered questions,” Kofiga recalls. “Since then, I’ve become interested in markets and how people engage with each other and connect to objects in these spaces. Vendors have such conceptual and imaginative ways to display and sell their goods and that allows them to express themselves. It’s where people come from across the country to buy bales. It’s where thrifters go to style themselves. And its where I go to document these stories.”
“I do not call myself a fashion designer but with The Slum Studio I am interested in finding a multi-faceted way of examining how second-hand clothes from the West effect my environment. I am raising awareness by making something out of that waste for all the world to see,” he says.
The artist visits the market twice a week to buy off-cut cottons, take photos and chat to various workers. He translates these findings – the primary colours of the plastic bale wrappings, the ubiquitous umbrellas that stall owners commonly use to present clothing, the business talk from merchants – into brightly-hued, abstract imagery that he hand-paints on to the fabrics. He then works with his team of skilled tailors to turn his designs into unisex pieces.
“I am creating something out of what is already there. This circular approach reduces waste, up-cycles fabric and uses no new resources,” he says. “In fashion, sustainability is a term often used simply to greenwash and sell things. But the concept of being sustainable is inherent to Ghanaians if you look at our old ways like making pigments from natural materials like wood bark, and common basket weaving techniques. My process uses ethically sourced materials and aims to bring no damage to the planet.”
His second annual collection, The Incoming/Outgoing Tradition All Weather 2021, comprises four styles including the Toma three- pocket coat inspired by the standard garment the kayayei wear, and Jokoto trousers, an oversize silhouette with wide legs that takes its cues from the dzokoto shorts worn by chiefs and elders from the Ga and Ewe communities. Each design brings together four or five different prints, ensuring no two pieces are the same. And to complete the journey, Kofiga brings his work back to the market to present it to his collaborators there.
“All of these people play an important role in this thing that I do so it makes me happy that they are happy to contribute and understand why I want to tell their stories.”
Sold in concept stores across the region, The Slum Studio is attracting a global audience attracted not only to these joyful, relaxed and thoughtfully made clothes but also to the messages behind the brand. Proceeds go toward raising funds for The Kayayei Association so that these women can receive education. And for Kofiga, this is just the beginning.
“Every one of us plays a part on the global second-hand clothing industry, from the World Trade Organisation to consumers, so we all need to talk about it. I’m doing it in my way and I hope it helps to bring change,” he reflects. “I don’t want a second-hand clothing ban in Ghana because a whole lot comes with it and so many people depend on it for their livelihoods. But I call on my government to enforce regulations to improve the system. And with The Slum Studio, I want to be able to continue to grow, to learn and to contribute to my environment.”