Aaron Kohn and Phil Sandick developed The African Lookbook out of a desire to not only provide contemporary African threads online for purchase, but to also build a space for the important narratives behind those creations. Part documentation of African artistry, part online shopping gem, The African Lookbook is garnering attention from folks interested in unique products with a story. OKA contributor Kate Bomz spends “An African Minute” with the shop’s co-creator, Aaron Kohn, about his team’s new endeavor.
1. The African Lookbook shop isn’t just another online shopping portal for African goods, it has an intellectual twist to it. What compelled you to add a space for oral histories, why is this important to you two?
Phil has an MA in Oral History, and I always obsess over how African artists are represented, so African Lookbook actually started off as a space for oral histories of African creatives. Then we realized people would want to get their hands on the stuff talked about in the interviews, and that we were in a position to help bring those products to market.
In October, we’re co-presenting an academic paper at the American Popular Culture Association annual meeting that problematizes this particular project: both the challenges of doing oral histories with African creatives and the challenges of curating an online shop of cool African stuff. We’re trying to take ourselves seriously…but not too seriously.
2. How did you two link up?
Phil headed to Bostwana to work at a secondary/high school (Maru-a-Pula) in Botswana after he graduated from college. In 2008, I headed there as an exchange student. Phil had a bunch of South African art books and magazines laying around, and a propensity for talking to strangers. We’ve been working together on stuff ever since.
3. We love how vibrant the Lookbook is, What other Africa-related creative collaborations have you done thus far?
We’ve both done various things in Africa – freelancing for NGOs, research, exhibitions – but we were constantly distracted by the artists we’d meet and read about. Virtually all of the various projects and papers we’ve done together have either been our own creative output or about the creative output of others.
4. What is the most amazing item in your shop, in your opinion?
All of the lines are different in their own awesome ways. If we had to pick one, though, it would probably be the Babatunde Pith Helmet (pictured below), which is a playful but firm appropriation of one of the main symbols of African colonialism. Even the “African” fabrics that Babatunde uses were really imported by Europeans…from Java, one of their other colonies.
5. What should we look out for in the coming weeks?
More oral histories! We’ve got almost ten that are in the transcription and editing process. Also, more products will be in stock as soon as boxes arrive from South Africa. We’re playing around with some large-scale collaboration ideas, but we need to see what our designers/artists think before we spill the beans.
Shop the African Lookbook here.
Check out our previous African Minute with photographer Martin Kharumwa here.