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Photo courtesy of Nsimba Valene Lontanga.

NextGen: Nsimba Valene Lontanga Is Using Art Direction and Trend Research to Highlight Africa's Diversity

The Congolese art director, fashion designer and entrepreneur is on a mission to foster the power African creatives already have.

This week, we published short profiles, essays and interviews on the theme of "Afrofutures". Together these stories were a deep dive into the way African and diaspora thinkers, technologists and artists view a future for Africans in the world and outside of it.

Take a look at our introduction to Afrofuturism here, with the second edition of the conversation here.

We've highlighted and celebrated young, leading talents who already put into practice what a future with black people look like through their work in the return of our profile series, 'NextGen.'

Nsimba Valene Lontanga is an art director, fashion designer, trend forecaster and entrepreneur hailing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The bombshell intriguingly holds many hats. She has launched a line based in Ghana, Libaya, lingala for 'women's top' and more recently, Fofa, "an online database offering an archive of trailblazers influencing the African narrative."

Lontanga's love of fashion unsurprisingly comes from a Congolese upbringing in which her parents placed a heavy emphasis on how they dressed and presented themselves. She was raised in the Netherlands and has always had a desire to create. Lontanga began painting to reflect an Africa she was proud of. Later, she studied trend research and concept design and decided to do a project related to trend forecasting on the African continent. It is through her research that she discovered creatives telling stories pertaining to the Africa she always imagined. Everything naturally progressed from here.


Nsimba Valene Lontanga. Photo courtesy of Nsimba Valene Lontanga.

"Libaya grew out of the need to show that African women are part of the book of style. When I picked up magazines, I only saw a Western viewpoint," she says. This viewpoint conflicted with Lontanga, as she grew up around African women who were very fashion forward and her source of inspiration. "African women have always been influential within the fashion industry," she states.

While going back and forth between Ghana and the Netherlands, she would make tailored clothing comprised of plain fabrics, polka dots and stripes and be asked where her pieces were from. Lontanga challenged the African aesthetic by creating a brand free of the prints the West is so used to attributing us with.

While working for Vlisco, notable dutch fabric producer, Nsimba was consistently asked whether or not the continent was home to people producing quality work within the fashion industry. It is due to this that Fofa was born. The platform is centered around showcasing a wave of creatives. "The time is now to connect and facilitate collaborations," Nsimba affirms. The established professionals displayed are global influencers who integrate powerful storytelling in their work. In its current phase, the site features faces you've certainly seen and heard of. The next step will be to scout new talents that are shaping the fashion industry in their countries.

Photo courtesy of Nsimba Valene Lontanga.


"We have all the tools to create our own reality," Lontanga says. "I can't imagine not doing anything with those tools. It inspires me that we have access to everything; that I can be in the Netherlands and still feel connected to Ghana, to Nigeria, to Congo, to Senegal—just this global identity and connection that we are shaping and the power we have. The power is literally in our own hands."

For her, the future is as follows: "When I look at it, the more architects, poets, photographers and other leaders we have in the art realm, the more we can influence change. Artists have the skills to predict what the future can be. They literally create a new world we all want to be part of. It is a present where things are possible. The future of art related to Africa is really exciting because the art scene is creating the future for us," says Lontanga.

She continues:

"Afrofuturism shows that we can imagine our own futures. It forces us to restore our cultural heritage as the past is a way to predict the future. It reconnects us to untold stories; we can imagine how the future can be. You can't create a future without what has happened before."

She goes on to remind us of her favorite line, "The future is female and African." The African woman is carving her own lane in an industry where she has been underrepresented. She is igniting businesses despite a world in she is underestimated. She is challenging and changing stories about, "identity, traditions, beauty, and culture globally." Unbeknownst to her, Lontanga embodies the aforementioned.

Furthermore, she adds the "African landscape is influencing the new concept of luxury today."

Lontanga consistently conducts field research, shoots, styles, writes and graphic designs. She solely connects herself to things that feed her energy. She's forever learning and aiming to represent Africa as a whole despite a perspective that is limited in scope because of how diverse our continent is.

Keep up with Nsimba Valene Lontanga here.

Audrey Lang is an alumna of Northeastern University and a Boston-based site merchandiser. A surveyor of life who's enamored with all things fashion, art and Africa, keep up with her on Instagram and Tumblr.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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Tanzanian Filmmaker Amil Shivji is Making History with a Story of Love and Resistance

As the first Tanzanian film to be chosen for TIFF, Shiviji's film is sure to get the African country a seat at the table.