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A Young Designer Explores Her Cameroonian Identity Through Fashion

Yaounde-born, New York-based designer Nyorh Agwe speaks on exploring her Cameroonian identity through fashion.

All images courtesy of Nyorh Agwe


Yaounde-born, New York-based fashion designer Nyorh Agwe says her work is a byproduct of her life as a nomad. "Through fashion I was able to reconnect myself with my birth culture and am in a space now where I have embraced all of my nationalities instead of standing by just one," says Agwe, 20, who grew up between Cameroon, Italy, and the U.S. "My work is bold, colorful, funky, detailed, eclectic, and often in one way or another speaks of my cross cultural experiences as an African growing up anywhere except in Africa," the designer told us over email.

This past year, Agwe graduated from New York's Parsons School of Design. Her thesis collection, M'ba M'etta-We the Metta People, is a personal exploration of the disappearing traditional crafts of the Tugi people of northwest Cameroon, specifically the dyeing of raffia cloth. "All explorations and experiences—from walking through the bush, to peeling and dyeing raffia, to weaving and manipulating raffia—drove the end result of this collection," Agwe shared with us via email. "It became a proclamation that I am Metta and as such it is my duty to not just watch my culture disappear or become under appreciated. The collection is a reminder to others, as well as to Metta People, just how special we are."

Her post-graduate continuation of this work, titled Leftovers, is a jewelry line made of recycled materials from her previous collections (Last month, Ghanaian singer-songwriter Jojo Abot donned a piece from the collection at the Face2Face Awards in New York City). We recently caught up with Nyorh Agwe over email to discuss the origins of her work and how her identity as a Cameroonian-American has manifested in her collections.

Yatta Zoker for Okayafrica: Where are you from and how does that inform the work you do?

Nyorh Agwe: When someone asks me that I always like to say that I am originally from Cameroon but I grew up in Maryland, and that’s because I can’t choose one. Yes, my birth nationality is Cameroonian. But to be honest, I’m practically American, because that is more of the life I know. So just by acknowledging that, it affects my work as an artist immensely. My work allows me to reconnect with my birth culture literally because I don’t readily know too much about it, so I have to explore it. That means asking my parents questions about our people, or finding information in books, researching, or consistently going back to Cameroon. The goal, at least, is to level both cultural experiences. The more I find out about my birth culture the more I can compare it and relate it to my American culture. So my work ends up reflecting a process of finding myself and constantly growing into who I am. My process becomes an acceptance of myself through portraying both sides of me.

OKA: Where did the vision for Leftovers come from?

NA: The vision of Leftovers came after I finished my graduating thesis collection, M’ba M’etta- We the Metta People. I came home and stared at piles of materials everywhere. Most of which were not even big enough to replicate the collection if I wanted to. I had a whole bunch of stuff and no way to use it. Then that's when Leftovers came about. I thought I could use the leftovers of these materials and make new things. I wanted this project to go forth with accessories more than clothes because accessories don’t tend to have such strict sizes like apparel. Therefore, I could create more freely. I was constantly pushed by African artists like Romuald Hazoume and Cyrus Kabiru, who use an aspect of recycling materials to create new works of art. In the same manner as their work, my work also became organic. It doesn’t really start with a concept or a mood idea like most collections do. It just starts with making. Whatever it turns out to be it is.

OKA: What is it that draws you to creating with recycled items?

NA: The best thing about recycling these objects is that they come already in their form. I learn to work around the form instead of constricting it into a planned out design. In fact, the designs are never pre-planned. This allows the process to be organic and free-thinking. Plus it gives these old objects a new purpose so I don’t have to throw them away. Instead, they evolve and can be used again.

OKA: How does your cross-cultural identity manifest in your art-making?

NA: My art-making has evolved into a process of combining both handwork and machine-based work, which I can definitely say is a result of my cross- cultural identity. Back in Cameroon, art-making is hand-heavy—weaving, drawing, beading, painting, carving, etc—whereas my learnings here in America, especially at Parsons, are more tech heavy. I may start off by hand, then re-edit it through a software, then re-edit it by hand again, and so on and so forth. Not only is my process a result of my cross-cultural identity, but so are the overall physical characteristics of the pieces themselves. The bold colors, large silhouettes, and grand shapes in my artwork definitely derives from my Cameroon culture, especially the style of dress there. However, my technique comes from my learnings in America. It is always a back-and-forth action of both identities in my artwork and therefore expands what my art can be.

OKA: Can you tell us about M’ba M’etta, “We the Metta People”?

NA: M’ba M’etta “We the Metta People” is my Thesis graduating collection from Parsons. I always used to describe it as a redeclaration and an announcement of who Metta People are, but to be honest, as I delved deeper in the work, I feel like it is now a collection that declares that I am a Metta person as well. Growing up, I didn’t feel like such. When we would go home to Cameroon they would call us “bush fallas" (Africans who grow up in America, so are technically American). It felt like living as an American pushed me further from me as an African. This collection was an effort of relinking myself with my people.

I started my research with a fact that I learned from my Anthropology of African dress class; almost every African country has a cloth that defines them. I wanted to know if Metta People had a cloth, one before the civilization of Cameroon. In our culture, raffia was the sole fiber for traditional dyeing. It was used to make ceremonials caps and bags for men of importance and stature in the village.

Unfortunately, the dyeing practice (as well as a variety of other cultural arts/crafts practices) are slowly disappearing and being replaced with modern forms and materials. This not only affects the culture for the next generation, but it also puts a lot of villagers out of business and their talents to waste. The Metta traditional dyeing method has never been used on anything but raffia fibers. So to somehow find a solution, I wondered how to advance such a deeply valued practice.

I conducted an experiment where I dyed other all-natural fiber fabrics like cotton, silk, and wool. I then dyed them under the same process as raffia would have been dyed. The results were amazing. Each fabric took the dye differently from the other, and even more differently from the raffia. Exploring with dyeing raffia also pushed me into other areas of its use, like the woven bags and caps. I played with different weaving techniques with a traditional handmade Metta weaving loom.

OKA: Why did you choose to explore the traditional crafts of the Tugi People in this collection?

NA: The loss of appreciation for these crafts has kind of been a cause-and-effect cycle. Civilization almost casted out traditional practices. In addition, no one was making a trade/money off of it anymore. Christianity brought with it literacy, which brought schools, which brought skills that we made for city, and working in the city meant money. So more and more of the younger generation started taking up skills in the city rather than the artisan skills that were passed down from generation to generation. This is what is leading to the disappearance of traditional crafts in Metta. You can barely find original artifacts in Metta now. Most of them are in British or American Museums and none are being reproduced in the village. Therefore there leaves almost no visual representation of Metta history, and to me, that's more important than making money. Art keeps a culture alive.

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How would you describe yourself as an artist?

As an interdisciplinary artist, I use symbolism to re-imagine and challenge the stereotypical depiction of spaces, contexts and the people who are affected by global migration. I view my work as a platform for dialogues about identity, fluidity, place, and belonging. As an artist with a diverse cultural, historic and artistic background, I use art to inform, engage and heal. Because it is too easy to fall into the trap of promoting idealism or clichés, I make it a point to be critical and analytical in my work.

What is the message behind your recent photo-series "The Crown"?

This work came about after I had been stuck in Lagos traffic for 2 hours, listening to a radio show about the role of women in the household. One middle-aged woman called in to say that a "proper woman has to be domesticated". Listening to that radio show just made it seem like, for many people, it doesn't matter how educated, professionally accomplished or otherwise successful a woman is as long as she does not have the required domestic skills required by the African society. The urban attire complemented by traditional African elements illustrates the double role that many young African women have in our communities. And yet, that point is made against a yellow backdrop, symbolizing our power, historical achievements, hope and optimism for the future.

As an African artist, what do you want to communicate with your art about the continent?

The core message in my art is the promotion of our personal and collective healing process. That is only possible if we all understand the importance of playing our part. I believe that this is a very important time to be active in the contemporary art field. We have reached a historical point where Africans from the continent and the diaspora are challenging the status quo in the art industry by creating their own platforms to discuss, share and challenge the dominating philosophical, artistic, political and cultural perspectives on art. We have the power, individually and collectively to create a different legacy for the next generation and have personally just begun exploring all the possibilities out there.

Nicole Rafiki merges contemporary and traditional visual art. "Mkono" (2018), in loving memory of my grandmother.Image courtesy of Nicole Rafiki.


Nicole Rafiki merges contemporary and traditional visual art. "Untitled" (2019), in loving memory of Benon Lutaaya. Image courtesy of Nicole Rafiki.


Nicole Rafiki merges contemporary and traditional visual art. "Not without my bags" (2019)Image courtesy of Nicole Rafiki.


Nicole Rafiki merges contemporary and traditional visual art. "Kadogo (2019)"Image courtesy of Nicole Rafiki.


Nicole Rafiki merges contemporary and traditional visual art. "Mwenye imani haitaji macho" (A man of faith needs no eyes), (2019). Model: AfrogallonismImage courtesy of Nicole Rafiki.


Nicole Rafiki merges contemporary and traditional visual art. "Crown" (2020)Image courtesy of Nicole Rafiki.


Nicole Rafiki merges contemporary and traditional visual art. "Crown" (2020). Model: Deborah Kandoua AffouéImage courtesy of Nicole Rafiki.


Nicole Rafiki merges contemporary and traditional visual art. "Kwabende" (2019)Image courtesy of Nicole Rafiki.

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