The Slum Studio: upcycled fashion in Ghana

Sel Kofiga is behind a research and design project that aims to change our attitudes towards clothing and waste. In Accra, he tells us why sustainable apparel doesn't currently exist.
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Selinam Kofiga Gbemu thinks a lot about waste. The Ghanaian multi-disciplinary artist, who also goes by Sel Kofiga, started to develop his sensibilities around waste and fashion sustainability while growing up in different parts of southern Ghana, where he'd visit Accra's Kantamanto Market – West Africa's biggest hub for secondhand clothing. 

‘[Kantamanto] is just like any open market anywhere in the world – it’s full of energy, good vibes, and beautiful people,’ Sel says. ‘I primarily wear and thrift secondhand clothes, so I've always wanted to make something from or with them. The market space holds a lot of energy, and I've always been fascinated by it.’

This fascination, alongside an affinity for building communities, led him to found The Slum Studio in 2018. The brand describes itself as a ‘social architectural research studio, which is interested in designing with post-consumer materials’. It's a fashion design project committed to recycling and repurposing clothing while establishing an upcycle culture in Ghana. This translates to the hand-painted, flowy, wearable art pieces that the studio is best-known for.

The Slum Studio's unofficial motto is ‘there's something liminal under the moon’. Sel explains: ‘The idea sparked from my relationship with painting and grew stronger when I started a photo series with head porters [women who transport secondhand clothing] in Accra. Gradually, my interest has grown into touching on the many things I find on my explorations.’

Kantamanto Market's reputation as a secondhand clothing hub betrays the nuances on the ground. Of the 15 million clothing items that pass through the market each day, 40% are in poor shape and have to be discarded, with many ending up in landfills – or, even worse, washing up on beaches across the country. Apart from being an environmental hazard, the movement of secondhand clothing also results in low-paying jobs for underage girls who depend on carrying loads to survive. The complicated state of this market – both as a dynamic arena for trade, teeming with incredible stories and fascinating humans, and as a primary point for a catastrophic environmental issue – avidly captures Sel's attention and influences his fashion practice.

‘I'm not so interested in making clothes, to be honest,’ he says. ‘I make tapestry from the fabrics that I find exciting and turn them into clothes if and when I have to work on a collection. In the process, I document and gather data that later becomes the artwork.’ His preoccupation with documentation extends to creating ideas and systems of responsible preservation. ‘I'm interested in telling – if there is one – the story of how the Ghanaian community engages with broni wawu [a term for secondhand clothing in Akan, a prominent Ghanaian language].’

Sel's approach towards his practice is slow and careful. It begins with documenting and bearing witness to the people, movements and stories that define the market. ‘The relationship our people have developed with the market space and foreign materials is fascinating. It's more than a market; it's a dwelling place. It's heaven and hell simultaneously. The many forms in which people share knowledge and practice resistance always inspire me.’

While sourcing for reusable fabrics (often old curtains and sheets) in the market, Sel likes to study how the resellers of secondhand clothing use language and color to sell their wares.

‘I'm interested in the place, weight, color and texture of the different fabrics that I collect,’ he says. ‘After collection, I hand-paint them and sometimes dye them with palm oil, pigments, coconut water and any dye I find interesting. The process can take months because I like to see the colors unfold into different materials. I later piece them together to form one huge textile.’ 

The goal is to develop a sustainable relationship with clothing, rather than the mere production of repurposed clothing.

‘Practically, there's nothing like sustainable fashion,’ Sel believes. ‘At least not this age, because most of the cotton that's used to make the clothes we wear isn't sustainably grown, and the labor that produces the clothes is underpaid, in harsh and exploitative conditions. Producing sustainable relationships [relies] mostly on understanding the implications of what we wear – that's what I'm interested in.’

Sel has drawn from past Ghanaian sustainability processes, as well as the tradition of the fugu, a piece of clothing that's passed down through generations. ‘The making of adinkra ntoma also stands out for me. It's an old practice around the Ashanti Region, where pigment made from tree bark is used as a form of appliqué to print adinkra symbols [which represent concepts] onto fabrics. Some are also hand-painted.’

‘I also love the asafo flags a lot,’ he continues. ‘The upcycling culture also inspires me – how people paint on used clothes in the various markets I visit is very fascinating.’

For Sel, wearable art forces people to rethink their relationship with clothing. ‘We don't usually wear a painting, do we? If you're wearing my work, you're a pedestal or a wall through which the work finds a place to belong. The work rests on your body. There's a sort of synchronicity between you and what you're wearing. Therefore you engage with waste differently.’

Sel's practice sets a decisive tone for the future of sustainable clothing beyond public statements or the reproduction of old clothing into new designs. His work also sets him apart in a country whose creative industry is booming.

Yet Sel believes he's still figuring things out and he's unsure how Ghana's government can tackle the problem of textile waste. But he believes that it's a design and policymaking decision. ‘In the process of policymaking, a lot of people – like historians, spatial designers, architects, artists, biologists, soil scientists, anthropologists and people on the ground – must be involved,’ he says.

The Slum Studio will continue in a multi-disciplinary manner and explore its ethos through various creative means. ‘I'm a performance artist, so there'll be films and installations. I don't know what the future holds, but I look forward to holding space and inviting others into that space,’ Sel says.

He also believes that the work of finding ways that everyday people can establish sustainability practices is a collective effort. ‘I can't suggest anything. What I can say is: ask yourself if you need the new piece you're about to buy. Even though consumers play a major role, we have to understand that it's a system purposely designed to favor the producer. Rethinking lies between the producer and the consumer because, at the end of the day, we're all contributing to the problem. Suggestions must be a collective effort. Sustainability isn't about extraction, it's about maintenance.’

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 50. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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