Africa à la mode

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Kontinent is pleased to announce its’ new member, award-winning photographer Per-Anders Pettersson, based in Cape Town, South Africa. He has exhibited widely, and in 2013 published ‘Rainbow Transit’, a portrait of South Africa in democracy. In his new book ‘African Catwalk’, Per-Anders Pettersson portrays a previously unseen side of the African continent, that of the burgeoning fashion industry. The book published by Kehrer in May 2016, chronicles an industry spanning 15 countries and celebrates a new, vibrant, and unexpected view of the continent.

Text: Malin Sjöberg
Photos: Per-Anders Pettersson

Models wait backstage before a show at Joburg Fashion Week on March 30, 2012, in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by: Per-Anders Pettersson)
Models wait backstage before a show at Joburg Fashion Week on March 30, 2012, in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by: Per-Anders Pettersson)

Why do you think the rising fashion industry in Africa has gone unnoticed for so long in the western media?
The media usually looks at other kinds of stories. They rarely look outside the ‘traditional African stories’.
As a photojournalist, I feel a responsibility to tell the new and original stories about Africa, in order to give a multifaceted view of this diverse continent.

In this body of work you turn your journalistic eye on the creative talents and the rise of the African fashion industry. Please tell us more about it; your intention when you first started, your working methods and your process in general?
I had been photographing in South Africa for years when I was approached by Stern Magazine in 2009 to do an assignment on the South African fashion week and its popularity with the growing middle-class and youth culture in Johannesburg.
I became fascinated by the the shows, the beauty of the clothes and the models. I found the theater of the backstage truly inspiring, which is why I continued covering fashion shows across the continent from South-Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Tanzania to Nigeria.  In total, I have covered about 40 fashion weeks, in 16 countries.

For over 20 years your work was largely dominated by what you’ve called “the traditional African stories” — the ones we’re all to often familiar with, from the horrors of ethnic violence to unremitting natural disasters.
However, you departed from this several years ago to cover another side of the African continent.  What led you to this?
In general, I was tired of these stories and how the editors and magazines were doing them. After finishing ‘Rainbow Transit’ in 2012, I felt that I needed to focus on uplifting stories.
It’s a process and I think after living and traveling in Africa for so many years, one changes and the way you look at the continent changes.

Having covered civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the HIV / AIDS epidemic in Botswana and South Africa, how does this recent body of work resonate with you emotionally?
‘African Catwalk’ makes me happy. It makes me smile. Can you believe this is happening in Africa? And not only in South Africa, its happening all over the continent.

Another African ‘fashion’ story you’ve covered is about the ‘Sapeurs’, a Congo subculture of exuberant flamboyance and dandyism in the midst of poverty.  Please tell us more about it?
That’s a very exciting project yet a different thing.  A unique subculture in Congo, in both Congo’s, where the Sapeurs are only interested in international brands, mainly European and Japanese. These guys are like role models, and they are really popular in the streets.  Most of these men and women are poor but they have a dream of Europe. They dream of the fancy lifestyle – the good life.

Now that you have finished your work on ‘African Catwalk’, to what extent do you think photojournalism plays role in initiating change or challenging stereotypes?
I think it’s still an important way of informing and instigating change. It just has to be done correctly and it has to be given time.

After working on the rising African fashion industry for six years, you recently had the inaugural exhibition of ‘African Catwalk’ at one of the most influential and exciting  galleries in Milan. It must have been wonderful to finally see the work come together at Galleria Carla Sozzani/ 10 Corso Como in Milan.
Thank you, it is an honor to have a solo-show there as it’s the place in Milan/Italy for fashion. The exhibition was curated by Alessia Glaviano (Senior Photo Editor of Vogue Italia). The gallery also has a boutique hotel, an incredible bookshop, a restaurant and a bar. All this ensures that it draws a truly cosmopolitan, international crowd.
It’s important to me that this work is seen and judged by people who work in, and know the fashion industry as I want the story and the African fashion industry to be taken seriously.   The gallery is owned by Carla Sozzani, the sister of Franca Sozzani, the editor in chief of Italian Vogue and it has showcased the best in international photography throughout the years.  It’s great to have my work there.

The book ‘African Catwalk’, published by Kehrer, will be launched at Galleri Kontrast,  Stockholm, on June 2nd, 2016, at 6 – 8 pm.
The artist will make a short presentation including a slideshow and a book signing.
The exhibition ‘African Catwalk’ will be at Galleria Carla Sozzani, Milan, until June 5th, 2016.

Check out Per-Anders profile and more of his work here.