Professor turns African fables into fashion

Dominique Pishotti

Tameka Ellington, an assistant professor of fashion design and merchandising at Kent State, opened a new exhibition on campus this week.

The exhibit, “Retold: African Culture and Fables Reinterpreted into Fashion,” was inspired by the fashion designer’s interest in African culture.

“The one thing I’m closest to is trying to find out more about my ancestors,” Ellington said.

Although she’s unsure exactly what tribe her family comes from, Ellington said the exhibit is her way of discovering more about her lineage.

Ellington incorporated her passion for fashion in the collection by reinterpreting her research into clothing.

In the exhibit, located at the Uumbaji Gallery in Oscar Ritchie Hall, visitors can expect to see African stories come to life. Each article of clothing was designed to interpret a certain fable or tradition.

For example, Ellington said she based one of her creations on the traditional skirts of the Nyangatom tribe. The young women in this tribe are known for wearing flashy, bright colored skirts with shell beads. Later on in life, the women trade in their skirts for a milder look, but add more valuable beads made of precious metals.

Ellington said the skirt she made for this tradition, which took her approximately 80 to 85 hours, was her longest design because she beaded everything by hand.

Ellington said her favorite fable out of the collection is “How the Zebra Got its Stripes.”

The fable tells a story of how the zebra was originally born all white and had to gain its stripes through courage. Ellington said she found humor in the story, therefore she wanted to recreate it in a humorous way.

She did so by creating a gown that was shaped like a zebra’s body.

Ellington used a natural cotton fabric and inserted bustles to the back of the dress to give it a zebra body shape. She patterned her design by using the batik method, with wax and dye, to create the stripes.

To pull the design and the fable together, she decided to burn the bottom of the gown at the hems.

Many of the other pieces in the exhibit have to do with animals and human nature as well. Ellington said this is because African fables tell stories of human characteristics through animals as characters.

Each piece in “Retold” was thoroughly thought out and designed after years of research. According to Moema Furtado, curator of the Uumbaji Gallery and international partnership coordinator in the Office of Global Education, Ellington is not one who takes her studies lightly.

“This is a professor that really studies about African fashion and culture,” Furtado said.

Furtado also said this is not the first African-themed exhibit for Ellington. Some pieces from the “Retold” exhibit have traveled all over with Ellington. She has even shown one of the designs in China.

Ellington has worked on this collection since 2012 and although she is showing them now, she is planning to add even more. She released this exhibit earlier than planned in order to collaborate with the College of the Arts’ African Fest that will begin Thursday.

Ellington has plans to share some of her designs in Vancouver in November.

Ellington also opened another fashion exhibit over the summer. The exhibit, titled “(dis)ABLED Beauty,” is located in the Fashion Museum, and features creations for prostheses, hearing devices and mobility devices that were designed in a fashionable manner to help change the negative stigma around those with physical disabilities.

According to a senior fashion merchandising major Emily DeScenna, Ellington’s work was a pleasure to see.

“Dr. Ellington’s pieces in this collection were fashionable and aesthetically pleasing,” DeScenna said. “She clearly put an exceptional amount of research and effort into it.”

Ellington said while both exhibits are very different, they do correlate.

“All the work that I do is based around people who are considered underrepresented,” Ellington said.

“Retold” is open until Oct. 1 and is free and open to the public. The Uumbaji Gallery is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Contact Dominque Pishotti at [email protected].