MAMI WATA AND THE POWER OF AFRICAN DESIGN.
As a local surf label goes international, Creative Club explores how, in seeking to add a new African dimension to global surf culture’s visual lexicon, it has also started forging new futures for African graphic design.
Late last year, local surf brand Mami Wata launched in the US. Publications from Vogue to Cool Hunting noted its arrival and it popped up in design bible Wallpaper and travel glossy Condé Nast Traveler.
Even before its US launch, the brand had already received some international recognition. In 2020, Italian luxury fashion brand Moncler (more closely associated with skiing than surf culture, but premium activewear nonetheless) invited Mami Wata to participate in the Moncler Genius project. This design collaboration resulted in the Mami Wata X Moncler range, which was sold in 200 of the luxury brand’s stores around the world.
Perhaps what these brands and commentators were recognising, more than simply something fresh and vital from Africa (even though many battled to articulate it), was an African design sensibility with a whole new attitude, not just in the way it entered the international scene, but to itself.
Despite Mami Wata’s modest beginnings in a market stall in Cape Town in 2017, its founders always had planet-sized ambitions for the brand. Superficially, Mami Wata is about surfwear: T-shirts, shorts, hats, hoodies and accessories. It also includes a range of surfboards crafted by the legendary local board-shaper Hugh Thompson.
But on a deeper level, Mami Wata launched with the idea that it would enter the global surf scene and introduce a new vision of what surf culture could look like. It would provide a counter-narrative to the dominant mythology of surf culture as embodied by blonde-haired blue-eyed boys from Californian and Australia. It would represent the neglected (possibly even deliberately erased) African surf scene.
A primary example of this erasure can be seen in the legendary 1960s surf documentary, The Endless Summer, in which a group of Californian surfers traverse the globe in search of the perfect wave, which, incidentally, they found in Cape St Francis. A now-notorious scene filmed on Labadi beach in Ghana shows the white Californian surfers marvelling at the ‘never-before-surfed breaks’ on this idyllic coastline. The only problem is that local kids can be clearly seen surfing on wooden planks in the background.
African surfers existed before the arrival of the globe-trotting Californians. Yet, what was right in front of them remained invisible, perhaps precisely because it didn’t fit their preconceived narrative. Mami Wata aimed to contribute something of a corrective to that narrative.
The main spokesperson for Mami Wata in the US is one of the brand’s founders, Selema Masekela, a black surfer himself, and a well-known sports commentator and television host. His name might be more recognisable back in SA because of its associations with his father, legendary jazz musician Hugh Masekela, but Selema was born and raised in the US. His partners in SA include the heavyweight trio of ad man Nick Dutton, surf journalist Andy Davis (publisher of long-running surf magazine Zigzag) and graphic designer Peet Pienaar − the brand’s Creative Director.
Peet is responsible for Mami Wata’s branding, iconography, graphics, fonts, patterns and other design elements. He is no stranger to global success, having worked with brands like MTV and the New York Times and, more specifically in fashion, with brands including Comme des Garçons, Diesel and Camper.
One of the first things he realised in devising a visual identity for Mami Wata, however, was that while there are surfers across Africa, there wasn’t necessarily a cohesive scene. What, he asked himself, does the African surf scene look like? Are there points of connection between surfers all around the continent?.
By way of response to these kinds of questions, the Mami Wata team compiled a whopping 320-page book, AFROSURF, which gave shape to the notion of an African surf culture through 200 photos, 50 essays, surfer profiles, thought pieces, poems, playlists, photos, illustrations, ephemera, recipes, and a mini comic.
A crucial insight that arose from this in-depth and far-reaching research was that a spiritual relationship with the ocean is a golden thread that runs through the continent’s disparate surf scenes.
The mythical figure of a water spirit or mermaid was prevalent throughout local mythologies around West, central and southern Africa: the Mami Wata figure (pidgin English for Mother Water or Mother of the Ocean). This sense of spirituality and the unifying pan-African mythological figure gave the brand the foundation of its early iconography.
For Peet, the next crucial part of the process was finding a design language for the brand, which inevitably led to a much larger question about perceptions of African graphic design. What, indeed, is contemporary African design?
Despite the recent global interest in African design among large fashion brands, they still tend to treat it as some sort of miraculously pre-existing cultural resource – a source of inspiration for their own designs rather than a modern phenomenon with a complex understanding of itself.
Peet explains that not a lot of research has been done into contemporary African graphic design, least of all by contemporary South African graphic designers. Because of the habit of seeing it as ‘vernacular’, existing without self-awareness or a sense that it is in possession of its own heritage and destiny, it remains open to functioning as little more than a source of stylistic influence.
“African design can actually contribute something to the world of design besides the fact that it’s inspiring,” he says.
So, in creating the visual identity for Mami Wata, Peet engaged in sustained research into contemporary African design, making crucial forays into understanding, documenting and formalising his approach even as he created it.
“If you really want to have a conversation in the world around design from an African perspective, we’re going to have to start informing what we talk about,” says Peet.
His approach looks to the humour, multiculturalism and modernity in local African design, its unique approach to commercialism, exposure to international brands via social media, and its unique appropriations of European and American brands. Peet layers all this with local meanings and associations.
So, for example, one of the primary logos for Mami Wata is what Peet calls the Banana Burger. The hamburger, a symbol of global American cultural dominance, is playfully subverted with a banana in place of a patty. The quintessentially African fruit – with its mixed associations of exoticism and tropical delight, but also frequently associated with derogatory racist terminology – upends that dominance. It subsumes it, transforming it in a smiling, good-humoured act of commercial decolonisation.
Likewise, the Mami Wata mermaid logo has associations with early foreign encounters, perhaps with European explorers. The whole brand thus symbolically begins with an image of Africa as having already encountered foreign or exotic ‘others’ — not innocent, but already with a mythical response to an international world.
What it picks up is something far from the ‘sad story’ narratives of Africa. It’s a world away from the primitivist versions of the continent that European modernists thought they found in the early 20th century, and which informed the aesthetic revolution and cultural revitalisation of European modernism (and which African design has adopted and reflected back to Europe in many ways). It also jettisons the more contemporary narrative of international designers rooted in the African diaspora seeking to reclaim something of their own heritage.
Rather this is a visual identity premised on a forward-looking, fast-evolving version of Africa, shot through with the influences of global media, but engaging with it on its own terms.
What a brand like Mami Wata does, beyond even transforming what it is possible for the visual culture of the international surf scene to look like, is to show a new approach and attitude in African graphic design. It is an example of African graphic design treating itself as a worthy subject of research-based development, seeing its own contemporary quirks and humour, and the tensions in its relationship with an image-saturated online world as an entirely valid basis for an understanding of itself.
This is African design revealing itself, not as international brands see it — as heritage or inspiration — but as informed, reflective, self-possessed and unapologetically forward looking.