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Our Creatives

Five minutes with Hortense Mbea, Afropian

Hortense Mbea is the Founder and Creative Director of Afropian, a Pan-African fashion brand that tells stories of Africa’s history through art and design and traces the common threads that bring different people of the continent closer together.

Five minutes with Hortense Mbea, Afropian

Glitter Trotter: I have to tell you, Hortense, what an amazing coincidence! I started following your account about a week ago, and I was truly captivated by your interesting manner of linking fashion, historical facts and artefacts, art and some of the pertinent social issues into stories of life in Africa. And I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great to go back to Ethiopia after the pandemic is over, and meet with Hortense!” And here you are in Nairobi in the flesh. I am really glad I met you.

Hortense Mbea: Indeed, life works in mysterious ways.

GT:  Ethiopia is one of the countries that had a profound impact on me. I have not had a chance (yet!) to spend a lot of time there, but everything I saw and experienced was really memorable. Were you born in Ethiopia?

HM: I was most certainly not. You would be surprised, though – I was born in Washington, DC.

GT: Really?

HM: Yes, my father was a diplomat, stationed in Washington at the time I was born. 

GT: So, did you feel more American growing up in the USA?

HM: No, not at all. My family is originally from Cameroon, and it was very important for my parents to ensure that my siblings and I retain strong connections to our culture, no matter where we lived. I think our parents were afraid that we would turn into acculturated children if we lost connection to our culture. So, they were really focused on teaching us our tradition and connecting us to our roots, our family back home. At home, I always felt very immersed in my culture – the people working for us were from Cameroon, the food we ate was Cameroonian, the music, the flag...  And every 2 years or so, we would always travel home with my parents. There was a lot of love for and pride in our culture and our traditions. 

When I was growing up, we lived in different European countries, but I always wanted to go back to Africa. I am an interpreter by trade; when I was still in school getting my degree in interpreting, my Dad moved to Addis Ababa to be stationed there. Once graduated, I joined him in Ethiopia – Addis seemed like a great place to live and work. So, I stayed there, met my husband, got married, had children. My father passed away, but I stayed in Ethiopia with my family. I only left for 5 years to work with the African Development Bank: First in Tunisia, and then Cote d'Ivoire. I resigned from ADB in 2017 and moved back to Addis.

GT: So, you’ve been an interpreter for how long?

HM: About 20 years now. I am still interpreting, but now I do it as a freelancer. 

GT: I see. And you are now also a designer?

HM: Yes, but that’s not a job – this is really a passion. When I started as a freelancer, I knew that I wanted to do something else to do, something to keep me happy, sane... Happy! Working at ADB was an amazing experience. I traveled all over Africa, I got to know the continent really well. And while I was still there, ADB started this program called Fashionomics Africa, where I was deeply involved as an interpreter.

GT: I believe I’ve heard about this program.

HM: Oh, good! So, you know then that the main idea of the program was to invest in the creative industry on the continent because ADB believes in the potential of this sector to contribute to human and economic development in the continent, given there will be support in terms of organizing it, increasing the level of professionalism, exploring export to other continents or even within Africa. But in the beginning, we had to do a lot of learning and exploring. I traveled all over the continent to help promote the new program. I got to meet a lot of artisans, designers, creatives, and artists, whose buy-in and participation were really important for the program to get off the ground.  Talking to all these creatives got me inspired, and also gave me an idea to start a creative business of my own.

I was always creative as a child, I would write poetry, I would sing, I would paint, I would make clothes for my dolls... But when I became an interpreter, I lost touch with my creative side. Being an interpreter consumes your time and your energy; when you get home in the evening, all you can do is eat, do your yoga, and go to bed. Talking to all the creatives as part of Fashionomics helped me reconnect with my creative self. Surely, it did not happen overnight – it took me a year, maybe even more to come up with the concept. But once I was ready, I resigned and opened Afropian within 3 months from my return to Addis Ababa. I realized at the time – I was ready, I had a fantastic network of artisans in Mali, in Ghana, in Tunisia, in South Africa, in Cote d'Ivoire, in Cameroon, everywhere in Africa. I could do anything I wanted.

GT: This is a very powerful story! And I really love the fact that you kept returning to what was always important to you ever since your childhood – African culture and traditions, and creativity. So, what did you work on first – jewelry? Clothing?

HM: I started by making jewelry and bags. But then kame 2019, and I was invited to take part in the Addis Ababa fashion week. The organizers really liked my accessory line, but they encouraged me to come up with a clothing collection because they felt that my designs were very different from what is typical for Ethiopian fashion and style. You see, Ethiopian fashion tends to be very Ethiopia-centered: the designers use Ethiopian textiles, Ethiopian traditions, and Ethiopian style. Sometimes, I call Ethiopia an island without the sea; we are not very connected to the rest of the continent. In my designs, I mix cultures and traditions – Ethiopian and other countries on the continent; I want to be a connector, a sort of a bridge between Ethiopia and the rest of the continent.

GT: I this the essence, the concept of your brand?

HM: This was the early concept. When I returned to Ethiopia after five years of traveling the continent and learning about the amazing traditions and craftsmanship of the continent, I wanted to show Ethiopian artisans how different yet also how similar they were to other people on the continent. 

GT: What do you mean “similar”?

HM: You would be surprised how many traditions and crafts across the continent are almost identical. For example, the lost wax casting method of casting bronze, which is widespread in Ethiopia, is also found in Kenya, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia – all over Africa. There are other things that we do in very similar ways. These similarities show you how connected we are on the continent, you can almost trace how African people moved and migrated over the centuries by exploring similarities in traditions and craftsmanship. 

So, yes, I started the brand Afropian as a bridge between Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. But in the past 3 years my vision has evolved, and the brand morphed into something much bigger – into a sort of a pan-African dream of showing the continent that we are all connected, all similar, and all amazing; and that we should be very proud of our heritage – we should be proudly African, which is now the motto of my brand.

GT: I am at owe of your big vision! How are you planning to accomplish it?

HM: One step at a time. For example, that fashion show in 2019 that I started telling you about, was one of such steps.

GT: Yes, yes, back to your very first show! I always wondered, how do designers come up with a collection, especially as you were describing – almost on a fly? How did you do it?

HM: It was crazy! I really don’t know how I survived, but I manage to create 15 looks for the show, and most of them were the expression of my own aesthetic and my own taste. I have always been designing my own clothes, because I had my own style and wanted to incorporate all these different cultural elements that inspired me. So, I had a good idea of what might work. The runway was much fun because I made my models dance – and I saw people in the hall also standing up and dancing. It was great, I even got a feature in Italian Vogue.

GT: How amazing! Congratulations! And then?

HM: Well, I got an invitation from an Italian fashion house to go to Milan... and then COVID-19 happened, and everything came to a standstill. 

GT: You must have been heartbroken...

HM: Yes and no. Surely, missing out on several really good opportunities was hard. But that fashion show inspired me to continue working and creating. And it did pay off – during the pandemic, I applied to join the Mitreeki UN fashion incubator -- a joint project by the UN, India, East Africa Cooperation program for the creatives in Kenya and Ethiopia. The program has amazing mentors including Ann McCreath and Hebret Lakew. The incubator lasted 6 months during which I was able to design and complete my second collection that I called Intore

GT: What is Intore?

HM: Intore means “warrior” Kinyarwanda, it's a warrior dance in Rwanda that inspired my collection. I heard this song on Facebook one day in Kinyarwanda -- one of the languages they speak in Rwanda – and I got obsessed with this song. I did not understand the words, but the melody, the way women were dancing in the clip were really hypnotic. The song made me feel both romantic and nostalgic; I was listening to it almost nonstop. Then I asked one of my friends to translate the song for me. Turned out, it was written in very old Kinyarwanda; my friend had to ask her father, who was a linguist, to translate it. And even her father had to do some research, when translating the song. All in all, the translation took more than 3 weeks; and when I read the lyrics, I fell in love with the song head over heels.

GT: I am so curious....

HM: The song was about a beautiful woman, whose unique beauty was in her stretch marks, which in some African cultures are believed to be a sign of beauty, a sign that you’ve lived. So, her stretch marks went from her neck to her feet; they looked like a river, so enticing that people were drawn to her – and they would sing her name so much that their tongues would bleed. This song was so passionate and touching, it inspired me to also research the genre and the dance, which turned out to be a warrior dance from Rwanda and Burundi. It’s a very ancient dance in which women walk alongside the men on the warpath. Women carry baskets, they are gentle, they are trying to give men courage. Men, on the other hand, dance very assertively and powerfully. Men take the warrior stance and the eagle stance; this dance carries a very powerful cultural message. And the best part, people in Rwanda preserved this culture till today; every single wedding and every single ceremony you go in Rwanda, there will be Intore dance. 

So, the dance and the song became the inspiration for my Intore collection; they also made me think of the regal eagle and white peacock. I am happy with how it turned out – organized around this cultural message in a way to highlight and elevate it. 

I got to present the collection online to a group of buyers, as part of the incubator activities. I am really passionate about this collection because it enabled me to bring out the voices and stories of Africa, and show the world how different we are from what is typically portrayed as Africa and African.

GT: I also really like your idea about the fusion of African cultures.

HM: Oh, yes! I like to say that we are cultural billionaires in Africa. There are 55 countries on the continent, and each of them has multiple tribes and cultures. In Cameroon alone, we have 220 different ethnic groups with their own language, culture, food, traditions, and so on. Africa is an endless source inspiration for me! 

GT: The differences and the similarities?

HM: Absolutely! In all the differences we have, there are a lot of points of connection. You know what they tell me? That at some point, we all were one. We traveled around following our nomadic nature, we settled in different places, but this connectedness is what reminds us of our oneness, the fact that we’ve been separated by circumstances, wars, colonization and slavery. But still, as a Bantu person – I see elements of myself in people from my tribe, who now live in Tanzania, Madagascar, and South Africa. I am of Batanga descent in Cameroon. So, instead of feeling lost and confused, we need to reclaim our identity and our pride of being African, people with rich heritage, unique culture, and close-knit community.

GT: You are right! There are traditional communities that managed to protect and preserve their heritage all over the world. But this honest pride in being, who you are, seems much more wide-spread and natural in Africa.

HM: Yes, this is part of who we are. We genuinely connect with traditions, we respect communal life, families are very important to our lifestyle. I feel this is being lost in fast-paced urban clusters across the world, but connecting to your roots is the only way to not lose your identity. As a designer, I feel I have to do my part in preserving the culture and the stories in my works. 

GT: Can you tell me some of the stories weaved into your jewelry pieces.

HM: Well sure! For example, there is a large necklace on my display that has a wooden mouth place from Mursi people from Southern Ethiopia. Centuries ago, women in this tribe started wearing mouth plates as a way to deform themselves to become unattractive to slave traders. The popular belief is that there was no slavery in Ethiopia, but it is now well documented that slave traders did come to the region. And Mursi women found a way to scare away those traders. Centuries later, wearing a plate is now a tradition, a unique beauty feature of the tribe. I created a series of necklaces with Mursi plates to turn painful experiences from the past into art, because you cannot erase the past – it makes us who we are today. You can and should embrace it, no matter how painful. I also wanted to show that these plates are not part of some barbaric routine but they are about survival, creativity, resilience. It’s a tribute to humanity really.

GT: And can you tell me about those brass adornments around the plate in this necklace?

HM: The half-moons? Those are from Mali, they are made by Dogon people. Dogon people are truly fascinating! They discovered the constellation of Sirius 100 years before Europeans did, no special equipment or anything. In fact, they’ve developed astronomy long before anyone else. Until today, they believe they have connection to the stars, the moon, the constellations... In ancient times, they were believed to be communicating with inhabitants from other planets. And who knows, maybe they did. Dogon was a very advanced civilization – they had doctors and surgeons, they performed brain surgeries before modern medicine fancied that. I am truly fascinated by Dogon people. These little brass plates carry typical Dogon inscriptions – the alphabet, etc. I have a translation somewhere.

GT: I am now hooked on the stories! Please, tell me one more.

HM: Well, I can tell you about Adinkra. I use a lot of Adinkra symbols in my pieces. Adinkra are a form of an alphabet that was used traditionally by the Ashanti people in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. They painted those symbols everywhere – on fabric, on houses, on jewelry – because they defined a person’s level of nobility, their position in the society, their age and background. This language was taken away during colonization because people were only allowed to speak English and have English names.

I use Adinkra symbols as pendants on my necklaces and as decorations for my bags. This is, once again, my way of reminding people that the history of Africa did not start with colonization, and did not stop with it. There was culture before it, and there is a new culture that is rising and blossoming today. Sometimes, I think of what could have been if not for colonization; Africa could have been real-life Wakanda...

You know what I really like about the Ashanti culture? The social structure that enabled everyone to take pride in their contribution in the society. For example, if you were a farmer, you were respected for feeding people; if you were a jewelry maker, you were respected for giving people joy. It was sort of similar to the cast system in today’s Senegal – you can learn a lot about a person just from their name, almost all of their historic lineage, the main trade of their ancestors, their family location, and so on. I think a system like this offer people a solid foundation for being proud of their heritage.

GT: I completely agree with you, I think one of the most important words that you just said was “respect.” People were respected for their contribution to the society, and that’s really all there is to it – all we need for being proud, productive, and happy as humans.

HM: You are right, though let’s not be naïve – clearly a farmer would not enjoy the same level of respect as a chief. But one thing for sure – nobody was looked down at because of their occupation. 

Talking about chiefs, here is another good story for you. So, there is this beautiful textile from Cameroon that I absolutely love – it’s called Ndop. So, Ndop is a royal fabric. Until today, it is woven by hand and dyed with natural indigo into a beautiful shade of blue. And after it’s dyed, a story is painted on the fabric using old symbols. Ndop comes from the Grassfields (Fumban and Bamileke country) in Cameroon, and the one I use is made by Fumban’s Bamun people. I have a sister, who is actually a princess of Fumban. Her dad was from there; and she is part of the royal family on her father's side.

She recently gave me a piece of Ndop from her great grandmother; it's 200 years old. I framed it and hung it in my living room. I cannot believe that they managed to preserve it for 200 years; it’s a true piece of history.

Traditionally, Ndop was made by men and boys. Today, my Ndop is made by a group of women weavers, who work on the palace grounds. Just imagine, there is a group of women in a small village in Africa, whose weaving work is still supervised by a ruling king; and these women put their love and skills into this fabric that carries so much history. There is another interesting fact about the sultan of the Bamuns. One of his ancestors created an alphabet, which was lost during the colonization. But once they gained independence, sultan named Njoya used the symbols printed on Ndop to recreate the old alphabet, which he called Shumom. The Shumom is still taught in schools.

This goes to tell you that Africans did have alphabets and literacy before the colonization, but most of us – we lost them. Yet, here are the Bamun people, who not only recreated their alphabet, but they are teaching it in schools.

It’s the thinking of all the history behind Ndop that made me stop selling it as textile. I think I can still sell it as a framed piece of art, so I can continue telling its royal story.

GT: Any other interesting stories hidden in your clothing line?

HM: Well, there is a story of hope and resilience. Remember I told you that my Ethiopian Gabi (a lightweight handwoven cotton) is made by the so-called “donkey women”? In Ethiopia, the capital city of Addis Ababa is surrounded by the hills of Entoto. Those hills are where people grow eucalyptus trees, which they use for heating, cooking, fire wood in general. So, donkey women have to carry the heavy logs of this wood down the hill, where they sell it. This is a terrible trade, surely – those women carry heavy loads on their backs, they barely have anything to drink or eat the whole day, and they have to run down, so the inertia of the wood on their back can prevent them from falling down – because if they fall, they cannot get back up.  Most of their husbands are alcoholics; when the women come back with money, they take the money and go out to eat and drink. It’s a complicated situation, really. People have no education, no other means of earning income. 

GT: So, how is Afropian coming into the picture?

HM: Well, there is a group of women that I work with -- about 25 of them – who were trained by an NGO from Austria to do weaving. So, now most of my Gabi textile is produced by this group of women; I give them my patterns and designs, and they make really good products for me. I am not the only designer, who works with them. And it is very important to me to work with women and youth – the two most vulnerable groups in Africa. 

And I’ve seen the transformation that this group can have. I work with a group of weavers in Bahir Dar, this is on the Nile, they were trained by a group from India within the same UN-India cooperation agreement that I mentioned earlier. So, the group trained these women and transferred the ownership of the weaving company to them. These women are now self-sufficient, they export their textiles all over the world, they’ve always been literate and now they manage their books and finances. So, they are doing really well. So, this is my story of resilient women; and Afropian tries to be one of the contributors to their success by regularly ordering from them and by challenging them with new designs.

GT: With all these fascinating stories, I am sure you can keep yourself busy for the next few decades, and your company growing.

HM: Yes, but my main goal is to still surprise myself. I want to like what I do, even if it’s not planned but rather inspired by stories and people. I want to continue discovering messages and expressing the inspiration that I feel in a meaningful manner. I also want to be able to employ more people, have my own production space, train more people. I want to use Afropian to encourage more cultural exchanges among African artisans. One of my plans, for example, is to bring West African artisans to Ethiopia to teach dying techniques, print-making, and textile weaving.  Also, I also want to see Afropian everywhere in the world -- in shops in every major city in the world. I want to tell our story globally; and I want to see Africans inspired and encouraged to wear Africa proudly thanks to my brand. I want to make Africa proud.

GT: Wow! That’s a very noble, but huge undertaking!

HM: Well, hopefully I will have the time and maintain the passion to make it happen.

GT: Before you go, let me ask you just one last question. You said you want to still surprise yourself, to be still amazed by your discoveries. So far, what’s been your most fascinating discovery in your journey with Afropian.

HM: It’s hard to choose just one. But if I have to, I would say the story of Minos, the Amazons from Benin was the one that struck a chord with me. I only learned about them two years ago. So, King Behanzin, the last king of Benin, had this army of beautiful women, who trained since they were children to protect the king. Minos didn't have any relationships with men; they were fully dedicated to the royal family and the king. The last king f Benin was a fascinating man himself; he was such a feminist before his time. Unfortunately, he was kidnapped and sold in to slavery, and he died in America. His treasures were looted at the time. But thanks to the amazing efforts of a commission set up in France, some of those treasures are coming back to Benin this year.

GT: Amazing!

HM: Yes, there is a group of historians, including art historians, who came up with the plan to send African treasures back to their rightful owners. I believe, king Behanzin’s crown was already returned to Benin this year. 

But yes, it’s the story of Minos that stands out to me – the army of beautiful women, who could fight any men as equals. I think this is a beautiful story of women empowerment, which shows that women can be self-sufficient without men. I think it’s a good message for young girls as well; we need men, but we do not need to be dependent on men to be, who we want to be.

GT: Thank you for the story and the inspiration!