An interview with The Art of Resilience’s Anyango Mpinga

Photo of fashion designer Anyango Mpinga

Lewa Next Gen’s The Art of Resilience will premiere in New York City from September 1–11, 2021 at the High Line Nine in partnership with Montague Contemporary. The exhibition captures the stories and faces of individuals living and working around Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya.
One of the eight contemporary Kenyan and British artists showing at the exhibition, fashion designer Anyango Mpinga is known for her eco-friendly fashion collections that feature architectural elements infused with her takes on traditional prints. Her works designed for this exhibition are a physical memorial to the women persevering to have an active role in Kenyan society outside of the home.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. What techniques and subject matters do you work with? How did you come to enter the worlds of contemporary art and fashion?
I was born and raised in Nairobi, which is also where I founded my eponymous, sustainable brand. I’ve always had an affinity for creative expression from a young age, so when I got older, I found my voice in story-telling through fashion. My main sources of inspiration tend to be nature, African culture, history, and architecture. Textile design is a big part of my process, and it’s one of the ways in which I share cultural stories from Kenya and other parts of Africa.

Do you have a particular process you go through when beginning a new piece?
Research is a big part of my process. Before embarking on any project, I always think of the message behind the collection, how it fits into my brand values, and how the message in each collection serves our communities.

Where do you draw inspiration from?
Social and environmental justice are a recurring theme in my work — I always go back to how these themes can be expressed through the lens of my multi-cultural heritage.

What role do you feel the artist plays in society?
Artists have this unique ability to mirror our society through our work, and it’s one of the fundamental ways to connect to each other as a human family. How else would human beings understand the real impact of color and how its use can evoke different emotions that have the power to influence your actions? Artists have the power to influence transformation by changing mindsets of different subject matter through their reflection of our world.

What inspired you to get involved with Lewa Next Gen’s art exhibition for Lewa Wildlife Conservancy?
I have always loved nature and environmental conservation. It’s aligned with my brand values around sustainability and implementing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. When I was invited to be part of the community of artists taking part in The Art of Resilience, I wanted to explore stories and the unique interaction between wildlife and the people ensuring the safety of our wildlife through conservation efforts and education.

Why is this project meaningful to you?
Human beings are the custodians of our planet — we are here to serve it, so this is simply a part of my service to the planet.

Tell us about your pieces that will be exhibited by Next Gen.
I’ve created some print designs that include portraits of the people who work at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, presented in unique silhouettes through my brand’s signature dotted patterns, as well as incorporating some of the animals protected through the conservancy. While working on this, it was important that my work would reflect the positive interaction between the community at Lewa, nature, and wildlife. I’m working with sustainable materials that include upcycled fine gemstones. I’ve also collaborated with a textile manufacturer that I have worked with for years; Ratti in Italy. Ratti is a leading sustainable textile manufacturer for the luxury industry and has invested in manufacturing processes that respect people and the environment. My pieces for the exhibition will be an integration of unique pieces using fine crystal mesh, as well as textiles with unique woven textures to showcase the prints I designed for this exhibition. There will be some wearable limited edition pieces forming part of my collection.

How has COVID impacted your work and have you seen your work shift in the past year?
It’s been one of the toughest years for me yet. Not only did I have to make a new home in a new environment to adjust to the impact of COVID, factoring in travel restrictions, but it also has felt like I was starting my life over and building my brand from the ground up while adjusting to new modes of business. My supply chain has been slightly impacted by COVID as well, so I’ve had to go back to the drawing board and adjust my model a little bit to sustain myself. Being able to create gives me a sense of joy, so the process of working on this project has given me some much needed joy as a means of expression.

What is the latest initiative you are working on?
My non-profit Free As A Human is a big part of my journey in fashion and is another way for me to serve. For years, I ran it through my social enterprise, and I finally made the transition to setting up a non-profit to allow for partners and collaborators to better support our education program for female survivors of human trafficking. I have also recently collaborated with UK sustainable footwear brand Vivobarefoot to do a special edition of shoes for the Lewa Marathon, also in support of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

Through a range of mediums, art can inform and inspire viewers to explore new ideas. How does art — particularly African art — connect viewers with conservation?
Conservation in Africa has always been viewed from a colonialists’ lens because a lot of the wildlife conservation organisations are founded by non-African natives. Oftentimes, grassroots communities haven’t engaged much in conservation initiatives because of this perception. Engaging African art and artists will inspire more local communities to prioritise wildlife and environmental conservation, as we can no longer adapt the view that it’s someone else’s problem — it affects all of us. Art that is created by people who understand their own environment is so much more relatable, while also providing a mirror of what life looks like from African artists to the global community. One of the key differentiators with Lewa, and the main reason that I love working with them, is that the organization is Kenyan-run and more than 80% of Lewa’s employees come from local communities.

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Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

A collective bringing together like-minded young adults from across the world, Lewa Next Gen aims inspire the next generation to transform conservation.