Papa Oppong

Born in Ghana

Resides in Manhattan

The flurry and movement of high fashion and costuming lend themselves to an energetic viewing of an artist’s or designer’s ideas. The human form is inextricably linked to the process, and its influence is felt throughout. Papa Oppong infuses his collections with specific cultural contexts that are both deeply researched and personally lived. Coalescing around design, politics, and traditional values and practices, his works speak to a thoughtful and nuanced ode to Ghanaian women and their lives. Growing up, Oppong spent time with and learned from his mother and aunties, and he was made aware of the specific roles and parts women play in Ghanaian society. He notes, “I was always an unusual boy...I adored Barbie dolls and would be seen mostly playing with the inanimate dolls as opposed to soccer balls like my brothers did.” This interest in dolls and their malleable existence lead to an early enthusiasm for magazines and fashion which Oppong expanded upon by pursuing his current mode of inquiry. Focusing the expansive nature of clothing design through conceptual frameworks has allowed him to explore important ideas and turning points within the female experience in the Ghanaian community.

Concentrating on five stages of a Ghanaian woman’s life, Oppong highlights the more traditional milestones of Birth, Puberty, Marriage, and Death while also introducing a fifth category, Witchcraft, that comes thematically between Marriage and Death. This motif places a focus on the elder woman and her place within society. In the current collection, Birth is represented by three different looks, the middle categories each have two, and the collection ends with a powerful singular Death costume. The progression is harmonious as Oppong seamlessly melds Western fashion tropes with fabrics and elements that specifically call to both Ghanaian visual tradition and contemporary issues facing African communities. Much of the patterned fabric used in this collection was traditional Kente cloth woven in direct collaboration with Oppong. “The decision to have my fabrics woven in [...] Ghana was a very intentional one and symbolic to this collection,” he notes. By pulling directly from traditional artisans instead of recreating a facsimile, the artist is able to more fully represent the lives of the women he wishes to highlight.

Collaboration is a key part of Oppong’s practice, and he has worked with a number of other artists and designers to create his work. The sense of community is palpable as the importance of conversations and thoughtful dialogue are expressed through multiple voices all speaking together through Oppong’s creations. Specifically, the four individuals that Oppong cites as his direct collaborators all add specific touches that expand the end results beyond one artistic vision. Julia Naa Shika Odamtten worked to translate digital patterns into cut pieces that were sewn onto the final garments and referenced traditional scarification patterns. Hanson Akatti’s graphic designs became propaganda prints that turn a critical eye to the Ghanaian political system. Rachel Oswald’s accessories and embroidered hoops served as rich touchstones that enhanced the overall look by acting as object and memory reliquaries. Lastly, Derek Haffar’s work casting a Ghanaian model’s body to create (literal) breastplates and other accouterments helped to infuse an intimate sculptural quality into the collection beyond thread and cloth. All of these projects were carefully overseen by Oppong who exhibited a keen eye for letting each collaborator shine while staying true to his initial idea.

Lastly, of particular note is Oppong’s research into the witchcamps of Gambaga and the way in which his looks seek to shed light on the devaluation and problematic treatment of elderly women in society. Though not universally practiced, sometimes when older women are accused of crimes that result from perceived witchcraft, they are sent to abusive work camps like Gambaga in the north of Ghana. Seeking to flip the script, Oppong reframes the “witches” not as outcasts or criminals but as powerful women who are seeking their own way in a male-dominated society. Born in Ghana but working in the United States, Oppong is keenly aware of the cultural divide and works to bridge this gap. Pointing to the lack of historical museums or exhaustive records on the lives of the women he admires, the artist notes, “I want my clothes in the collection to act as research material just as artwork in a gallery would -to educate, inform and inspire. Had I not asked my grandmother to tell me about her childhood experiences, I would not have known of the many wonderful experiences she had. It is therefore my wish that these pieces in this collection will transcend the seasons of the fashion calendar.” By fully embracing his own upbringing and translating it through the framework of high fashion, Oppong creates a rich narrative that leaves much to be unpacked.