Artist Smaïl Kanouté: From Paris to NYC
Dancing his way from Paris to New York City, Smaïl Kanouté’s ambitions have yet to slow. In the summer of 2018, Kanouté traveled to New York City for a video festival, and the energy of the city inspired him to photograph his latest collection-collaboration between his fashion brand Wear’t and screen printer Plasti Max, as well as begin a new video project on the streets in the Bronx and expand his designs to sneakers with Paris-based brand PANAFRICA. Aleyah Solomon caught up with Kanouté following our previous talk in the Paris Issue.
Aleyah Solomon: Your latest collection is called ‘AFRONINPO’. Where does this word come from?
Smaïl Kanouté: AFRO is an English word (African), NINPO is a Japanese word which means patience, working, endurance – a word used in the Ninja universe, and I like the Manga universe, so to me, this is a good word to use when talking about my work.
AS: Yes, it works with your aesthetic. So, the last time we caught up with you was for our Paris Issue in “Kinetic Kaleidoscope”. ‘AFRONINPO’ is your latest collection with Wear’t?
SK: Yes, this is my label, Wear’t’s latest collection which really embellishes my signature style, because in a word we are free and this is a collection for my community of Wear’t. I collaborated with Plasti Max who is a silk screen printer in Paris, and we worked on this collection over the year. It was created in the same style of Wear’t as they are each unique pieces created with silk screen printing technique.
AS: Your collection has some gray and black shirts and then you have bold primary colours (bright red, blue and yellow) for your sweatshirts. Can you tell me a bit about the colours you chose?
SK: The first designs were the black and white tshirts. In the summer, I went to New York to present my (dance) show in an activist festival called ‘Performing the World’ and decided to bring some of the shirts with me. Our friend, Henri Coutant, who is a photographer was shooting fashion week at the time so we decided to shoot the shirts there. It was cool because people passing on the streets stopped to say I should show my collection in New York. I feel the mentality in New York City is about movies, fashion, art…
AS: It’s really great because you are from Paris, you create in Paris and yet, your designs work on so many different levels; it is not exclusive to Paris, or even the other places that inspire your style – your designs are universal.
SK: Yeah, I made the shirts in Paris and did the first shoot in New York and for me, there is no border. It is a way of meeting different cultures which is the goal of the project, and the project echoes the different cultures through the designs. After the t-shirts, I came back to Paris and wanted to continue the capsule collection so I proposed to Plasti Max to make the sweatshirts – in three bold colours. I chose different grays, as well, rather than just the basic, so people can wear them in all the seasons.
AS: Yeah, for sure, so someone like me, I love gray – I do love colour too, but gray is a staple in my wardrobe!
SK: [laughing] Well I tell people, don’t be afraid of colour! You can choose from many colours and be proud to wear them! When you are proud to ‘be’ this colour, no one will say ‘oh this is strange, why are you wearing this colour?’.
AS: I notice so many people wear black and gray, myself included, and then you wear a bold colour and people always pay so many compliments!
SK: Yeah, that’s it! And with the yellow, red and blue, these pop colours are now in trend – bold colours I saw when I came back to Paris. Fashion aside, I actually went to New York for dance and to create a new video that will come out in 2019.
AS: What is the video about?
SK: It is a graphic and activist video. I talk about gun violence in the Bronx neighbourhood and it includes some testimonies inspired by locals there. We also shot in other neighbourhoods, Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx.. talking about the pain that so many people are familiar with, yet also talking about hope.
AS: Oh wow, sounds powerful. Did you find the energy different in New York than in Paris?
SK: The energy is more positive (in New York), more of the ‘go get it’, ‘just do it’ motivational energy. People are more open to ideas and you can talk with everyone. The people there work very hard. These people have one or two or even three jobs and I feel the creation never stops. New York never sleeps!
AS: I love that about New York! The city is always energetic, no matter what time it is!
SK: Also, I found that in New York, many people want to know more about the African origin. When I danced in my show, afterwards some black people told me it was great but they didn’t understand everything, still they felt many things. I feel Afro-American people want to discover more about the African culture and African design because for them, the story begins in America. Their Afro-American history begins in the slavery, and for them, it misses their actual roots. This is why I chose to use African masks on the sweatshirts to say ‘go to your roots’ and try to connect you to your roots to understand who you are. When I designed the African masks with the Japanese design, I saw that some masks have similarities though they are from different cultures. On the yellow shirt, the mask (the god of water) is the same in the Laponic culture.
AS: Did you know this prior to mixing these styles?
SK: No, I didn’t know this before creating them, but when some people saw the mask, they commented that it is the same in their culture. I understand the masks and the culture were created by man and there are many similar things that happen in different cultures and I will continue on this way.
AS: You have taken four styles from Mali, Japan, Mexico and Australia. Is there a specific connection you have to these four places?
SK: For Japan, I grew up with Manga and the Japanese animation and I love this universe because in Manga, they also succeed in mixing cultures. For example, Russian culture mixed with African culture to create the Manga. And it is with this in mind that I created my collection mixing the four styles. I have never been to Mexico but I really like the Mayan culture and design and this culture really speaks to me on many levels. With Australia, I looked to Aboriginal design and I used this in the white t-shirts. The idea is to use Aboriginal design to mix with Japanese and African design to create both a new world and a new perspective of the design. When you design something, you create a new world and a new meaning and this is exciting, because when people see this, they can say ‘oh wow, this is from Japan or this is from Africa’ and really relate to the new design mixing all these worlds together. I have had the opportunity to travel around the world to many places, and, through my creations, am able to give others the chance to travel where I have gone.
AS: I understand, as it is something I do myself with my photos – you can share your experiences and allow others to have insight into both the places you go and how you see things. Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to discuss?
SK: I will be presenting a book with the photographer Sonikem, dedicated to Afro-Asiatique people. We are making portraits, I think ten different portraits, of people who are African-and-Asian mixed; I believe it is called ‘Blasian’.
AS: Oh cool, I have never heard of this before!
SK: Yes, I just learned this, it is Black and Asian mixed together.
AS: Oh nice! Well I just learned a new word!
SK: [laughing] Same! And also, coming in summer 2019, I will be presenting a model of sneakers with French brand Panafrica. We are working on two models of shoes sporting my designs!
By Aleyah Solomon
Photos provided by Smaïl Kanouté