A Patchwork of Things With Sarah Nsikak
The intricate patchwork of Sarah Nsikak’s ‘La Réunion’ has been broadly acclaimed as a testament to heritage, identity, and sustainable production. Made completely of repurposed fabric, her garments tell a sartorial story of joyful liberation. Each piece is totally handmade, a labor of love carrying the wisdom of a generationally passed down craft.
Nsikak conceived of the brand while exploring the island of La Réunion, a small island off the coast of Madagascar. Though the place itself is still under French authority, the Islander’s cultural independence and approach to living gave Nsikak a glimpse into what many African nations would have looked like pre-colonialism. Translated in English as “The Meeting place,” the name 'La Réunion' serves a dual meaning, illustrating both a place and a point of action, the commitment to self-discovery ubiquitous to Nsikak’s practice.
In a time where fabrication and rendering are as technically adept as human production, a return to craftsmanship brings a revived appreciation for the delicate integrity found in the handmade. La Réunion is many things, but above all else, it is a celebration, embedded in an authentic connection to the past, present, and future.
SN: Hello, how's it going?
MW: Good, how are you? Nice to meet you both.
SN: Nice to meet you too! I'm good, it's just been a workday.
MW: Where are you calling in from?
SN: I’m currently at my apartment, but I had a meeting before this at a client’s place where I'm working on a commissioned piece.
MW: We've both been so excited to talk to you! Yesterday we were going over your work and talking about elements that resonated so personally with both of us. We wanted to start by talking about your daily practice and what that looks like.
SN: I usually start my day around 10 AM in the studio. Most weekdays I'm working by myself and have two days in the week where people come to help me. I’m usually going through what needs to be done, and what needs to go up to the factories. There's a lot of back and forth at times as the factories are based in Manhattan, but my time is usually best spent designing. This week I had a slightly different schedule as I had personal commission work outside of La Réunion. Every once in a while I'll have a home meeting or I'll just meet clients at my studio and talk there. If I'm doing a commission, I prefer to see the person's space and know what energy they want to bring to a piece of work. There’s a lot of variance with my weeks though. I tend to split them between running around for meetings and being in my studio.
MW: And in the midst of all this back and forth, what keeps you feeling sane?
SN: I take breaks walking around my studio area. The city is a stressful thing in itself, so it's good to take moments of meditation and make sure that you're not spinning out. With all the buildup of emotion that the day can carry, short breaks are so important. Like yesterday, I was in someone else's studio in my building, a brand called Orseund Iris. That was a really reinvigorating break from work, as I got to see how she set herself up in a way that is totally different from mine. It was really cool to connect with someone else that's doing a different thing in the same space. I'm also usually listening to either music or podcasts. Music and art are both really good ways to take me out of the serious and intense headspace of meeting deadlines.
MW: We would both love to know what you're listening to.
SN: I listen to a lot of Ethiopian jazz in the daytime. I have a playlist of music, which has people like Alice Coltrane and Sade. I've been really into James Blake's latest album. It's something that I can work to, and it has SZA on it and some other really cool artists as well. I often just put on Ethiopian jazz radio station in the background when people are in the studio, that’s usually my go-to. What are you guys listening to?
MW: Literally the same—we’re big fans of Ethiopian jazz at the studio.
SN: For sure. It's just easy, and it's always good.
The Herero Women of Namibia, @a.la.reunion
MW: You have this really interesting background with a variety of practices and mediums. I wonder if you could go through this a bit and tell us about the journey of creating La Réunion.
SN: It began when I was working in fashion in 2016 after graduating with my master's in art therapy. I didn't want to go back to school to get certified, as I felt 22 was way too young to become a therapist. I had a lot of little projects that I'd started before I moved to New York where I was making clothes, up-cycling, and selling them at pop-up events. That was going really well and I was enjoying it, but it wasn't my full-time thing. Officially La Réunion started in 2019, while I was working full time in e-commerce and merchandising for Mara Hoffman. I had the headspace to dive deeper into making textile art pieces as I didn't feel like I was expending that much creative energy on the business end. Eventually, I resigned from that job around February 2020—then COVID hit in March. Being at home was a totally different experience from a lifetime of working in studios and office spaces. I had a lot of research and books about Africa and ways that I wanted underrepresented stories to be shared through my work. At first, it started as a dress I made a dress for myself—a personal piece I shared on my Instagram account. I was deeply inspired by the strength and resilience of the Herero women in Namibia who were mostly wiped out by Germans in the 18th century. A small percentage of women survived and they adapted their trauma through regal and ethereal styling. Quickly, that garment took off and I was getting this long list of orders out of nowhere. It felt so special that people cared about the story and liked the dresses I was making. At the time, I was making them out of remnants I had collected from working through the years in fashion, through the years of having these connections from working in the industry, it all of a sudden became a symbiotic relationship where I was repurposing and they were supplying material.
MW: That's such a beautiful trajectory. There are so many moments in it where I hear natural synchronicity happening. I would love to take it back to the origin of your story, the roots. You mentioned that you have Nigerian heritage?
SN: I do. My parents immigrated here in the '80s to Oklahoma. It's not like it was a bad place to grow up, but in hindsight, it was predominantly white spaces which felt really limiting. There was little to no exposure to African or Eastern perspectives on the world. It was very westernized and the history lessons we were taught were limited to what was going on in our own state. However, even with something as direct as the Tulsa race massacre, we weren’t taught about that in school. I learned about that in college and I was shocked to not have known, and almost felt embarrassed because there were just so many gaps in what I knew about where I was from. That brought to me a lot of confusion and frustration about America as a whole, in the way that this country tries to hide its own history. This was also around the time when I decided that my life was going to be best served by sharing the stories that I grew up with or that I know from my family. For example, symbols and art pieces such as Hausa poufs that my mom had placed around our home. It wasn't trying to teach us about, we just had them around the house. In turn, I was exposed to the beautiful artists and crafts of my heritage on a personal level.
MW: I really resonate with that. It's incredible the amount of exposure we get from our parents in how they set up our homes as both a safe space and a reflection of the world of culture they left behind.
SN: Totally. My parents were really hard-working and that meant that they didn't really have a lot of extra time to take us to do things like going to museums or teaching us how to make art. Later on, my grandmother, who was a seamstress, moved to the States when I was eight or nine and she taught me how to sew. That was a big part of my upbringing as well—both learning from her and spending quality time with her being just us two at the house. We had a lot of cultural barriers and disconnect with each other when I was around 13, but the one thing that connected us was sewing and creating garments. It felt really right that she was there in that moment of my life and now in doing what I'm doing, it feels like it was meant to be this way. The path to La Réunion was very unconventional— I didn’t study fashion but I actually prefer that. I'm absorbing information all the time and have always been interested in learning, I still don't feel I've "graduated" in knowing what I can know about responsibly making garments. It's special to me to have taught myself, through what my grandmother taught me.
MW: I love that! I personally see that as we have academic education and then we have inherited education, traditions and practices passed down to us through generations of higher wisdom. It's really beautiful to look at the way this craft was tenderly handed to you and re-emerged later in your life. The path to practicing creativity doesn't always look like a textbook story of “I was always made to be this person.”
SN: It definitely wasn’t something I was obsessed with, but I was really interested in it. Having her teach me, made it a disciplined activity. I was mending my own stuff and learning that waste wasn't really an option. I hope more people adopt these philosophies, keeping what they already have and investing in pieces that are really special to them. Also deepening their knowledge of what goes into something they bought, and that the price often reflects what efforts were put into making the object.
MW: I'm curious to know among this range of people, places, and objects you've explored—where do you feel most at home?
SN: That’s a good question. I don't really know if it has to do with the physical place I'm in. I feel at home if I have a certain headspace and really understand what's going on. Like if I'm on a train upstate and I have a book with me, I can disconnect from everything around me and be present in that moment. To me, that feeling of presence feels like “home", the freedom of connecting with the moment that you're in is incredibly grounding. It's not very easy to do when you're working, on a deadline, or just schlepping around for day-to-day busyness, so "home" or presence hasn't been a very common feeling for me lately. There's not really a place where I can say that I always feel at home though, because even at my home in New York, I feel stressed and anxiety can come in. Connection and awareness make me feel more present which elicits that home feeling for me personally.
MW: Especially when you're from a generation that comes from a different country to the one you’re residing in—home becomes more of a feeling of being secure in oneself, rather than a physical location.
SN: Yeah I agree. It's definitely easy to free yourself up from the pressure of finding a home somewhere when you know that a "place" doesn't always cater to making you feel at home.
MW: I think we also have these different places that are all representative of who we are at any moment. Similar to the art of patchwork. You can use what feels comfortable and true to yourself from different spaces to create your own version of home within you. Us three all come from different cultural backgrounds and have wrestled with the symptoms of displacement. For people like us, it’s most important to understand that home is actually an internally crafted patchwork of things.
SN: Couldn’t agree more.
MW: Curious about the name La Réunion. Is that a place where you’ve felt close to home?
SN: I was just talking to someone about this yesterday. La Réunion itself is a French territory off the coast of Madagascar, though to me, it's still part of Africa. It's this really inspiring Island because it's so off the beaten trail. I discovered it a while back and was so intrigued by the people and the way of life. I started researching and felt it had a lot of similarities in its symbolism for what Nigeria was like before it got freedom. There's this incredible sense of pride in the indigenous ways there and not selling out to the colonization of French culture. They enjoy a lot of native things that the other surrounding don't all relate with. I enjoy thinking about post-colonial times in many African countries. Kenya for example, going through colonization and coming out of it with this resurgence of cultural pride and appreciation is really special to me. It made me think of my own story and reuniting with my family's heritage when I eventually went to college and started my own search for African history. I couldn’t have gotten that in high school as there wasn't access and also had some shame about where I was from because no one else was a first-generation American. It took being around a diverse group of people to realize that things aren’t as "America" would like them to seem. Whiteness is something that happens to black people, it's not our identity so we should never have to pander to that. It also happens to all otherized races; whiteness is the thing that makes us doubt the work of our people, which is so disappointing. It's a total blessing and gift to the rest of society that you can bring in your perspective. I felt La Réunion was a great name for a place that connected me to an ever-evolving love for my culture and reunited me with my own stories and heritage—it really can mean so many things and it excites me to think about their way of life and independence.
MW: I looked up the French translation and correct me if I'm wrong but does it translate to “the meeting”...
SN: Yeah it does!
MW: The translation is really beautiful as it implies this idea of an ever-evolving place where you’re constantly meeting a new version of yourself, or encountering a new part of your own history...Your note on post-colonial times is so poignant. It takes me back to a conversation we were having yesterday on how art from Africa or Asia gets pigeonholed or positioned as "exotic art." But if it’s something created in the West, it has the autonomy to be viewed through multiple disciplines and be nuanced in its understanding. I think it’s something that's really important and pivotal for us to break down and continue to research as we work towards our own freedom.
SN: I know, that's so true! Capitalism as well, the hold that it has on me as someone who owns a small business. Having to consume because consumption is the only way that you can participate in society— it's frustrating. As you said, it's just another way to be captive to something. I'd still rather do this from a place of celebrating cultures and heritages that have been underrepresented and misrepresented for so long. There’s a newness to the independence we have now. I always knew I was going to do it from the perspective of us amplifying our own stories and destigmatizing Nigerian creativity. So many people that I grew up with, associated us with scam artists or poverty, which is so backward. The whole idea of a third-world country is so insulting and so wrong; I don't understand why America thinks about places in these words and terms. In that way, it’s certainly redemptive for me to have a place outside of Western consumption, which is what I consider my company to be—hopefully, that’s doing something positive.
MW: It definitely is. Within the world of fine art and fashion, we have this very academic and exclusionary approach to how you see a third-world country or how you see art from non-white countries. Standing in the truth of where you come from, and using your voice, removes you from having to participate in that system. That’s the only way progress of any sort happens, and it requires a lot of integrity to know who you are, which I hear in your voice — it’s so cool.
SN: Oh my gosh that's really nice of you! I don't feel like I'm there, but it's been really helpful being in New York, having this project, having people like you guys to talk to about it with, and relate to a theme that we're all probably struggling with in different ways. That has been great. And I love Pakistani art too. I think it's so amazing. It's so intricate and special. There's so much gold!
MW: Yes, it's super opulent! I also grew up in a similar kind of headspace to you where I internalized a lot of shame and didn’t really accept that side of myself, so I love hearing you talk about coming into that acceptance and awe. Around my early 20s, I was like "wow, wait, all this stuff has been in my mom's house or with my grandma and I just never looked at it clearly..."
SN: It's so cool! One of my best friends from college is Pakistani too and that's how I found out about art. They grew up very white, but they weren’t trying to hide anything about their culture. My mom isn't either, and I'm sure your Kenyan family isn't trying to hide it in the UK. It should be like that for everyone. I think at a certain point, Black Americans have removed that culture from different generations because of the way we were taken out of our continent and brought here, it was the only way to survive here. So yeah, it's disappointing to see how many people still have that shame, and subscribe to the Western view of success, doing things they otherwise wouldn't to assimilate. Assimilation is a really unhealthy thing that I don't judge anyone for because I understand it's a means to try to survive, but it's still sad that it happens to so many of us...
MW: The fact that it's rooted in survival, is such an interesting point to note. You’re almost expected to adjust and accommodate to this system that has levers on daily ways of being and existing in this world. Survival and liberation, don't really go hand in hand until someone molds that into something else. What you're doing through La Réunion feels very liberating. A lot of the time we can be stuck waiting for the right people to come around so we can have a model to go off of, but you started despite that. It's taken off and people resonate deeply. It's really beautiful to watch and listen to you talk about.
SN: It's so nice to hear that from people who are also from this side of the hemisphere. It means a lot to hear that. And even if nothing changes, the presence of this company doesn't have to be just another company. It can have more meaning and I hope that more people feel pride in African culture when they see it in the world.
MW: We'd like to end by asking you what have been your most joyful moments in running this practice?
SN: Wow there are so many... I have a piece in The Met right now which is so crazy and feels very exciting! I have a friend who's a lawyer for The Met and she didn't know that was even happening. When she found out that my piece was in there, she explained how much they've been working and pushing for change recently. To have been a small part of that institutional change is really special to me. There are a few other black designers who are very small like me in that exhibit too. I met this other woman there who I believe was from Senegal and she was wearing an Ankara dress that she made. It was so cool to talk with her. To say we made it to The Met and our pieces are representing Africa in ways that we otherwise wouldn't have seen is massively special. The biggest thing for me right now is to have gratitude for those types of stories and opportunities, knowing that I'll continue to have these shared and celebratory experiences as I get older, it's a blessing.