- In an exclusive interview with YEN.com.gh, Ghana's only creative expert opens up about her career and all the international movies she has worked on so far
- AFRIYAH spoke about working with local craftsmen to meet deadlines and her travel odyssey
- The costume designer called on investors to invest in the Ghanaian movie industry as it has young creatives in diverse fields who can uniformly produce blockbuster movies to tell African stories
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Ghanaians born in the nineties have seen the best of local movies such as Diabolo, Mamma Mia and theatrical dramas like Obra and Osofo Dadzie by great actors such as David Dontoh and Grace Omaboe, popularly known as Maame Dokono.
These stories were real and relatable as they told the rich Ghanaian story in its true representation while showcasing the country’s rich culture and heritage in its full glory. Such works of art served as references for the youth to learn about the traditions and customs of the motherland.
With the revolution of the Ghanaian movie industry and the introduction of new actors such as Yvonne Nelson, Nana Ama McBrown, and Jackie Appiah, the costume department of the film and television industry has been underappreciated but fully represented.
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Costume designers play a pivotal role in the production of every film, from pre-production to the final production, until the cameras are turned off. Continuity is very important in film production; this is where costume designers provide actors with new costumes identical to those worn a day before on set to continue shooting a scene the next day.
There should not be differences, Ghanaian costume designer, AFRIYAH discloses in a conversation with YEN.com.gh’s fashion editor, Portia Arthur.
Start of AFRIYAH’s career as a costumier
Born in Ghana with a degree from the International Academy of Design & Technology in Tampa, Florida, USA, AFRIYAH, whose real name is Nana Afriyie Frimpong, has always had a passion for designing. Although her parents were against her dreams, they eventually supported her in pursuing them.
Ever since my childhood, I have known that my talent had to do with design, something creative. When I was younger, I liked fashion because that was what I was exposed to. Even though it wasn't possible here. I had to struggle to get my parents to agree to it but eventually, they supported me fully.
In doing that, I learned that I had other fields. It was my passion for designing that pushed me to it but I have moved from fashion to television, styling to celebrity styling different things in the creative industry.
She started her creative journey as a celebrity stylist working with prominent stars like Nana Ama McBrown and Ama K. Abebrese and through that, she bagged her first international gig as an assistant costume designer and local coordinator for the movie Beasts of No Nation.
I used to style Ghanaian actress, Ama K Abebrese for a program at TV3 and she was scheduled for an audition for a role in Beasts Of No Nation movie. I met the producer and he asked for my resume and he chose me to work with the team.
The 2015 American-Ghanaian war film was shot in Ghana starring Hollywood star Idris Elba and Ghanaian actors Abraham Atta, Ama K. Abebrese, and Grace Nortey, amongst others.
After 18 years of building her consultancy firm, AFRIYAH was contacted in September 2021 during the pre-production stage of The Woman King Movie to get authentic West African fabrics for the warriors in the movie.
Initially, I was contacted to just work on getting them fabrics because obviously it is a West African Village and it was been shot in South Africa so they need authentic West African cloth. So that was the only thing, in the beginning, it had nothing to do with us actually working on here. It was me just buying some fabrics. That was the initial thing.
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But then after we spoke, they had to have weavers and all that already but I guess I don't know what came to their mind about my work. We began conversations about how they needed craftsmen from here to produce textiles that will be worn by the warriors for training and when they were going to war.
After her submission and constant communication with the crew, she was signed on board to assist with costume designing for the project and specifically to work on woven fabrics to be sewn as training gear and war clothes for the warriors of the movie.
AFRIYAH is Ghana’s only crew member on the production of The Woman King, which stars academy award-winning actress Viola Davis. According to pundits, the movie raked in $19 million in its opening weekend.
The Woman King tells the true story of an all-female warrior unit, the Agojie, who protected the West African Kingdom of Dahomey from the 17th to 19th centuries.
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Delving into details about how she could meet the requirement and deadline, AFRIYAH disclosed that although there were reference materials like pictures of how warriors used to dress back in the days, she did her own research by visiting various art centres and museums in Ghana for more insights. She learnt about the patterns of the fabrics before embarking on the journey to the Northern part of Ghana to scout for local artisans in remote areas equipped for the task.
They wanted authentic woven materials. You know back in those times, warriors wore things that looked more woven like the boho and batakari kind of stuff from the Northern part of Ghana. We had lots of reference pictures of how the people of that time dressed for war. So based on those pictures, conversations came that we had to get stuff woven.
As an expert, she explained how she could meet the Hollywood and international standard of measurements requested by Gersha Phillips, the official costume designer.
She recalled how her first course at the International Academy of Design & Technology, which was about measurement, has really helped her throughout her career and on this particular project.
Ideally, she meets with the movie's cast, holds conversations about their individual style, and sketches on paper before working on the physical project.
However, on this occasion, all communication was done via voice and video call as the cast was shooting in South Africa.
It was a whole army, basically everyone in the army. We had to work while they were filming. It was so much, I had to send stuff in batches going back and forth. I was constantly on the road, traveling to the north back and forth, airport, South Africa. Back and forth. It was quite a busy time in my life.
As part of the measures for meeting the requirement, AFRIYAH explained that she had to organize classes and on-the-job training for every local artisan she employed in the Northern region of Ghana to work on the project.
They were educated on selecting the right tread size and weaving according to the dimensions provided. She taught them how to select the exact color for every design to avoid distorting the continuity on set.
We had costume designs from Gersha. On my side, I had to work with textiles, making sure the artisans were able to correctly manifest or produce what Gersha has put together for us to achieve. My job was to ensure that the design for the warriors looks the same. Because you know for film, we need continuity, you can't have things looking different. Every piece of fabric had to look the exact same so that is why it couldn't just be anybody. It had to be someone who understands film, who understands design, who understands craftsmanship to oversee these craftswomen ensure that the designs are perfect.
Although these artisans have years of experience, the dimensions for this project were different from the regular measurements they were accustomed to, hence the extra training to meet the volumes of fabrics requested.
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With the limited time schedule, the Ghanaian expert added that she resorted to gifts such as delicacies, and cakes as a form of motivation for the local artisans from different villages working uniformly to meet the deadline.
It was very tough convincing the artisans to meet the deadline. I always go to the grocery stores to buy cakes and sweets, things that they don't have there. I had to leave super early or late at night and pack a suitcase full of stuff for them because it was really tough and they are not used to working under pressure. They are not used to doing a large number of things at once. Because I needed so much, it was people who knew each other, I got people from here and there. It was truly an endeavor.
Moving from one village in Bolgatanga or a town in Tamale, AFRIYAH told YEN.com.gh that she had to rely on her driver, who doubled as her security personnel for late night travels and early morning flights.
She recalls several instances where they had to find shelter at the closest guest house or motel late in the night and head back to the production center early in the morning. According to her, this is usually the routine when she is working on a huge production with a high budget and there is no room for excuses or mistakes.
In this instance, because I had to travel so much and go to all manner of villages and towns I didn't know anybody there, it literally means I am driving and sometimes I get back so late that I don't get back to the hotel. I had to find wherever was closest because the north is wide, from the airport I drive 4 hours to get to a place and 4 hours back to the city.
Mostly I was in Boltgatanga, but I went to other towns in Tamale. The risk was like it's in the middle of the night and I get to a hotel like 1 am and it's just us on the road. Anything can happen like raiding but with costume, with film work, with an international level type of work. It is such a system, there are protocols. there is no room for excuses. When you agree to sign that contract you have to bring results.
Again, I have had practice by the grace of God, most of the films I have worked on, including Beasts Of No Nation, we were traveling in all kinds of bushes and forests. I have worked on another film where we filmed in Elmina, we were doing a whole of traveling. I have had experiences that by the grace of God if you push through you will achieve results.
Of course, I didn't try to put myself in danger, I always had a man. My driver was always with me and also knew we were on a deadline and had to push through.
She added that working with some cast members and crew in Ghana was surreal. Some scenes of the movie were shot in the western region of Ghana and around the Busia Resort. According to AFRIYAH, she felt proud to see the warriors look regal in the warrior clothes during the shot in Ghana.
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The scenes we shot in Ghana were of village life.
It felt really amazing to see the warriors in the beautiful textiles. this is where on behalf of the young people especially Ghanaian creatives because for me, my whole life has been such a struggle to be able to stay in this lane as a creative.
I have worked on other films but this is the biggest one and to get a message from a friend that her daughter was so inspired that I have worked on this because literally when you watch the film almost every scene that has people in it are wearing a piece of fabric that is from this country and it all passed through me because they found a creative in this country that could do the work.
They couldn't just pick somebody if there was no track record. The years where I was working and nobody knew me built the track record and they saw that were okay we don't need to come to Ghana we can trust this person to deal with all these things.
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It felt really exciting, I was happy but the biggest joy was the fact that somebody watching the movie will have that hope to know that it is possible. There is nothing wrong with you if you want to work in the creative field and you can also represent your country as a creative.
Reminiscing about her childhood, she explained that it has always been a struggle to remain relevant as a creative and not to do something that is white-motivated. Growing up, she has always tried to express herself creatively and people tagged her as a non-conformant, pushing her into a box she didn’t belong.
She had to push harder to break barriers to attain a successful résumé. Addressing the youth who might be in a similar situation, especially those who think it's impossible to make it while living in Ghana, she said she hoped her story would motivate them to work harder towards their goals.
Unlike Beasts of No Nation, where other Ghanaian actors were on board, she was the only creative expert representing Ghana in this historic movie.
All the years of hard work have really paid off because whenever a movie lover watches the movie, they get to admire the team's creativity – all fabrics were woven from Ghana and shipped to South Africa for production.
AFRIYAH has also worked in the costume department for other international films, including the Burial of Kojo, Guldkysten, Joseph, Borga, Aloe Vera, Born of the Earth, and Wizkid’s Grammy-nominated “Made in Lagos” deluxe short film.
The future is very bright, to focus on the next generation who has a passion for the art and creative industry business. Taking it to the next level and making our own films because it is possible. We have teams, we have people here who are creative. My consultancy deals with developing the youth inside. We also have a production company where we can make our own films; it's making African stories, and Ghanaian stories into beautiful blockbuster movies like this too.
All we need is the money because nobody is going to bring a hundred million dollars to us to make films but I think when we are able to work on projects like this one, investors and people can see that this is possible in Ghana we can do it.
Look at all the attention this movie is getting, imagine if this movie was done in Ghana. on the social media side, people are complaining that they are stealing the story and this and that but I am like you can look at the fact that for the first time ever, we can see females, black African females representing on global screens. They need to open that door and today some billionaires will be willing to give Afriyah five million dollars to make a movie. But somebody must first do and eyes will see it is possible and then open the door for us to tell our own stories because we are ready, we have the team but things like that opens the door for us to tell our own stories.
To cap it off, AFRIYAH called on investors to invest in Africa, especially the Ghanaian film industry, because many talented creatives are doing well in various fields.
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