African by Design | Mingei International Museum

African by Design: Form, Pattern, and Meaning in African Craft features over 100 works of African craft, including furniture, pottery, basketry, textiles, jewelry, clothing, weapons, currency, and more. The objects originate from many areas of Africa, and are part of layered cultural stories and histories. Each work invites us not just to consider the object, but also the maker - a person often unknown to us - whose inspiration and sense of design made an everyday object extraordinary.

One of the fantastic makers featured in this exhibition is fashion designer Lalitibe “Lili” Lare. Lili was born in Togo, West Africa, and arrived in San Diego over twenty years ago. She is the owner of Lili Kouture, a dress shop selling African clothing, which has been a fixture in City Heights for years. Educated at College St. Joseph in Lome, Lili (who had been trained to follow a pattern) began designing her own clothes and creating her own patterns. Her garments have been featured in numerous fashion shows, including The Fall Fashion and Auction Show at the Hilton Hotel in Mission Valley, San Diego Fashion Week, RAW Fashion Week in Los Angeles, and The Hollywood & African Prestigious Award (HAPAWARDS) Foundation in Hollywood, CA, where she was a nominee for best African Designer.

In April of 2023, Lili closed her brick-and-mortar store and is transitioning to an online business. She will divide her time between San Diego and Togo, pursuing her vision of establishing a ministry and orphanage there, which will be called Aliyah Fire Ministry Orphanage.

Recently, Mingei Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator, Emily Hanna sat down and spoke with Lili about her work and what lies ahead for her. You can read a condensed version of that interview below or listen to the full conversation on our app here or listen to it on your desktop here.

We're sitting this morning in front of a beautiful coat that you made, and it's on view on the Museum's Commons Level. Can you tell me about this extraordinary coat? I'd love to know more about your inspiration for making it.

One thing about me is, when I'm going to places, I make sure I make new clothes. Every time I'm going to a new party, gala, reception, or wherever, I make sure I design something new. So, I made this coat for a large event knowing I had to design something new, something no one has seen before! The fabric that I used is one a client gave to me. I had to design something that went with the pattern – you know I had to make sure the pattern stayed the way it is. So, I decided to make the coat. And it came out beautifully. I went to the reception, and I was the only person there wearing something like this. No one has this coat!

And I'm not selling. I'm not selling. I'm not selling it!

Lili, tell me about how you first became interested in sewing.

When I was going to high school in Africa, when you failed a class, you had to restart the class. So, when I failed one class, I was like, no, I can't go back again. I have a dream. I have something else to learn. So, I went to talk to my dad. My dad said, no, you have to go to school. Everyone is going to school. You have to go to school. I said, no, I'm going to learn how to sew. I want to be a designer. And he said, well, okay.

I went to the school and signed up for three years, but after one year, I completed the exam and passed. But because it's a contract, you must still finish the three years. I had to wait for two years before I could graduate. During that time, I realized that this is my passion and my dream. A three-year program and I finished in one year — that's how I know I'm going to be a designer and that's what I want to do.

In a previous conversation, you told me that you were trained to follow a pattern, and then you began designing your own clothing. How did you make that decision?

Yes, at school, they teach you how to make clothes using a pattern. And when I was doing that, in school, everything was fine, and I could do it. But one day I thought, if I look at the clothes and imagine it in my mind, I think I can cut it right away. So, I say, okay, let me try. And then I tried. And ever since then, I’ve been designing without a pattern.

In addition to work by Lili, African by Design features objects held and used every day – a favorite water jar, for example, or a well-constructed gathering basket, a comfortable headrest, a woven robe, or a forged iron blade. On top of their importance as well-made, functional objects, African crafts are often visually stunning. Objects of furniture feature bold, unexpected forms. Brilliant textiles dazzle with color and pattern. Clay vessels draw attention because of their striking shapes and silhouettes, and because of the applied designs meant to be felt with the hands, as well as seen.

The exhibition is on view until September 17, 2023, and visitors can learn more about traditional and contemporary African craft by attending our African Rhythms: Celebrating Family and Design Day or listening to storyteller Alyce Smith Cooper at The African Tapestry: Weaving Stories through Design.

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