The stunning colors of black culture

Exhibit and clothing store showcase black beauty

Ghanaian-American Rita Mawuena Benissan showcases the stunning colors of black culture in her photography exhibit “The Black Aesthetic,” on display now through this summer on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in Ingraham Hall, Room 206.

For the series of portraits, the UW-Madison MFA student and interdisciplinary artist photographed African and African-American students. She didn’t tell her subjects to dress a certain way. “I [left] it open to how they emphasize their own blackness or cultural background, which connects with bright clothing and accessories,” Benissan says. “If you look through fashion when it comes to black culture, it is filled with amazing colors.”

Benissan’s portraits feature a black or brown background, which highlights her subjects’ skin color, patterned clothing, bright du-rags and golden jewelry. “Celebrating black culture through my pictures is also celebrating the different identities when it comes to the views of what blackness is,” says Benissan. -AB

African Accouterment

The stunning colors of black culture

The first time I happily stepped onto the African continent in Kenya, East Africa, I was stunned by all the vibrant colors in the flora and fauna. Returning to Madison and its white winters five years later, I constantly dreamed of purple jacaranda trees, the plethora of flowers and the bursts of color in African fabrics. The African continent is a brightly colored environment that directly influences fashion, but there are ancient, cultural meanings and stories embedded in the beautiful colors and distinctive designs of exquisitely hand-woven African fabrics.

When you step inside the African and American Store at 2750 E. Johnson St. in Madison, you get that same glimpse of the vivid colors of Africa. Store owners Mamadou and Mariama Diallo of Guinea, West Africa, sell African clothing, jewelry and cooking items. A bestseller is kente, a hand-woven cotton fabric that originated in 17th century South Ghana with the Ashanti people who lived there. It is a well-known African fabric with a bright mix of golds, yellows, reds, blacks, greens, blues and geometric shapes interwoven in contrasting bands or blocks. Each intricately designed piece conveys messages about African history, culture, philosophical concepts, political thoughts, religion or moral values.

Colors in African people’s fabrics also have specific meanings. In Kente, gold represents status and serenity. Yellow symbolizes fertility and vitality. Green signifies prosperity, the renewal and growth seen in plants and the cycle of birth and decay. Blue represents the presence of God and the omnipotence of the blue sky. Blue also refers to a pure spirit that rests in harmony. Red connotes passion of political determination, struggle and defense. The Ashanti people also believe that red holds protective powers, while black denotes seriousness and a union with ancestors and implies spiritual awareness. Visiting the store offers the colors of Madison, African style. -FPC

This article is part of the April cover story “50 Things That Give Madison Color.” Click here for the full story.