Hortense Mbea, founder of Afropian

Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Hortense Mbea and I’m from Cameroon. I was born in the U.S and I travelled extensively with my family growing up, all of which made me a citizen of the world, though I am very attached to my continent.

My first career is interpretation, it has been my profession for the past 17 years and it remains a true passion for me. I did, however, leave an interpreter position with a major international organisation in order to pursue other passions and set up my company, all whilst still interpreting, but as a freelancer. I have always had an artistic side, I used to draw, do ballet and jazz, I took and developed photos, I wrote, sang. As an adult I chose to focus more on my family and my trade, but there came a time when I needed that artistic outlet. That is how I founded Afropian in 2017.

How was your brand born?

I am a Panafricanist. I love my continent. I love being an African. But I did not recognize Africa in the way it was portrayed and perceived abroad and sometimes even at home. The famous single storyChimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to. For a long time, I pondered how I could bring my contribution, however small, to changing the narrative. I was already doing it in my daily life but I wanted to scale that up. And that is when the idea came: “Build on the continent’s past greatness and create. Show them that our History did not begin with Slavery and colonisation. Show them that we are the source, the beginning.” I was fortunate enough, during professional trips, to meet artisans and artists who later became my network. The next step was deciding how I would present our creativity. Having a strong bond with Ethiopia, I chose to focus on that country which is very rich artistically. I wanted to establish a bridge between Ethiopia (a country that remains somewhat disconnected from the rest of Africa, culturally and from an identity point of view) and the rest of Africa. Hence the play on words in Afropian: Afro-Ethiopian.

The brand was born in December of 2017.

Can you tell us about your creations?

I have tremendous respect for the work of artisans: be it weavers, bronzesmiths, sculptors, textile artists…. That is why all of my pieces are 100% artisanal and African. I am based in Addis Abeba, where I procure local leather, silver, brass, Gabi (hand-woven cotton cloth) and Tilet (strips of embroidery) and a few other items. I import beads, hand-woven fabric, jewellery elements and other pieces from various African countries. I then combine these elements to make my pieces. Afropian is a lifestyle brand and our goal is to “Afropianise” all aspects of daily life: we do small pieces of furniture, interior design, accessories (purses, jewellery, scarves). We do not mass produce and some of our jewellery is one-of-a-kind pieces. We want to be a luxury brand in that we believe that handmade is luxury and in that we only use noble materials, many rare and antique pieces and we pride ourselves in impeccable finishing.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by THE continent. By Africans, the beauty of our melanin, our everyday lives and our way of life. I am inspired by our kings and queens. I am also fascinated by the afrofuturistic movement, and am currently working on a collection around that theme, inspired more specifically by the Dogon people and Sirius. I am blessed to live in Addis Abeba, in an untouched country that was never colonised and remains genuine and unbridled by outside influences. These days, the Ethio-Jazz musical scene and everything that surrounds it is also a rich source of ideas. So are Ethiopian iconography and the hundreds of Coptic crosses.

I like to say that Ethiopia is what the rest of Africa would be, had our history not been interrupted by colonizers and slave traders.

Finally, my bohemian side, that comes from my basically being a global nomad, is also at the core of everything that I do.

How do you work?

I design everything and make the jewellery myself. For the rest, I use a team of tailors, a furniture workshop and a bag workshop, all based in Addis Ababa. And of course, my amazing artisans who are in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Cameroon, Mali, Ethiopia and elsewhere. And since women and youths are the two most economically vulnerable groups in Africa, I give them priority when it comes to collaborating. For instance, I work with a cooperative of female Gabi weavers here in Ethiopia. These amazing ladies used to be what we call “donkey women”, meaning that they would carry heavy loads of wood on their backs, walking tens of kilometres every day. I also work with a group of female Bogolan producers in Mali and a team of young Bogolan entrepreneurs who produce organic Bogolan in Mali.

What is your favourite part of creating?

Inspiration. No hesitation. Those rare strokes of genius that come from above. When one is inspired, it means they gave themselves the freedom to dream and that anything is possible. After that, the real work begins. The final product, when it is what I had imagined, is also a great source of joy and satisfaction.

What sets you apart?

I think that what sets me apart from other designers is the way I mix and combine elements in a sometimes unexpected fashion. Ethiopia is at the heart of most of my creations and I think that Ethiopian art and artisanal work have never been associated to work from the rest of the continent in such a way before. There is also the fact that I take painful reminders of our past and turn them into art. I use a lot of antique trade beads, for example, knowing they used to be currency for buying slaves in Africa. I was recently inspired by the mouth plates Ethiopian Mursi women used to deform their lower lips, which made them unmarketable by slave traders, during the same period.

Where can one find your products?

Afropian products are available at our showroom in Addis Abeba, in Gurdshola (can be visited by appointment) and in a couple of local galleries.

We also have an online store www.afropian.co. And one on the Afrikrea website www.afropian.afrikrea.com.

For those who cannot or would rather not pay online, they may contact us directly via our Facebook account www.facebook.com/proudlyafropian or on Instagram www.instagram.com/proudlyafropian. They can also message us through our website and we will discuss other options.

Thank you and God bless Africa!

Promotion de l’Art Africain