The FIMA: miracle or mirage?

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The first International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA) was held in the midst of the Aïr-Ténéré desert’s dunes in Niger last November. This exceptional cultural event, in both technical and financial terms, posed several vital questions.

« It was certainly mad to organize such an event, but it was a positive madness for both the continent and the country, Niger, which has suffered ten years of fighting ». These words rung out like a leitmotif at every press conference, in every interview, as the founder of the Fima, the famous Nigerien designer Alphadi (whose full name is Seidnaly Sidahmed Alpladi), repeatedly justified his extravagant initiative: organizing a sumptuous fashion show that brought African and Western designers there where no one else would have imagined, right in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the Aïr-Ténéré desert, in a splendid theatre of sand dunes.
It is hard to imagine the vast technical and logistical means mobilized to organize this three day festival in Tiguidit, sixty odd kilometres from Agadez and some 1000 kilometres north of Niamey, the capital of Niger, without having actually seen them. No less than an actual village was built to accommodate the 1500 carefully selected guests, most of whom came from France and Europe. Eighteen kilometres of road were built to provide access to the site. A multitude of tents made by Tuareg women were hired and set up by workers from the region. All told, 1400 people (700 women and some 700 technicians employed on the site) worked for a month to transform the 300 hectare area of virgin dunes into a tourist camp. A camp with 800 two-person tents, four restaurants, exhibitions stalls, and of course, next to the vast catwalk, the site’s central hub: a vast cabin sheltering the sixty invited models’ dressing rooms.
A Festival of paradoxes
The Fima was clothed in a surreal atmosphere in all respects, as if the event had forced its way into the real world, clashing irremediably with the surrounding environment. It has to be said that holding this kind of event in « the most beautiful desert in the world », as Alphadi described it, was not without its paradoxes.
First of all there was the financial paradox. This three day festival is said to have cost between 500 and 600 million F CFA (5 to 6 million FF), not to mention the sponsors’ additional investments, in one of the poorest regions of the world.
One could not help but be struck by the cultural antimony too. In a conservative Muslim country like Niger, was it right to have half-clad models parading on the catwalk? All the designer presented their ‘sexy’ collections with breasts or thighs bared. But the real hiatus came from one of the Fima’s main sponsors being none other than a famous Northern European brand of Vodka, who decided to have 12 tonnes of ice delivered to the Tiguidit sands, where they melted in the sun irrespective of the fact that water is the most precious commodity that exists in the desert.
Thanks to its prestige, the first International Festival of African Fashion (Fima) managed to mobilized patrons from all over the world. Until now, very few cultural events in Africa had managed such a feat.
One of the overseas sponsors, France Telecom set a huge satellite dish up on the Tiguidit dunes. Thanks to the dish, a true ‘business centre’ was set up in one tent and a dozen phones, faxes and computers linked up to the internet were put at the guests’ disposal.
Of the thirty or so Nigerien sponsors, Sonichar (the Nigerien Anou-Araren Coal Company) agreed to electrify the whole site with a super-powerful generator. White neon lights lined the alley ways from one end of the village to another, and each tent had electricity…
A technical feat or a flashy display of megalomania? Whatever the case may be, it was an incredible material investment for a three day festival… not to mention the lorry-loads of food, sound and light equipment and the hundred odd land cruisers which ferried the audience to the site.
The politicians’ blessing
For all its prestige, a simple fashion show would certainly never have received such backing. As well as being a cultural event, the Fima was also more or less overtly shot through with socio-political considerations, the first of which was the attempt to improve the international image of Niger’s Head of State, Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara, who came to power in 1996 after a coup d’Etat. Niger’s government indeed backed Alphadi’s dream right from the word go. In financial terms, the Nigerien state contributed 30 million F CFA (300 000 FF) to the festival’s total budget. More important still, however, was the President and several members of the government’s (notably Mrs Aïssa Diallo, the Minister of Tourism and Craft, and Mr Rhissa Ag Boula, former head of the Tuareg rebellion now ministerial delegate for tourism) personal backing and engagement which allowed the event to go ahead in the Agadez region which was still in a precarious state not so long ago. Without them, it seems, Alphadi’s dream would have never got off the drawing board.
Every time the designer spoke publicly, he accordingly never missed the opportunity to sing the praises of Niger’s rulers, at times in his own special way, like at the protocol opening of the fashion show when, in front of the cameras and the President, he enthused « The President was as crazy as me to have believed in this project! ». To which the President replied, as he came up on stage to speak next, « Alphadi, you went right to the end of the mirage, you made it come true (sic) ».
Officially, one of the Fima’s objectives was to testify to the complete resumption of peace after ten years of fighting in northern Niger. The signing of the last peace treaty between a faction of the Tuareg rebellion (the FDR, Front démocratique pour le renouveau) and the government in N’Djamena, dates back to last August. Even though several pockets of resistance remain, the great majority of the rebels have now laid down their arms. Mr Rhissa Ag Boula, the rebellion’s ex-chief’s integration into the government, has been symbolic. Today, the urgent question of the rebels’ social reintegration remains. By deliberately blending fashion with politics, the first edition of the Fima aimed to be « a chance for peace and tourism to return to Niger », or a kind of « super celebration » to relaunch the region, to reinforce peace, promote local crafts, encourage the return to tourism, strike up development partnerships, etc.
A divided population
« We haven’t got schools, but we have got talent! I dedicate the Fima to my people and to African designers who have suffered a great deal for the recognition of their art. » Alphadi was easily fired when describing Africa’s crafts talent in general, and Niger’s in particular. Cooperatives of artisans from all over the country came to Tiguidit to sell their products. Delighted to have been invited to come to the event, many of them claimed to be disappointed at the end by their sales. Perhaps this was due to the unfortunate sand storm that blew the only day the guests spent on the site?
Nearly a thousand of Agadez’s inhabitants (hoteliers, carpenters, electricians, traders, Tuareg families who hired or put up the tents) benefitted from the festival, however. The rest of the population seemed to be divided on the whether or not the festival was a good idea. Whilst the region’s marabouts and Islamic associations spoke out against what they deemed to be a « ceremony of perversion », young Nigeriens, on the other hand, massively backed the event, even if the price of the tickets to the fashion show (150 000 F CFA, or 1 500 FF) was way beyond their dreams.
This simultaneously highly-acclaimed and controversial show lasted over three hours. Thirty-one designers from three continents, about twenty of whom were African, presented their works on the Agadez cross-shaped catwalk, interspersed with musical interludes including a mediocre Desert Opera, entirely in playback, sung by stars such as Aïcha Koné, Nahawa Doubia, Neil Olivier and Meiway, the only one who came out of the affair unscathed.
One of the most striking images of the Fima 98 were the real Bororo Fulani standing in the cold night, posted like ornaments, along each side of the catwalk, bare chested, faces painted, gazing in incredulous amusement at the parading models.
Bordering on a living dream, at times magical, the fashion show which was talentedly choreographed by Douskhaka Langhöfer, lived up to expectations. Unlike the organization of the festival, which was noteworthy for its serious shortcomings. Some technicians went unfed for two days. No meeting was organized for the designers, and there wasn’t a festival information point.
« Everyone will go home to their respective countries tomorrow without having met one another » one designer lamented at the end of the show. Not to mention the disorganized reception. For the majority of the guests, however, the Fima was an enriching experience. For many, it was a first chance to come to sub-Saharan Africa. Many professionals managed to make contacts in spite of the lack of coordination. Considering the huge sums invested, however, one may legitimately wonder what the Fima will bring Niger in the long-term, other than the benefits for those whose prestige is already guaranteed, namely Alphadi and the President Baré.
Will any further editions of the International Festival of Fashion be held as its founder Alphadi wishes, hoping to make it a biannual event? Nothing is less certain, which nonetheless does not stop us asking some of the questions posed by the first edition. Is it legitimate to invest so much money in a single, and what is more, ephemeral, prestige event in Africa, for example? Should Africa’s artists continue to promote political regimes? Will the continent’s contemporary creative forms ever stop needing Western recognition to exist? What concrete repercussions did the Fima have in Niger? And other such questions that this edition of the International Festival of African Fashion will at least have had the merit of posing so overtly.

Inset 1:
The FIMA’s main financiers: the European Union, the ACCT (now renamed the Agence de la Francophonie), Afrique en Créations, and the French, Gabonese and Chinese (!) Ministries of Cooperation.
Inset 2:
The designers invited to the FIMA
– Angy Bell (Côte d’Ivoire)
– Collé Sow Ardo (Senegal)
– Dasha (Senegal)
– Dou Couture (Mali)
– Eric Raisina (Madagascar)
– Juliette Ombang (Cameroon)
– Kofi Ansah (Ghana)
– Makeda (jewelry, Côte d’Ivoire)
– Melanie Hartfeldt (Namibia)
– Mickaël Kra (jewelry, Côte d’Ivoire, France)
– Nawal El Assad (Côte d’Ivoire)
– Olga O. (Gabon)
– Oumou Sy (Senegal)
– Pathé O. (Côte d’Ivoire)
– Pepita D. (Bénin)
– Rajah Gavin (South Africa)
– Xuly Bet (Mali/France)
– Zineb Joundy (Morocco)
– Thierry Mugler (France)
– Paco Rabanne (France)
– Kenzo (Japan/France)
– Christian Lacroix (France)
– Trussardi (Italy)
– Issey Miyake (Japan)
– Fred Sathal (France)
– Yves Saint-Laurent (France)///Article N° : 5334


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