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GifaarT: How the headscarf became a symbol of pride for African women

AN exhibit at this year's Biennale of Contemporary African Art is titled "GifaarT". It's an ode to the head scarf (GifaarT means head scarf in Senegal's Balante language) and examines the many uses of the timeless accessory in the customs and dress of African women.

JUST how important is the headscarf to African dress? To answer this, consider that the finale of the month-long 13th edition of the Biennale of Contemporary African Art, held in Dakar, saw the spotlight switch to a very colourful, very African and, it would appear, timeless, “personality”. Hosted by Maguette Guèye and Bineta Seck, the special show was branded ‘Gifaart,’ – ‘headscarf’ in Senegal’s Balante language.

The show revisited the traditional dress of several African ethnic groups, including the Lebou, Signares, Balantes, Bédiks, Coniaguis, and Bassaris, with the headscarf the star of the show. The event, which took place at the newly-opened Federation of Wallonia-Brussels, featured the screening of a documentary film by Oumy Ndour – filmmaker, journalist and co-founder of Ladies Club, an online community and networking platform for women – on this wearable’s heritage.

Awa Seck, a Senegalese designer based in Belgium, founder of the brand “Les Moussors d’Awa (Awa’s Moussors) and a famous ambassador of the “Moussor” (headscarf in Wolof), also took the stage. 

Seck came to share her passion and experience with an audience keen to hear original ways to upgrade their colourful arsenal. 

“It is an opportunity to give them tips, to let their creativity shine, and to gain more and more followers through teaching the art of tying scarves and designing ready-made scarves to save up on time,” Seck explained.. 

Surrounded by a wide range of fabrics with shimmering colours, Seck carefully took the time to adorn several guests, aesthetic value combined with education in the sharing of headscarf secrets.

“I live in Brussels, and I am delighted to have been invited to the Dakar Biennial by the Wallonia-Brussels delegation, which knows the scope of my work. The scarf is a whole art,” she said.

Born in Diourbel, a city located in the centre of Senegal, 160 kilometres from Dakar, Seck had an atypical upbringing – one that did not necessarily predestine her to fashion design. 

After graduating from the University of Saint-Louis, she continued her studies in Bordeaux and obtained two master’s degrees in human resources management, labour law, and social security. 

After her marriage, she moved to Brussels, where she worked in customer relations before returning to Senegal in 2012. 

Back home, she obtained a new master’s, this time in marketing and communication. 

However, Seck had always enjoyed sewing and believes that intellectual pursuit, art and craft can be brought together in the considered design of traditionally-influenced headscarves.

“I am a lawyer basically; I am specialised in labour law, I worked in human resources, customer relations, I worked in marketing for years, which helps me in my work now.  When people ask me what I do for a living, and I answer “scarves”, they are intrigued. But with rigour, attention to detail, and good communication, we can move forward,” Seck said.  

In many parts of West Africa, the headscarf is part of the non-negotiable outfit of women attending important occasions, be that weddings, funerals, or other festivities. Seck switched her career to concentrate on scarves, in 2016,

“I started in 2016 with tutorials broadcast on Youtube. This allowed me to immortalise the models and allow others to learn at home. One thing led to another; in 2017, I organized my first workshop where women paid to come and learn to tie the scarf,” she explained.

She got the chance to go international two years later.

“In 2018, for family motives, I moved to Belgium. There I opened my store where I make ready-to-wear scarves. European women, African women, Asian women buy them, and I have established collaborations with private individuals or companies,” said the designer.

“Contrary to what we may think, not all Senegalese women can tie the scarf or alternate between the numerous ways of tying it,” Awa Seck continued. 

While Seck often travels the globe to promote her work – a recent trip included visits to pop-up stores in New
York, Atlanta, and Boston – among her customers is Senegal-based TV host Sokhna Awa Djily Mbackè, who often wears an imposing scarf during her appearances

Mbackè believes that this accessory enhances the woman’s hairstyle and gives her confidence and boldness. 

“The scarf is an integral part of my identity. I like to wear it with traditional outfits. The more imposing it is, the more satisfied I am. Sometimes I tie scarves ten meters long, and I am very comfortable wearing them,” Mbackè said. 

Radiant, visible from afar, ebony black and large-sized, Sokhna Awa Djily Mbackè has become the local muse of the scarf. Like the famous Senegalese fashion designer, Diouma Dieng Diakhaté who first immortalized the headscarf, Mbackè believes it is necessary to preserve this heritage. 

For designer Khady Yacine Diop, tying the scarf also gives free rein to inspiration. 

“It is improvisation, an ephemeral work of art. It is good that the scarf has volumes, shapes, flights and that it encompasses the face with refinement,” she noted. 

Seck’s goal is to perpetuate the wearing of the scarf, beyond a simple fashion effect, especially by working women of African descent, everywhere. 

“Our heritage and culture fit with everything, and we must reclaim them. The idea is that women, regardless of their age, wear it relaxedly with an openness to the world. That’s why I also make less voluminous scarves that can be worn daily and that go with traditional and western outfits,” Seck explained.

“It’s a fashion element that has come back to the forefront in the last few years, but you must try to keep it timeless. Now, depending on the occasion, I give ways to wear them, advice to women to harmonize their clothing style, guide them, and tips so that in everyday life these women can wear scarves,” she added. 

“Awa Seck, during her workshops, highlights very practical ways to wear the scarf, with variations in ready-to-wear because women today do not have much time,” said Melanie Sadio Goudiaby. curator of the GifaarT exhibition.

“We wanted to have a very visual exhibition,” said Pascal Montoisy, the General Delegate of Walonnie Brussels in Senegal.

“The headscarf is an accessory that has been used since the beginning of time.”

/bird story agency