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Mami Wata making waves as the first properly African surf brand

Subverting the generic designs of the big corporate surf giants, the brand is inspired by local design influences and a more spiritual connection to the sea

03 April 2022 - 00:01 By Declan Gibbon
The collaboration between Moncler and Mami Wata brings a uniquely African vision to the surf brand aesthetic.
The collaboration between Moncler and Mami Wata brings a uniquely African vision to the surf brand aesthetic.
Image: Supplied

I’m not a fan of surf clothing brands. The mediocrity of the repeated images of surfboards and waves, florals and regurgitated prints you find in cheap chain stores should be limited exclusively to toddlers.

But I recently came across Mami Wata while scrolling through fashion-inspiration Instagrams. On the Mami Wata page, I was confronted with the side profile of a glistening chestnut stallion, ridden by a knight in shining boots, chain mail made of whistles (see it  to believe it) and the Moncler x Mami Wata surfboard.

The photo shoot, spearheaded by co-founder Peet Pienaar, is a masterclass in subverting our usual expectations of brands associated with specific activities to promote an aesthetic that becomes instantly iconic and memorable. Mami Wata, the first properly African surf brand, had me instantly hooked on the history and culture of the waves on the African coast. The look is far removed from the images of tanned, blond-haired, blue-eyed Australians and Americans that have been the staple of the surf scene for a long time.

Mami Wata’s iconic bowling shirts
Mami Wata’s iconic bowling shirts
Image: Supplied

The counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s sold out from the get-go to the rampant commercialism of the icons of coast culture like the Beach Boys and beachfront developments. In some areas, the colour bar, which prevented people of all races from being together on the beach, also fed into this blonde, whites-only association with surfing.

Mami Wata aims to change this vision of the surf scene. The Cape Town-based surf store was cofounded in 2017 by Nick Dutton, a former ad exec, Peet Pienaar, a graphic designer, and Zigzag founder Andy Davis. Soon they brought on Selema Masekela, famous South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s son and acclaimed filmmaker and television host.

I spoke to Dutton about the brand. He was wearing one of their popular bowling shirts and was quick to dive into the concept behind the design and show me the hidden catchphrase at the hem of the shirt.

Subverting the flat designs and goofy styles of the big corporate surf brands, Mami Wata is inspired by local design influences and a consciousness about creating something worthwhile for their fans and customers in all aspects of business. This ranges from Pienaar’s design process to their community outreach programme and what they’ve dubbed “Surf-o-nomics”. Mami Wata translates into “Mother Water” or “Mother Ocean” and invokes the brand’s ties to African aesthetics, communities and the celebration of a decolonised surf culture.

Mami Wata and Moncler Voices collaboration
Mami Wata and Moncler Voices collaboration
Image: Supplied

Their “dope” apparel and surfboards are all designed and produced in SA, using local skills, which creates jobs and puts Africa on the map as an alternative to places such as Hawaii and Bali when we think of the sport. Mami Wata offers a new source of inspiration, representation and greater diversity and inclusivity in surfing.

The earliest records of surfing are apparently from Ghana in the 1640s. Mami Wata harks back to these early surfing days for inspiration in pioneering Africa as a surfing hotspot, welcoming locals and tourists alike.

They support multiple surf organisations across Africa — a portion of their proceeds go towards Waves for Change and Surfers Not Street Children. All proceeds from the coffee table book Afrosurf go to these organisations. The book has sold over 13,000 copies around the world and is described as “a visual mind bomb packed with over 200 photos, 50 essays, surfer profiles, thought pieces, poems, playlists, photos, illustrations, ephemera, recipes, and a mini comic, all wrapped in design that captures the diversity and character of Africa”.

How was Mami Wata founded?

We launched the brand in 2017. It came from a conversation I had with one of our co-founders, Andy Davis who runs Zigzag (magazine). We were on a beach together in Kommetjie in 2015, wondering why, while lots of people surfed, they all wore American brands. There’s a generic surf design and these brands felt tired, not doing anything interesting or cool.

We started asking, why isn’t there a South African surf brand? These ubiquitous surf brands have morphed into soulless-private-equity-run-conglomerates — the clothes look the same. The same designers rotate around the world, and manufacture in sweatshops in the East. It doesn’t seem like they’re interested in surf culture either.

Mami Wata's neo-animism lookbook.
Mami Wata's neo-animism lookbook.
Image: Supplied

Andy was friends with Peet Pienaar, who’s done amazing designs all around the world. We asked him to help design an African surf brand.

Surf is very meaningful in some people’s lives — what’s happening in Africa is exciting, things such as surf therapy and the emergence, excitement and growth of indigenous surf cultures. Africa has a deep history of surf and coastal culture but broadly, the surf category of clothing doesn’t cater for that. None of the surf brands were speaking about an African surf story while playing a role in development on the continent.

How is Mami Wata involved in the African surf scene?

There are three pillars to our conversation about being a creative force for good in Africa. One is manufacturing, doing everything locally and creating jobs. The second is surf therapy, focusing on organisations such as Waves for Change and Surfers Not Street Children.

We helped build a clubhouse in Harper, Liberia and launched a range of clothing and brand identity, The Harper Sliders, which you could only purchase through Kickstarter. All the money went directly to the club. The final pillar is “Afrosurfonomics” — encouraging people to travel to Africa to surf and assist local economic development.

To celebrate our launch in the USA with an all new range of apparel, accessories and surfboards, our new film takes inspiration ...

Afrosurfonomics is focused on sustainable and mutually beneficial tourism — the wave is the economic resource and that’s owned by everybody associated with it. Rather than hiring locals for foreign projects, it’s about communities using their resources and developing and protecting them, being a part of the surf culture rather than sidelined by western tourists jetting in. It’s about ensuring the community is a part of the surf culture, has the boards and supplies and are engaged in this sustainable tourism. We believe that surfing could be to Africa what the Alps are to Europe.

Mami Wata tees.
Mami Wata tees.
Image: Supplied

What's your design process?

The focus is on the originality of our designs and having them reflect African surf culture and storytelling. We want to challenge the negative media the world receives about Africa.

One example is our horse motif that reflects the history of transport in Senegal and pays homage to the “car rapides” — colourful minibuses that roam the streets of the Senegalese capital of Dakar. The juxtaposition of the two modes of transport connect past and present.

We design our collections by speaking to surfers and people involved with surf culture across Africa. We focus on a specific story and develop a design language around it. The SS22 collection is about animism, a belief that attributes a living soul to objects, plants and phenomena.

One of our new bowling shirts is focused on faces and the meanings around animism in Ghana; these spiritual aspects are intrinsically tied into surf cultures and were inspired by the coming of age story from the Afrosurf cover star, Sidiq Banda.

When we design, we ask, “Who are these people surfing? What are their cultures? What's their lifestyle around the ocean?” Africa is home to a diverse group of people, but the beach culture is different to the cultures of Australia and Bali.

Mami Wata's ‘Afrosurf’ has sold more than 13,000 copies around the world already.
Mami Wata's ‘Afrosurf’ has sold more than 13,000 copies around the world already.
Image: Supplied
Mami Wata's Afrogiftacular print
Mami Wata's Afrogiftacular print
Image: Supplied

There’s more spiritual connection to the sea and a lot of indigenous beliefs around the ocean. We want to represent the diversity of Africa, empower communities and surfers, and showcase surfing in an African context.

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