Founded in 2012 by Ivorian-born, Paris-based designer Akébéhi Kpolo, jewelery brand Ohiri explores the diversity and commonalities found in various West African cultures. “I was raised by parents who were in love with African culture, art and design,” she says. “My friends used to say my house was like a museum because there were so many different forms of art. I don’t have a French name, I just have an Ivorian name because it was so important to embrace our culture.’
Kpolo expresses this through the lens of the Akan, an ethnic group found primarily in Ivory Coast and Ghana. “I wanted to present the Akan culture in three different parts: first, through their manufacturing techniques, second, through the material they use, which is mainly gold, and finally, the symbolism behind the pieces.”
Kpolo’s S/S23 collection, Outlines (2), is a companion piece to Outlines (1), her A/W22 art jewelery ‘offering’ to an imaginary ‘crocodile king’. Although the designer is from the Bété ethnic group, she has been interested in Akan jewelry since she first encountered it on a family trip at age 11. “We went to a traditional wedding in an Akan village. I was very impressed by men and women wearing huge, beautiful gold jewelry.
The Akans are known for adinkra, a system of symbols depicting concepts, mythologies and aphorisms that often appear in jewelry and textiles. The crocodile is sometimes depicted solo – denkyem – conveying its adaptable nature to live in both water and land, or as a pair with a joined abdomen – funtunfunefu denkyemfunefu – a visual depiction of the need for cooperation and compassion.
Kpolo decided to take a less didactic approach. ‘I began to question the information we have and give. Sometimes it becomes too much, and we are overwhelmed. This led to pieces that were less animalistic and more interpretive. “I always use abstract forms. There is only one piece where there is a crocodile-like head and tail. For the other pieces, it’s the texture, the movement. It’s like a conversation between the body and the pieces. I let people have the freedom to decide what they see and feel.’ The pieces are crafted in gold and lapis lazuli, which she was drawn to because in her research she found historical confluences between ancient Egypt, known for its affinity for the gemstone, and the Akan people.
In Kpolo’s native language, Ohiri means “something in development”, or as she elaborates, “something trying to reach the stage of maturity”. It is also the first name of her mother, whom she cites as a muse: ‘My mother has many pieces of jewelery from all over the world, including some pieces of [Nigerian-born, Kenya-based designer] Adèle Dejak, whose work I also love.’
Before founding Ohiri, Kpolo studied sustainable development, which is evident in the brand’s commitment to maintaining traditional craftsmanship, participating in the expansion of the jewelry ecosystem in Africa, and ultimately moving all operations and production to Ivory Coast. It participates in the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a UN-backed program for fashion companies in emerging economies, so production takes place in two locations: “The pieces are made by artisans in the Ivory Coast and then completed in an EFI-supported atelier in Kenya,” she explains. But things are evolving. “The artistic scene in Ivory Coast has grown, and African jewelry art is very complex, because the continent is big. We come from different types of energy, different types of countries, different types of inspiration.’
Long term, Kpolo is committed to raising the bar for African jewelery art that is not as refined or has the same intrinsic value as works from the Global North. To address this, she chooses dealers with a more curatorial modus operandi and rejects the title of “designer”. ‘I just create. So far jewelry is my medium, tomorrow I could paint and right now I’m working on a commission project for porcelain. A refusal to be picked means that her works are not only appreciated as wearable art, but also as ones that could just as easily adorn the home. One cannot help but be reminded of the crocodile iconography – a reptile whose mutability allows it to exist in many habitats and, like Kpolo’s work, makes its presence undeniably palpable.
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A version of this article appears in the January 2023 Future Issue of Wallpaper*, available in print, on the Wallpaper* app on Apple iOS, and for Apple News + subscribers. Subscribe to Wallpaper* today (opens in new tab)
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