Selven O’Keef Jarmon is a Houston-based fashion designer/visual artist. Inspired by a desire to incorporate social consciousness into his work, Jarmon moved to South Africa in order to channel connect his visual art space with the social, cultural and political climate there.
His work in South Africa includes master class training in haute couture clothing construction for community seamstresses in the Eastern Cape. Those classes are filmed and incorporated into the KWANDA Reality Makeover Show that aired in prime time on South African network television, viewed by over 14 Million people. Within the scope of the KWANDA television show, Jarmon founded the KWANDA Klothing Label, a collective of South African fashion graduates.
Since moving back to Houston in 2010, Jarmon has continued the KWANDA Klothing Label and his visual artistry. His work was included in the Perspectives 144 exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, group show exhibitions at Pouissant Gallery, Deborah Colton Gallery's featured artist exhibition, and Neiman Marcus Dallas' Downtown Store Windows for the Dallas Art Fair.
Below is an excerpt of the conversation, a fuller version is forthcoming.
Wagan: How does social consciousness come into play in your work as a visual artist and fashion designer?
Jarmon: After September 11, I had to figure out how my work figures into the context of what’s happening in the world. It just had to go beyond commerce for me. I read about Carlos Miele’s work in Elle magazine [incorporating rosettes created by artisan collectives in Brazil into his clothing brand] and thought, “this is what I want to do.”
W: What drew you to South Africa?
J: I was talking to my sister, and she said I needed to do this in South Africa. She had just been there with Habitat for Humanity. “Why don’t you just go? If you just went, you’d know.” South Africa is very extreme. Extremely beautiful, extremely complicated, extreme politics, extreme love and extreme hate. It’s all mixed in that one place, one country.
W: With everything so complicated, where did you start?
J: I focused on school uniforms, because they struck me as very Eurocentric. Culturally speaking, what does this say? The culture had been suffocated by proxy under the old regime. We could create an industry re-envisioning these school uniforms, and it would give a chance [for these rural communities] to build skills and sustainability.
W: How did your work lead to change in those communities?
J: KWANDA was a real reality makeover show. It asked five different communities how to feel better, work better and to address their own social challenges. It needed to be about the communities helping themselves, because government can’t — they don’t have enough money to do so. The outcome of this show was a clothing line built by people in these impoverished communities. I hired five different designers, who were recent graduates from South African fashion schools to pair with each of these communities.
W: So you’re a reality-television star in South Africa, how are you leveraging that role?
J: During my last trip, in just five days, I was able to get backing for 360 Degrees Vanishing exhibition from the South African Minister of Art and Culture, the Deputy Chairperson of the Eastern Cape Arts Council and others. They are funding the transportation of all 14 South African beaders to Houston. Nothing ever moves that fast in South Africa.
W: Why beading?
J: These were not objects just meant to be sold on the streets to tourists as they are now. It had so much meaning and use in the culture: as a currency, in the house and in ceremonies. As these ceremonies disappeared and as people moved from the rural to the urban [areas], the significance and meaning was lost.
W: Covering the Art League with these beaded tapestries is a big change of scale from a simple tourist keepsake. Why bead a whole building?
J: I am hoping that this exhibition can reimagine the possibilities that could happen with this craft, and for the South African beaders, link their craft to a new economic socket. It should connect young people to this craft, otherwise it is going to die on the tourism vine. When people see this big building covered in beads from South Africa — made by people from these small communities—it makes people reflect on things in their own culture that are disappearing and want to do something about it.
Preliminary sketch for Selven O'Keef Jarmon's 360 Degrees Vanishing, an upcoming installation at the Art League Houston, Spring 2014.
This is the first in a series of interviews as part of partnership between A + C and the Center for Arts Leadership at University of Houston.