Representing the creative future

28 Hats for Lamu: a virtual exhibition about environmental empathy

Photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman and stylist Louise Ford discuss their latest exhibition “28 Hats for Lamu”

To celebrate the sustainable benevolence displayed by the people of Lamu, photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman and stylist Louise Ford grouped together to capture the transformative power of their creations through a virtual exhibition, 28 Hats for Lamu. In a sequence of portraits from this year’s contestants, captured in early February, the exhibition plays host to a celebration of the people, the traditions, and the social landscape of the community.

What kind of hat would you choose to define your personality? Be it boater, bucket, fedora, or beret, a hat can be very telling of the mind inside of it. Its intent, spanning both function and decoration has long been heralded by the people of the sub-equatorial island of Lamu in Kenya. Over the past decade, the Shela Hat contest has united and bound together a community, where contestants are given the opportunity to compete with their eccentric and unorthodox headgear,  circular creations they place on their heads, in an effort to win.  Throughout the contest, the people of Lamu fashion intricate designs from unconventional materials such as old cement bags or palm leaves for the biannual contest, a celebration of their makeshift constructions, each underscored with environmental empathy.

Kristin-Lee Moolman and Louise Ford’s exhibition “28 Hats for Lamu” is a demonstration of optimism and empowerment and a tribute to the imagination of the Lamu community, where viewers are able to purchase prints, printed on archival media and in limited numbered editions pays homage to the impromptu and ingenious milliners, and the altruistic inventions created by the people of Lamu.

28 hats for lamu
28 hats for lamu
28 hats for lamu
28 hats for lamu

How did the Shela Hat competition first come about? Can you remember when you first came across it? 

L: The contest has been around for 10 years, since its inception it has become more and more popular but the founder is unable to continue funding the prize money alone so we’d like to raise awareness and hopefully participate in keeping it alive!

Two years ago I came across a leaflet in Lamu town on a notice board for the Shela Hat Contest. I had never seen anything like it, the creativity was unprecedented especially since the participants are not necessarily artists!  After learning about the contest’s guiding principles which were hat making but also environmental activism, I began work on the project to see how we could use art and image-making as a resource to raise awareness as well as funds for a charity that would benefit the community directly.

The New Leaf Rehabilitation Clinic was recommended by many locals as an organization with very high success rates but lacking funding to realize its full potential.

 

Where did the idea to shoot the competitors begin and how did this collaboration between the two of you come about? 

L: About two years ago I came across a leaflet in Lamu town for the Shela Hat Contest. I had never seen anything like it,  I then embarked on a year-long search for the founder of the contest to see if shooting a series of portraits would be possible. When I discovered it was I reached out to Kristin because I knew that her understanding of the culture and her ability to champion her subjects would afford the participants the respect they deserved both in person and in the images.

K: Seeing personal empowerment, optimism, and creativity in people really resonates with me – so when I received the email from Louise detailing the project and past creations I was immediately motivated to make the project happen no matter what.

 

What was the selection process like and how did you go about shooting each contestant?

L: My role in this project was in producing and art directing;  During the contest, we took the contact details of about 50 contestants with hats that stood out to us either in their complexity or their simplicity, we then arranged to meet the participants to take their portraits and in return, we paid them for their time and talked them through our intentions of raising money for the New Leaf Rehabilitation clinic. They nearly all knew about New Leaf and shared a sense of enthusiasm and solidarity in helping the clinic.

K: From an aesthetic standpoint I wanted the focus to be on the artists and their pieces, elevating and separating them from their surroundings. I also wanted to create a connection between the viewer and the artisans through the portraits.

“The project is an emotional investment that tells an important story. The creativity of the Lamunians and their environmental activism sets a rare example I hope inspires others to follow.” – Louise Ford

Was it always your intention to make it virtual? Do you think that it has an impact on the artwork in any way?

K: We initially planned to have a physical exhibition but then COVID-19 happened and that option was no longer possible. So we put the project on hold and researched every possible option and arrived at the conclusion that a virtual exhibition was the way forward.

It was a decision that benefited the project in terms of fundraising as well as extending its reach and accessibility globally.

 

How did this project resonate with you personally and how you approach your work? Do you think your formative years in Africa inspired you to produce images that centre around storytelling and self-expression?

L: 28 Hats for Lamu is a project that means a great deal to me personally. I spent 10 years of my life between Zimbabwe and Kenya, so being presented with the opportunity to create a body of work that not only celebrates the places and people I love but also supports them, was one I had to act on. The project is an emotional investment that tells an important story. The creativity of the Lamunians and their environmental activism sets a rare example I hope inspires others to follow.

K: I think many artist’s formative years influence their work hugely, because regardless of where we grow up, our surroundings and experiences shape how we perceive our world and, almost by default, what we create in the future.

What shaped, and still informs my work was growing up as a South African, and being constantly presented with stereotypical imagery portraying Africa almost as a singular identity defined by poverty and violence. A Third World. I saw it personally as forever being ‘less than’, where I came from also being my definition. Creating empowering imagery to challenge the many negative ‘definitions’ regarding Africa was as much a reflex action as it was a personal choice.

The work the artisans created for the contest resonated with me because it is a positive representation of the creative vision of one of many unique and diverse communities that make up Africa as a whole. I wanted to celebrate that.

Another equally important factor is that we are able to use the imagery to contribute to the community in a tangible way.

“Creating empowering imagery to challenge the many negative ‘definitions’ regarding Africa was as much a reflex action as it was a personal choice.” Kristin-Lee Moolman

What do you hope that people will take away from these images and the community of Lamu?

L: I hope the body of work lives on to inspire other community initiatives to use creativity and craft as a tool to vocalise environmental concerns. Lamu is a multi-cultural community and its history blends Bantu, Arabic, Indian, and South-east Asian cultures with Kenyan cultures. I was so inspired by this multifaceted society and humbled by the warmth and openness the contestants afforded us.

K: If you had asked me this at the beginning of the year my answer would have been vastly different. But right now, all I really want from these images is to inspire a little joy and optimism. Because fuck knows we all need it after the year we just had.

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