Artist Explained: Korto Momolu

Designer Korto (cu-toe) Momolu (mo-mo-lu) will grace the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art when she showcases her Sankofa collection in a fashion show at the fall installment of Africa Underground this Friday. Although Momolu resides in Little Rock, she is “always in DC,” and has always joked about getting a home in the area “...because I’m always there. I’ve gotten a lot of love. I’m actually coming full circle - the first event I ever did after I got off Project Runway was an event at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, so that’s kind of crazy that three years later I’m coming right back - coming back home. So that’s fun.”

In this interview, the Liberian-born Project Runway alum talks with Arts Post about her involvement with the skills teaching organization Amani Ya Juu (Swahili for “higher peace,”) which led her to create the special line, and what she learned from having to “make it work.”


Model Ludie Senatus in a design from Korto Momolu's "Sankofa" line. (Photo by Stephanie Matthews)

The collection was based in three parts, kind of telling the story of the women ‘cause Liberia went through that huge civil war years ago, and these are the women that are now running their households. Their husbands are casualties of the war, their children are still in school-age children, and they’re the ones running their households now. So we’re kind of giving them hope that although they went through all the stuff that happened in the war, things can get better. So it was broken down in three parts: the first one was just kind of devastation, separation. The second part was just kind of putting everything together, transformation; and then finally celebration. So, it just told the story of these women through clothing. So a lot of the stuff you’re going to see may seem kind of graphic or seem really descriptive and when you look at the garments, but they’re there to kind of tell that story. So when you see it you’ll get what I’m talking about.

I really tried to show emotions through clothes. It was really kind of hard to do that - never had to do that before, but it worked out. It was actually very challenging but I’m really happy with the collection that came about....It told the story, and when the women actually got the clothes in Liberia when we went to do the show, some of the women saw it and they got it right away and they were like, “Oh my God, I want to wear that one ‘cause that’s my story’ and it made me feel good ‘cause I didn’t know if they were going to get it, and I didn’t want to offend anybody, but they got it, and they actually wanted to wear their story literally on their hearts and their sleeves to say ‘This is what I went through, but now I’m going to be going through so much more because of what I went through I can transform and celebrate now becoming something bigger than I ever thought I could be.’ So it’s a really touching story, and I’m glad that Amani, they’re actually gonna come to the show on Friday as well, help me to be a part of it.


HANDOUT PHOTO: Model Sarah Kessler in a design from Korto Momolu's "Sankofa" line. (Photo by Stephanie Matthews)

I [designed the line] in two months. It was crazy, but we made it happen. For 25 pieces it’s a lot, even if you do one look a day. [You] have to sit there and figure out how to take something like assault, a rape and turn it into an outfit. So, I think that took more time than anything - figuring out how to tell the story, how to make it look like a story. And for people to feel the emotion and for the models to be able to wear the clothing - feel emotion and convey it through their demeanor. They really got it. Like when they came out, you saw it and you felt it. So hopefully we’re going to talk to the models as well wearing the garments Friday, to kind of tell the story so that when they come out, they convey the same emotion that needs to come out when they hit the stage.

I hope that by looking at me and seeing that I went through the same things [the participants] did, even though I wasn’t physically in Liberia for the war, I still felt the same pain. I went through the same things, I lost the same family members, and I still made it through. And being a woman and being at the top of my game, when it comes to African designers, sometimes all we need is that one person that says “Well she looks like me, she’s just like me and she did it. And I can do it, I can possess those things.” And I actually went and talked to them, we touched hands, and just to let them know that it’s real and I’m real. And being hands-on with them- I was very hands- on with everything with the show, from the hair to the makeup that they did - everything was very hands-on. So when you make it personal like that and you promise that you’re not just going to do this one show and disappear, that, ‘No I’m coming back’ to see their progress, [I promised] to come back and to show them how to do accessories, to add a little extra to what they do already, and you know once you make that promise you have to keep that promise. And I think that’s my goal - to make sure that I keep the promises I made, but also keep encouraging them by going forward. The more I keep moving, the more they’re gonna see they’ve gotta keep it moving.


HANDOUT PHOTO: Image of designer Korto Momolu. (Photo by Cole Stevens)

In this Sept. 12, 2008 photo, the Project Runway designer Korto Momolu is shown backstage before presenting her collection during Fashion Week in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Africa Underground will be held at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art on Sept. 30. Tickets for the event are $25 must be purchased in advance at africa.si.edu.

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