We had the good fortune of connecting with Sarah Nsikak and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sarah, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
My grandmother was a seamstress in her Nigerian village and she was a very skilled sewist. My parents immigrated to Oklahoma City in the 80s for university, and a few years after starting a family, my grandmother came to America to live with us. I used to watch her work with Ankara, which is a traditional Nigeria printed textile, and feel like what she was doing with her machine was magic. She saw my interest and taught me to sew when I was 9 or 10. We used paper, needle and thread to start, and I eventually worked up to using her machine. I remember foraging my own closet for old garments to transform into new ones, and doing so very badly. I was obsessed with the empowering feeling I got from making my own clothing, even if I was mostly too embarrassed to let them see daylight. Any first generation Nigerian american can attest to the fact that you aren’t supposed to tell your parents that you want to study textiles or fashion or art. They worked so hard to get to this “land of opportunity”, and the expectation is for you to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I wasn’t interested in becoming any of those things, but I always had an interest in Psychology. I sort of finessed my way into studying art by pursuing Art Therapy, which I got my Masters in. Thankfully that was aspirational enough for my mother who convinced herself that I was on my way to becoming a PhD certified Art Therapist. After my Master’s program in 2014, I started a small business where I was making clothing out of textile waste and upcycling vintage garments. I was trying to preach this message of sustainability to people in Oklahoma who either didn’t care or cared just enough to verbally affirm it and move on.The concepts I was trying to spread were fairly new there at that time, and Forever21 was still the most referenced store for clothing. After two years of struggling to have my little company and working full time at a counseling agency to support it, I realized that I didn’t have to keep exasperating myself and doing the work of educator and maker at the same time. I was also asked a lot of questions about who I am as a black woman. Many assumptions were made about what I was doing because of my skin color. People tried to barter with me, people asked me to do their alterations, people asked me to give them things for free. It was confusing to me because I didn’t have the arsenal of understanding that I have now, but I felt strongly that I needed to be somewhere else.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I moved to NYC in 2017 to work for a designer that claimed to be sustainable and ethically made in Africa, but it was smoke and mirrors. I witnessed greenwashing and abuse in the fashion industry first hand and became disillusioned. I was gaslighted into believing that the abuse was something imperative to go through and that not being paid was also important. From then on it was so important for me to take everyone off pedestals and reimagine things from a new perspective because this one was not it. I began to think about where I fit into this landscape as an artist that cares about ethics, sustainability, equity for black people, and celebrating Africa. I spent a couple of years working for different designers – some that I really admire now and stay connected to. I was eager to learn and see what I could do differently. I’m thankful for every single experience now and feel it led me to unwavering values and an altruistic message that uplifts those that look like me and tells buried stories of those that inspire me the most. I have always made little textile art pieces without really sharing them, but I actualized the project La Réunion (named after the island) at the end of 2019. The goal has always been to share Africa-inspired artwork and to do so sustainability. I wanted to be very intentional about introducing clothing into the project, because there are so many brands out there and I didn’t want to do it just because I knew how or because it was expected of me. The capsule of Patchwork Dresses was created out of a time of real sadness and grief. CoronaVirus had hit hard in NYC and we are confined to our homes. I no longer had a job, and had a lot of time to create something from an honest place. I remember thinking “what can I make that will make me feel good in a time where that seems impossible?” Fashion has this transportive property that can make you feel you’re somewhere else or someone else, even on the bleakest day. This is why I knew I’d be making something I could wear. I reached out to a designer I used to work in production for, Caron Callahan, and asked if she might have any remnants she didn’t need. She sent me a box and it was basically history from there. It was definitely challenging and I learned what “labor of love” really means when making the dresses, but it’s equally rewarding work. I know it’s just the beginning – there are so many other stories of Africa that I can’t wait to tell through art whether it’s wearable or not. I’m dedicating my life to that work because it brings me more joy than anything. I hope it does the same for others!
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
This is a hard one because of the covid restrictions – experiences are much different now. Thankfully we can still really enjoy NYC safely and with social distancing in place. It’s a bit overwhelming to try to do all the touristy things on a weekend trip, so I’d stick with the things I actually do regularly. Starting in LES, we’d visiting a coffee shop called Little Canal which is conveniently located and has amazing coffee and breakfast options. From there, I’d show them Aeon Bookstore. It’s a wonderful place for books on everything from art to spirituality. There’s also a beautiful gallery in the back. From there, I’d want to hang out inSeward Park where we can people watch some of the most interesting and unique individuals. After this, I’d take them to Dimes for a delicious lunch before walking over to a shop called Coming Soon to see some of the work of some special local artists and designers. From there we’d go to my friend’s Chinatown gallery called Grifter, and hope across the hall to a lovely book and music shop call Two Bridges. From there, we’d swing back up to my favorite LES dinner place, KiKis which is incredible Mediterranean Food. I’m sure at some point we’d walk over the bridge to Brooklyn and get a drink at the Lot Radio (outdoor patio with live radio show) and call it a day after that. On a day in Brooklyn, I’d want to start at Nick and Sons bakery for coffee and pastries before walking to McCarren park and spending time there. There’s a skate park near by that I like to sit at sometimes to watch the amazingly talented skaters. Then, maybe we’d visit a few local vintage stores like Horizons vintage before getting lunch at the famous Five Leaves (love their truffle fries so much!) From there, we’d take the train to my studio in Bed stuy and I’d give them a tour before heading to another Brooklyn local shop called Sincerely Tommy. We’d explore the Bed Stuy area for the rest of the day and visit Mix Tape shop to see the current curation of cassettes, art and records. We’d end at Saraghina for their amazing pizza and wine! Other things we’d have to do would be going to the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanical gardens, spending time in Prospect Park, Lunch from Grandchamps (which is incredible Haitian food in Bed Stuy) Peter pan for classic doughnuts, waterfront views at Transmitter Park, local gallery experience at IRL in Greenpoint, ferry ride back to Manhattan to go to the Whitney, walk the highline and see Simone Leighs amazing new sculpture installation, swing by Harlem to browse the record collection at Cinderblock People before heading down to SoHo to have Lovely Day for dinner or lunch. There’s so much to do and see – I really love New York! The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’d like to shout out Fernando Aciar of Fefo Ceramics and owner of O Studio in Brooklyn. I really needed community and a space to make the dresses as they were picking up traction in the summer of 2020. Covid cases were starting to drop a bit and the lock down was lifted – I reached out to Fernando and he offered me a space at a massively reduced rate because he believed in my work. He and his wife Anna also commissioned me to create a textile art piece for their new home, which has gotten me other commissions and more exposure. I’m very grateful for all Fernando and Anna have done for me. It really set me up for success when I needed it the most!
The images of me working and the one of my standing in the sun by my piece are by Kate Berry!