‘Art is the language of the marginalized:’ Student leaders on the origins of the Sankofa fashion show


The Akan word ‘Sankofa’ means “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” Sankofa is often depicted as a mythical bird, with its neck turned backwards, even while it is flying forward. Naming the annual fashion event after this symbol encapsulates the experience of many people among the Black and African diaspora at Princeton: the metaphorical back-turned neck gives them a chance to look back at and engage in their cultures, even while in the Orange Bubble.

The board leaders of the Sankofa Fashion Show Committee, Anastasia Achiaa ’25 and Max Diallo Jakobsen ’24, along with designer Ayinde Bradford ’24, sat down with The Daily Princetonian to speak about the event.

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The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Princetonian: What is the history behind the creation of the Sankofa Fashion Show?

Max Diallo Jakobsen: Sankofa emerged because there were students that came together and wanted to create something, again, to celebrate African designers at Princeton.

Anastasia Achiaa: Sankofa is a word in the Akan tribe, which translates to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” The word also refers to the taking back and reclamation of our past, which was the blueprint of creating the fashion show.

Portrait of Anastasia Achiaa
Jean Shin / The Daily Princetonian

DP: The overarching idea of Sankofa is preserved every year. How does the committee decide on the different themes to put out for the individual shows and are they tied to the idea of Sankofa?

AA: We think of Sankofa like we think of Coachella — it’s just the event name. Sankofa will forever be about looking back, reclaiming, moving forward, and adapting our culture to our current environment.

MDJ: The basis of what the show stands for is this idea that before taking a step forward, we have to understand where we come from — our heritage and why all of that matters.

Last year, we came up with the theme “Golden Hour” because it is something that is being felt by, I think, the entire Black and African community at Princeton right now.

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“Golden Hour” is a political statement. With Sankofa “Golden Hour,” we wanted to say that the days of Africa being seen as the dark continent, or being seen as somewhere in the periphery, are over. It was our moment in the sun.

DP: How did you get into designing for Sankofa?

Ayinde Bradford: A friend of mine told me about Sankofa. Sewing was a [COVID-19] pandemic hobby. I was always a painter and an artist, and fashion was a medium of expression. At a certain point, the clothing that I wanted wasn’t available, so I decided to start making clothes. I was nervous, but thought that this could be an opportunity to try something that I would have never, ever done.

[The leaders] offered me to design, and they were definitely very clear that I could do as much as I wanted to, or as little as I wanted to. I decided that this was the opportunity to try it.

I was given the theme, which was “Golden Hour,” and then told to run with it. When I showed them ideas of what I was doing, they were surprised by the sheer amount of work that I was going to do, alongside the fact that all of the pieces that I designed, I had never done before. They had a lot of trust in what I was going to do.

Portrait of Bradford Light
Jean Shin / The Daily Princetonian

DP: What do you hope audiences will resonate with most?

AA: I think every year we challenge ourselves to outdo our last, but as much as we say “We want this year to be our best year,” it’s a clean slate. It’s [saying] “Okay, what is going on in our diaspora now? How can we bring happiness and celebration here?”

That’s what we aim for the audience to resonate with every year — it isn’t just a show. It’s a communication of culture, of religion, of struggle, of love, of peace, of every single emotion that our people feel and have felt, and we want to bring it all to you.

MDJ: First and foremost, this event is a love letter to the African community at Princeton. Coming to Princeton as a Black and African student is scary, and all of us leaders leading this want to thank our community for being there for us.

Sankofa is a celebration of diversity. We want all people of African descent to see something on that stage and be like, “Wow, that’s a reference to my culture,” or “That’s the fabric that I grew up seeing around my home. That reminds me of my mother.”

DP: How did the audience react to your work?

AB: I just could not imagine the amount of people coming up to me at the end saying “Your piece inspired me to try something artistic, or go into fashion, or reconsider their fashion.” More particularly, I think my pieces have inspired people to become models and to see themselves on stage.

I think there is something to be said about people realizing that they are beautiful in who they are and what they look like, regardless of society standards that are oftentimes Eurocentric and unattainable. Being able to see Blackness in every form, without any alterations, allows them to feel proud of who they are, proud of their heritage, and proud of the community that is around them.

DP: Is there anything else you would like to add?

MDJ: African fashion is all about celebrating African history, culture, and peoples, which has so often been underrepresented and uncelebrated. [But] while Sankofa is an annual event, it is not the only time that students at Princeton can engage with African arts, culture, and in particular, fashion.

My dream, one day, is that when I go to an office and wear my African clothes, it is seen as equally formal, equally special, and equally elevated.

DP: Where specifically did you look for design inspiration?

AB: A lot of photos and references, and then asking Black people who are a part of the diaspora, who I was designing for — a good amount of the models and people who, for them, this wasn’t fashion for a runway. This was a representation of their culture, of their country, and of their tribe. I really asked them, “Okay, what does this fabric mean? How is it used?”

But also, I did not want to design things that were the same as other designers who have that heritage. They’re representing themselves — I wanted to represent myself.

DP: What is the importance of Sankofa for the Black community?

AB: The Black community has always acknowledged its roots. But they are reshaping it so both the past and the future are represented in the present. With the African diaspora being so wide, the fact that we are always recognizing our history and pulling it into what we do and moving forward with such progress amidst struggles is an important part of our aesthetic and an important part of what we do and why we do it.

AA: One of my favorite quotes is “Art is the language of the marginalized.” Being Black is about innovation and creativity, and those things come from resiliency. To me, Sankofa is the definition of being Black: looking at your past, relying on your community, adapting. It’s a beauty and an art. I feel like Black people treat life as a dance. It tells a story. As cheesy as it sounds, even if the storms are coming your way, you’re going to be able to brace the whip because your ancestors have. Because you can look at your past and see how far your people have come.

Keeren Setokusumo is a Features staff writer, Izzy Jacobson is a Features, News, and Podcast staff writer, and  Jean Shin is a contributing photographer for the Prince’. Please direct any correction requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.





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