Think of Jessica Antola as a chronicler of the world’s closets. She has photographed everything from Vietnamese street style to the urban runways of her home base, Brooklyn, New York. But with seven trips to Africa under her belt, it’s clear she has a particular love for the fashion of the continent’s many cultures.
Her latest visit was a monthlong road trip through West Africa, which introduced her to masked voodoo dancers in Burkina Faso, bejeweled women in Benin, royalty in Ghana—and the idea of fabric as a kind of currency.
“I love the traditional resin-printed textiles known as Dutch wax, worn primarily in West Africa,” she says. “I learned on this trip that fabrics from Vlisco—one of the most renowned makers—are so valuable that a customary bridal dowry needs to include several of them in different patterns that reflect good luck in marriage, fertility, and wealth.”
The photos below, most of them impromptu shots, show those fabrics in their real-life settings. Antola gives us a behind-the-scenes look at her favorite moments.
“These women are from a small town in Benin. One morning, there was a group of about 30 men and women of various ages in front of our guesthouse, all dressed in matching outfits. They were pop singers waiting for the bus to take them to record their songs. They’re traditional singers, dancers, and instrumentalists. Their group is called GBETA.”
“I found this Fulani woman in Benin. The Fulani are traditionally a nomadic, pastoralist tribe who raise cattle, goats, and sheep. The morning I visited her village, she showed me how to make cheese.”
“Here, two local Tofinu girls sail on Lake Nokoué near the stilted-house village of Ganvie in Benin. The Tofinu people built their village on stilts over the water during the 16th and 17th centuries to escape from the Fon warriors, who believed water demons lived in the lake. The Tofinu people still use boats as their primary means of transport.”
“We were driving in the remote area of Burkina Faso and passed this amazing woman. She was a seamstress on her way to work in the town that we had just left. She had a beautiful, warm smile and thought nothing of the heavy weight she carried daily on her head.”