Bisrat Negassi is a fashion designer and co-founder of the intercultural salon M.Bassy and the studio COME iN TENT in Hamburg. She was born in Eritrea and grew up in Germany. Her book Ich Bin (Goldmann Verlag 2022) traces her life journey. She talks to poco.lit. about the genesis of this book. She also explains that as a war-born Eritrean and Black person in Germany, she has always been politicized and brings this to her work as a fashion designer.
What motivated you to write Ich Bin? It’s a very personal book.
I’ve always kept a diary – many people do that – but not to write a book someday. It helps me to reflect, to process my thoughts and ideas. I have endless notebooks and diaries, but actually I wanted my father to write a book.
My father worked a lot outside of the cities where we lived. As a result, I had the feeling as a teenager that I couldn’t really get to know him. Then, as an adult, when I faced my father as a retired person, we had very nice conversations and I got to know him from a completely different angle. I would have liked to have records of many of his stories. I encouraged him to write a book, and he was going to do it eventually, but then he got sick and passed away.
After that, I started toying with the idea of writing something myself, but I never followed through. At some point, an offer from Goldmann Verlag fluttered into my house because they had read an interview with me in Femtastics magazine.
I had never written a book before and thought about it for a really long time, but friends and family members talked me into it. Then the option of getting a ghost-writer came up, but I thought: if I’m going to do it, I’m going to write it myself.
Your book is political. It expresses a longing for a more just society, and you often describe how you act to contribute to it. Would you describe yourself as a political person? And why do you think you’ve become politicized?
For a while, I tried to stay out of politics. But that’s nonsense. I believe that if you come into the world as a Black person, you are already politicized as such. Whether you like it or not. My opinion is a political opinion because I’m Black. As a Black woman in the Diaspora, I experience injustices on a daily basis. That’s why I think it’s important to express my point of view and stand up for my view and rights.
Thank you. May I ask a follow-up question on that? Does it make a difference to you in this respect to be in your country of birth, Eritrea, which is majority Black, or in Germany, a majority white country?
I was born in Eritrea during the war. I did not know life in peace at all. Of course, that politicized me. But it was different to Germany. Eritrea was an oppressed country. First it had to endure years of colonialism and then it was oppressed by the Ethiopian military government. Coming from there to Germany changed the kind of struggles I had to fight. In Germany, I had to position and stand up for myself. In Eritrea, it was about the oppression of an entire society; in Germany, it was about racism.
In your book, you talk about your experiences of racism in Germany in many places. You talk about your anger, and your courage to stand up for yourself and others. How do you manage to remain so constructive? At least that’s how I understand your attitude.
If that’s how it comes across, that’s great. No matter what I’m faced with, I always try to see the light at the other end of the tunnel. I don’t want to give the person who is trying to make me feel small the satisfaction of seeing me give up. I want to keep my power, my positivity. Maybe it’s also a self-defence mechanism. Following a difficult situation, I always try to imagine myself laughing about it with others, for example my sisters.
It’s interesting that other people are so important to you in such situations. In your book, you often write about meeting spaces, for example, meetings of the Eritrean Diaspora from all over Europe or the intercultural salon M.Bassy in Hamburg. What makes these places so important for you?
Quite simply, it’s about sharing. When I experience something beautiful, I want to share it with others. Then the moment lasts longer, and you can evoke it again later. Nothing else happens at M.Bassy. Sharing moments is the best!
That sounds beautiful! Now let’s get down to fashion. When you were choosing your career, or when you were choosing your studies – as you tell it in your book – you were driven by the question of whether you were doing something useful for Eritrea with what you were choosing. What is your position on this question now?
When I was still searching for my vocation, war was raging in Eritrea. I wanted to give something back to Eritrea. I wanted to contribute something to make the country better. After 30 years of war, everything was destroyed. My first thought was to become a pediatrician or dentist. But after two weeks of an internship, I knew I couldn’t do that. I can’t see blood, open wounds, people suffering. I wouldn’t have been any help at all. Then I thought about architecture. So that wasn’t for me either.
At some point I realized that only by pursuing my vocation could I have a positive impact on everything around me. Then I accepted that I first had to find myself.
I’ve now come to understand that fashion design is my calling – although, I’ve now also learned to love writing. I always saw fashion as something superficial. But it’s actually not that at all. Each of us thinks about it in the morning: What am I going to wear today? How do I present myself? What story am I telling? Everyone is a changing book, if you will. Either you present yourself openly, or you keep a low profile, want to protect yourself, don’t want to give anything away. Fashion is a protective space with which people wander through the history of the world and tell their stories. That’s not superficial.
Meanwhile, I think you can do a lot with fashion. It is an instrument that can be a voice for voices that are not heard.
Exciting! Can you explain a little more how you mean that?
When I was living in Paris and starting out in fashion, I often got well-meaning advice, like: “When you show your fashion, don’t always think of Black women. The clientele here is white.” Even when presenting, in print or at shows, I was told not to work only with Black models. This was serious advice. At that moment, I realized even more clearly how racist everything around me was. I wondered if these people couldn’t see that I was a Black woman.
As far as I remember, Helmut Lang never sent Black models down the runway. No one would say to him, “don’t just send brunettes down the runway, send blondes too.” I wasn’t Helmut Lang, of course. But this advice crossed lines and was racist.
I realized then that I could also be politically active with fashion, by casting Black models for my shows. Only when that’s no longer an issue, I can do castings freely.
I was also told that I should only do “African fashion” because my fashion is not African. But what is “African fashion” anyway? As a designer, don’t I have the freedom to simply make fashion? Jean-Paul Gaultier wouldn’t be asked to do “French fashion” either.
In this respect, fashion is an important voice.
Meanwhile, you have quite a few other creative projects, right?
I’m working on another book and on a new collection, of course. Next to working for M.Bassy, a colleague and I run the feminist project COME iN TENT, where voices from different countries in Africa come together to tell new stories about precolonial, colonial and postcolonial objects from museum archives.
You sound busy! Thank you for the interview!