She is a woman befitting a king –an African King. As an American, she speaks with a passion and love about Africa that surpasses a native’s. Homely, stately and comely, she possesses the ingenuity and beauty of African culture. Her desire to promote Africa and its people is undying. When Nelson Mandela was released, she was there to coordinate his American trip. She was on hand to design a crown (in South African flag colours) for Winnie Mandela. In 1984, she was the one who created all the traditional wears of the Nigerian Olympics delegation. As part of her for the continent, she chose to fall in love with the world-famous, one and only Juju meastro –King Sunny Ade. Queen Ahneva Ahneva is an extraordinary African-American-woman married to a Nigerian evergreen superstar. The US-based Times newspaper cited her as being “a professor of African textiles.” An award-winning African couture designer and promoter –with at least over 100 awards crowding her shelf and walls –, Ahneva hasn’t stopped dreaming of Africa, especially Nigeria. After years of shuttling between the US and Nigeria, she has finally settled in Nigeria to continue doing what she knows how to do best. On November 22 (today), the launch date of ‘The Wearable Art Gallery’ and ‘Gallery Café’, the adorable queen, in this interview with Azuka Ogujiuba narrates her thrills and frills in the African fashion and the skills she’s brought to bear; how she fell in love with Sunny Ade, why she left the US and why she was called in the US “That crazy African lady”
Why did you decide to leave the US to stay in Nigeria?
My decision to leave the USA was after great consideration to the fact that I had spent many years coming back and forth to visit my husband since the early 80s. I felt it was finally time to take the giant step and come home.
Your enterprise back in the US –African Centered Couture –was doing pretty well where most African-Americans appreciate African fashion. Why did you leave where you were a queen?
African American didn’t always appreciate African fashion. It was over a period of 25 years of my teaching and training about Africa’s contribution to the fashion industry in tools, textiles and techniques that my people started appreciating the culture, the fabrics and my designs. I was always referred to as ‘that crazy African lady’ because I was always screaming ‘Africa gave it all to the world.’ I travelled throughout the US for more than 10 years doing a show called, ‘Fashion Heritage,’ describing Africa’s contribution to the world of fashion... it was like a Broadway show. For 10 years I produced an African Fashion Show on a cruise ship with Festival at Sea. I also toured with the African-American Women on Tour doing a workshop titled, ‘Queen By Birthright,’ teaching on the African-American connection to Africa via fashion. My company, Designers Network International, was doing very well. I had become the go-to place for African centered Cultural Couture in the United States. My clientele list read like the who’s who in the entertainment, boasting of such figures as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Alfred Woodard, Angela Basset, Nancy Wilson, Quincy Jones, Sidney Poitier, Chris Tucker and so many more.
The political and religious communities had embraced my Kingdom Collections. I spent many years designing clergy robes for such mega pastors as Fred and Betty Price. Taffy Dollar, Dr. King’s daughter –Bernice King –, bishops and leaders throughout America and the Caribbean. When the Los Angeles Times was looking for a designer that used African textiles, they searched high and low for an African-American, to be a part of a story with top designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin and others. After their search I ended up as the only designer that had been using African textiles for over 20 years in couture. I ended up with the whole story (Wrapped In Pride). The Times newspaper cited me as being a professor of African textiles. After that, things started really moving; I was offered so many movies for costuming, commercials, you name it. I had the (GOLD) the best collection of traditional authentic textiles from Africa, thanks to Nike. I feel I single-handedly put African high fashion on the map in America. I have received over 100 awards for my work with African couture. One of which was the covenant ‘African Queen Award,’ awarded to me on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, from the United States Congress. It was a humbling experience. From then on, I was then known as the ‘Queen of Design’ by everyone. The Mayor of DC gave me my own day in Washington to honour me. I then received my own day by the Mayor of New York, for my work with the ‘Black Fashion Museum’ and the Harlem Institute of Fashion in New York. To top that off, I was the only African-American to receive an award from Mayor of Beverly Hills for my work with Traditional African textiles. Nike Okundaye was a big part of shaping my career because she has been supplying me with authentic African textiles for over 25 years.
Once recognised by the political arena the ball started rolling. I was then chosen as the ‘Jewel of Africa,’ by African Focus, an prestigious organisation in Beverly Hills which had been following my work with African textiles, and traced all my works with Africa; and cited me as helping to promote Africa and its people. When Nelson Mandela was released
I helped to coordinate the American trip. I also had the honour of designing a crown for Winnie in the South African flag colors. I was honoured to create all the traditional wears of the Nigerian delegation for the 1984 Olympics. I actually carried the Nigerian flag; I represented Fulani as I was told I look like Fulani. I have always promoted Africa and its glorious legacy. It seemed natural for me to return home to the place I love so much to be with my family.
What were you doing in Nigeria for the first five years of your arrival?
When I first arrived in Nigeria I went straight to Ondo State to spend time at our country home. I took time to just rest and work on the house putting some things in order. I was just taking it easy. My husband said I should just take my time and figure out what it was I wanted to do. I stayed there for a while; then I came to Lagos and immediately went to meet Nike at her gallery to find out how I could help out in anyway. This was before she moved into the new gallery which became the largest in all of Africa. She invited me to stay with her for a while; I did stay in her guest house while in Lagos until my husband found an appropriate house which ended up being on Nike’s street. While working with Nike I met one of the partners at AERO Contractors Airlines. Nike told them about my work in fashion and the conversation drifted to me telling them that I could design some new uniforms for them. To my surprise, the following week a young man from AERO’s office contacted me. We started talking about me developing uniforms for them. So for the next year and a half I was working on that project. To my disappointment, the company and partners had a falling out and the project was abruptly halted. I ended up in total devastation after spending so much time and energy on the project. I got all the way up to designing the samples sourcing fire-proof fabrications and designing and producing the entire sample only for them to end up in a trunk. After trying to work things out with their attorney we finally agreed that it would be best to cancel the project. At that time I still had my showroom in the US so I was going back and forth for a while until I eventually decided to close it and put both feet on ground here in Nigeria.
So, what happened?
Later in the year, I was blessed to be at one of the Olori’s home with my mum, Amimat Ahmadu and a young man named, Tin Tin Avorean, was there. He was looking at me out of the side of his eyes. I was a little nervous not knowing who he was but finally he approached me and said he was a programme director for a radio station and they were about to launch. He said he thought my voice had great tone; he asked if I would be interested in doing a voice test. Of course, I said ‘Yes.’ He loved my voice and offered me the job. That’s how I got the job at Classic FM 97.3 as an on-air personality. Tin Tin has since left and started his own web-based radio station I GROOVE. I started with a Sunday show, ‘Raise the Praise.’ After I was there for a while I was offered four more days to make five days a week. I then developed the show ‘Mellow Magic’ which I became the voice for nighttime radio; I did for about three and a half years. I retired my nighttime show because I became the managing director for a company, Quintessentially. I have since left to start my new venture, The Wearable Art Gallery and the Gallery Cafe which I will be launching on November 22, 2014 they are both inside Nike Art Gallery’s compound. There, I will be able to do everything I love: create fabulous fashion and create a healthy alternative lifestyle with the cafe.
How has your new fashion studio turned out?
I think that I have branded myself pretty good; it was very important for me to feel good about what I was doing. I did not want it to be seen as just the wife of an icon. I wanted to create my brand Queen Ahneva Ahneva, as I did in the US. Therefore, my husband and I agreed that I would not use my last name but my brand name, Queen Ahneva Ahneva (QAA).
How affordable are your products?
My products are very affordable for what I do. Art is not cheap neither is wearable art. But my prices are certainly reachable for the average middle class consumer. I try to have different price points so that we can accommodate most of our customers.
What makes your products unique?
My products are uniquely creative, artistic designs; most of my fabrics are handmade by top textile artisans. We use a lot of hand embroidered art, hand painted, beaded and dyed fabrics. I do a lot of cut-out inlaid and mixing and blending of different textiles to create the looks. I strive to promote the use of indigenous textiles; so I use a lot of hand-woven textiles. We have our own dyers and batik artists so we get the best from them.
Have you ever sewn for your husband?
Have I ever? I have been sewing for my husband for years –that’s how we met. A friend invited me to one of his shows at UCLA in California where I lived in the US. They were a part of the organising team. I went backstage and she said, ‘King, we would like for you to meet our Queen of design. She makes African couture.’ We started chatting and lo and behold he invited me to make something for him. That’s how it all started with us. Every time he came to the US I would create something new for him. I would always make beautiful crowns for him. We had a little ritual we did where I would go on stage sometimes and dance with him and crown him with the new piece.
How much influence does KSA’s popularity have on your business?
Well, that is yet to be seen. Since I’m just opening and he may not be there because he is so busy with his own stuff. He rarely has time. I have been waiting to do my opening for about seven months waiting for him to be free but he has yet to have time; I just decided to take the giant step and see what happens. I have a lot of support from my MD at Classic and my Classic FM family; Nike and her husband are like (mummy and daddy) to me –and so many others have rallied around me to help me blow it up.
How often do you see him due to his tight schedule?
Rarely; he is somewhat absent because he is booked till 2020! His family must share him with the world. However, I’m his number one fan.
Do you have any child with KSA?
We have two beautiful children a son and a daughter –they are grown and gone. They both are doing well in the US. But they do come to visit.
You’ve also opened Gallery Cafe at the Nike Art Gallery, are you quitting fashion for confectionery?
Absolutely not! The cafe is a natural for me: I had a catering service in the States for years –that’s how I paid for my education. I’m a gourmet cook; however, I will not be doing cooking just managing it. It’s collaboration with Nike. And since it’s all on the same compound only steps away from my wearable art gallery I can keep an eye on it with ease.
How did the cooking part of you evolve?
As I said, I had a catering service that did very well in the states. The third catering job I had was for then Governor Jerry Brown. He gave me glowing revenue and really launched my service. After that, it grew like a flash fire roaring through dry grass. I did many heads of states. I was touring with Peabo Bryson, Earth Wind and Fire and so many more. I did all the government protocol events and the special parties. That’s how I ended up working in protocol for the Senate Assembly and Congress –eventually doing special events and advance protocol.
What is your greatest fear?
Being looked at as a foreigner and not embraced as a true African woman.
Which living person do you most admire?
I guess that would be my girl, Oprah Winfrey; because she is a self-made billionaire and she’s a giver, with a beautiful spirit and a big heart.
What is the trait you deplore most in yourself?
Fear of failure.
What is your greatest extravagance?
It’s spa treatment; getting stroked down with a good massage.
What is your favorite expedition?
Traveling throughout Africa and learning about the homeland of my forefathers.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
It’s patience. I like to move fast and make things happen quick. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Get in the bushes and watch.’
What do you most despise?
Phony ass people –people that pose as your friends and stab you in your back.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘Everything is in divine order’ and ‘I love you with a perfect love.’
What is your greatest regret?
Not coming to Africa sooner. I think I really could have done so much more had I been on ground on the continent. Our people are suffering and need help. I want to make a difference and I feel I could have been a bigger blessing to my people had I been here sooner.