Thursday 27th February 2020

In 2014, Wilson Oryema was working as a business apprenticeship provider when he was scouted by a model agent to walk a Maison Martin Margiela show. Campaigns for Calvin Klein and Kenzo soon followed. Since signing to Storm in 2017, assignments have ranged from campaigns for Hugo Boss and Versace to a role in Edward Enninful’s Pirelli calendar for 2018. 

A restless and curious soul, Oryema has spent his time developing his creativity as a poet, artist, performer, speaker, environmentalist and activist. In 2017, he published Wait, his thought-provoking book of poetry on the subject of consumption; the follow- ing year he collaborated with the artist and photographer Harley Weir on Rubbish_1, an exhibition of photographs of, well, rubbish. He is a gentle, thoughtful soul, a bright and original spark on the many panels he is now invited to speak on, whether at Copenhagen Fashion Summit (in 2019) or as part of a discussion around circularity for the independent brand Riley Studio. His most recent project was to make a short documentary called How Toxic Are My Clothes? You can watch it on YouTube. 

Oryema uses his range of talents and as many different forms of communication as possible to influence (in the true sense of the world) the fashion industry and his fellow citizens to be informed, educate themselves, make better choices and create positive change in the industry and beyond. Here, he talks about some of the brands and campaigns he has worked with recently, and the challenges of inducing change and keeping your integrity intact. 

There are many problems that plague the planet in different ways. Some are natural cycles, unrelated to us and beyond our control; others have been instigated and/or exacerbated by us, mostly due to our overconsumption. Regardless, we have reached an age where we are finally taking the issues seriously and trying to address them. How we do that, however, is still under fiery debate. 

Sometimes all we can do is conduct our own research, share our findings in interesting ways and refine our approach as we go along. Which is what I’ve done so far. Some may argue about the “efficiency” or “impact” of what I do or stand next to. So allow me to describe my approach, the people I have worked with, and why I think these projects will contribute to a better future. This begins with my core focus: consumption. 

In particular, I’m interested in human consumption, in all its forms, from to what we buy, what ideas and beliefs we hold, and so on. I look at the effects of these actions on human behaviour and our environment. I chose this methodology because I believe the cause and solution of most, if not all, of these issues are rooted in the human psyche. So, rather than solely challenge the physical problems that surround us, it is about addressing the thought processes and behaviours that have led us to this point. 

Now, there are many ways to approach this, but when you don’t have a lot of time or resources, you should start small. Which is what I did, result- ing in multiple exhibitions, books, documentaries, zines, short films, performances and more. This multi-format approach reflects my own interests, but also the understanding that not everyone digests information in the same way, and if you want to reach as many people as possible, you have to diversify the medium. You only need to look at schools and the early-learning tests to see how we best take in information, whether that’s visually (through what we see), auditorily (through what we hear), kinaesthetically (through physical interaction), or whether it’s through a mixture, if not all three. Whichever way it is, different approaches will have different effects on different people. 

That’s the easy part. You find a problem, focus on it and conduct further research, then try to provide a solution. For me, at least, you solely bear the weight of your sins. No more, no less. It is very different, however, when partnering or collaborating with organisations. The level of risk is multiplied by several factors, and now you have to ask yourself a lot more questions… Do you agree with everything the organisation does? Is what you disagree with excusable enough to collaborate? What’s your role in the collaboration? How much control and/or leverage do you have? How does it affect perception of you moving forward? Is the return (financial or otherwise) worth it? 

Of course, there are other questions you can ask, and somewhat unfortunately, the more work I complete, the smaller the range of leniency I can exhibit with regards to these questions. What I would have done in year one I cannot do in year three, and that may be because my role or control in the partnership is unsatisfactory, the return may not match the value provided, and so on. But alas, such is life. 

So, what of the organisations I work with currently, or worked with in 2019? Why have I chosen to work with them? Allow me to explain. There are various brands I collaborated with, in various contexts, from ambassadorship and consulting to creating poems and other forms of content. These were primarily centred around raising awareness and providing solutions for issues affecting the environment. They are as follows. 

Last September, Timberland launched their Nature Needs Heroes campaign, an initiative outlining a path for them to do better for the planet. Actions include planting 50m trees across the world by 2025; redesigning their stores and products to reduce impact and waste; engaging consumers in the different ways they can contribute and help to lessen our collective impact. As an ambassador for this global project, I collaborate on various launches and speak for them at conferences and other events. In a time of so much disagreement over the level of risk our planet is facing and what’s causing it, greening – the planting of trees – when done correctly, stands out as one of the only provable methods of restoring ecosystems and improving the quality of life.

As part of its launch in late 2019, Earth Partner, the environmentally focused extension of Art Partner, launched an art competition for young people to tie in with the COP25 conference in Madrid in December. Entrants were asked to raise awareness about climate change. The winner and other finalists were all awarded cash prizes, the opportunity to work and had their work featured at the conference. I was invited to be part of the jury, and helped to select the winner and five other finalists.

My enthusiasm for this project and belief in the model comes from sever- al places. Firstly, far too many times we have seen creatives asked to respond to some type of “crisis” (or event) through their work and not be offered any incentive or reward for their time. Second, a leading artist-management and production company splitting themselves (time and focus) and creating an arm focused on addressing environmental issues is out of the ordinary. It is something that most for-pro t companies could only dream of doing as, positives aside, it requires a massive amount of effort. 

Those are a few of the brands and organisations I worked with last year that I see as positively contributing to our future. I also worked with several others, including Global Fashion Agenda, and Fashion Revolution, both of whom I learnt an incredible amount from. 

However, as mentioned before, collaboration is not always a simple pro-
cess. Especially in this particular space, where the engagement is predicated on your belief in your partners to be working in a way that benefits the world at large. However, as we don’t live in a simple world, every action will have some type of trade-off. Although you may be creating positive results in one way, in another way this may result in ecological strain or another draw-back. For example, while some may advocate for the use of plastic-based fur or leather, as they prefer it to animal skin, it could be argued that this increase in the production of toxic plastics will effect ecosystems terribly.

That’s not to say there is a right or wrong answer. There are times I may work with someone and realise shortly afterwards that I need to separate myself from them and the situation because, after coming across more information, I realise we don’t align as much as I had initially thought. Which is fine. You can’t be too hard on yourself about missteps, and to live in regret or shame is to live in the past. Our advancements only come by learning from our mistakes, or from those of others, and living truthfully – otherwise we’ll be forced to repeat them.

Wilson Oryema is a writer and multidisciplinary artist 

From Issue 15 of 10 Magazine Australia ‘BEST FOOT FORWARD’ on newsstands now.




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