Weendu – Bringing African Artists and Artisans to New York

WEENDU closed it’s New York showroom in late March, 2017.  However, you can still contact them through their website.

I recently spoke with Lydie Diakhate, who runs the New York showroom  Weendu featuring handmade furniture, accessories and art made by artists from Africa and the African diaspora.

Clarisee Djionne and Lydie Diakhate of Weendu

Liz:  How long has this showroom been open?

Lydie:  Since June last year, not quite one year. 

Liz:  What’s your biggest challenge so far?

Lydie:  It takes time, and you have to take the time.

Liz: That’s true especially in a city like NY where you’re constantly competing against other people…

Lydie:  All the time; you really have to find your network, your path, your space… especially for us because we are very specific and unusual – we are not about mass production.  As you know, everything is hand-made, so the production is completely different.  It’s really a specific market and it takes time to find the right people, the way to build your image, your network, your relations.  This is new – it’s really the first company like this in New York.  Our desire is to have a long-term presence and to grow. 

Liz: Tell me how Weendu was started.

Lydie:  It began with Clarisse Djionne, she’s the owner and founder.  She works with private designers from Africa, and she’s involved in the arts – she had a wonderful gallery in Dakar for a few years so this is really her field.  As an interior designer, as a collector, she’s very involved and very dynamic.  Her dream has always been to have a place here in New York because the U.S. is an amazing market, it’s the place to be, so many things are happening, and what is new and avant-garde is happening here, too. 

It’s changing in Africa, slowly; now there are beautiful designers in every country in Africa, but we are missing the visibility and the infrastructure to be able to diffuse the work. But the market is growing, it’s very competitive, and African designers are very well trained.  Contemporary design in Africa started in the ’90‘s, first in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, because of the CSAO, which is a huge market that takes place every two years, with artisans from all across Africa in all fields – food, furniture, baskets – everything. There was a lot of passion and enthusiasm for contemporary design, so they started a salon (show) for it.

At the Dakar Biennale they started to show contemporary design.  In St. Etienne, France, which is a very important place for contemporary design, they hosted various African designers for two years.  So African designers were becoming more and more visible, they had increased access to training, as well as more opportunities to interact with other designers – this is very important.  So now we have competitive designers with amazing skills, and their work is at the same level as other contemporary designers from around the world. 

That’s really what we want to show here in the United States, those designers who are at the same level as the others.  We want them to be seen as contemporary designers, first.  Then that they are living in Africa, using African materials, getting their inspiration from Africa, but they are contemporary. 

Painting by Senegalese artist Camara Guyeye


Liz:  How do you find your designers – is it at the salons, or people you know…

Lydie:  Clarisse knows the designers from her work as an interior designer.  When I met Clarisse, she had already selected work by several of the artisans. I’ve been a journalist for a long time, so I already knew these brands when I met Clarisse, which made it very interesting and easy, because we agreed on the selection of works to showcase, I really loved the work of the designers, and I knew them. 

Liz:  How did you meet Clarisse?

Lydie: Through Diagne Chanel, a Senegalese artist, who put us in touch with each other.  It was interesting, as Clarisse and I had been in the same world for many years, and I used to go to her gallery in Dakar, but we never met. We finally did meet in Senegal, and then she came to New York to open the showroom.  She was looking for someone living here in the U.S.; I was very enthusiastic about the idea – that’s how it happened!  We showed at the ICFF (International Contemporary Fine Furniture Show in NYC) in May, that was really the first step for Weendu.  We’ll do the ICFF in New York again in May this year.

Liz:  Will you be doing other fairs?

Lydie:  Yes, we went to Miami in October, but because of Hurricane Matthew they shut down the city for two days, so the show was up for only a few hours – it was so sad. But for those few hours we met wonderful people, we had good conversations… I think that Miami is a great place, for design

Liz:  You also showed at Wanted Design in Industry City in Brooklyn in December.

Lydie:  Industry City is a really interesting concept, you have all these different businesses:  bakeries, chocolate, designers, marketing firms, it’s all very creative, the spaces are amazing.  Wanted Design is an interesting concept, they’re doing a great job, I hope we can work with them again.

Liz:  Who is your target audience: is it designers or individuals looking to furnish their homes?

Lydie:  The people we try firstly to reach are interior designers, architects, upholsterers, concept stores…

Liz:  Tell me about some of your designers.

Lydie:  We have metal furniture by Hamed Ouattara whose studio is in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Armoire by Hamed Ouattara


Tekura, based in Ghana, makes wood furniture

Table by Tekura


in fashion – the artist Marielle Plaisir has a new brand where she’s using some of her paintings on clutch handbags and scarves

Clutch by Marielle Plaisir


Fatyly makes tableware – she’s Senegalese, studied at Central St. Martins in London, and is now working with a company based in Limoges, France.  It’s all high quality (gold trim), hand-made, with a very traditional aesthetic from West Africa: it’s very specific – the big earrings, the hairstyles, the dark lips – she uses this image and makes it very contemporary.  She has also been working with ceramicists in Africa for many years.

Plate by Fatyly


Liz: Are you looking at the diaspora as well as the Continent?

Lydie: All the connections…   Marielle Plaisir is from Guadeloupe and  lives in Miami – she uses fairy tale images in her paintings to tell a story.  She’s interested in the different identities on an island.

Painting by Marielle Plaisir


Liz:  This brings me to my last question, about you.  I met you several years ago when you were showing a  film about Bamako, Mali, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  – now you’re running Weendu New York.  Tell me about your trajectory.

Lydie:  It’s the same for me, it’s art.  I just finished a documentary about the African-American sculptor Melvin Edwards, who works with iron and steel – his work is just beautiful.  I would like to continue to do films about art

Liz:  You also founded a documentary film festival in Accra, Ghana.

Lydie:  Yes, I lived in Accra for 2 years, and the festival ran for 6 years.  But you know when you live abroad it’s not always that easy, so I stopped.

My desire has always been to showcase contemporary African art, so I wrote, organized film festivals and conferences, all with a focus on contemporary African art, to show people that Africa is contemporary. 

Liz:  I think the word is getting out.  Here in NY you have the African Film Festival; in May, 1:54 the Contemporary African Art Fair is coming back for a third year; African musicians are featured at the summer festivals here and throughout the year in various venues, there’s Afropop  Also since the late ’80’s the West African community in New York has been growing.

Lydie:  You see how things are changing:  now, lots of people, galleries and collectors from around the world, and major museums are coming to the Dakar Biennale to see African art. In every country in Africa there is something going on in film, in art, in music.

Hopefully people in the art field in Africa will be able to build a new market and be in a better position to put Africa on the art scene.   

That’s why we’re here, we’d like to be able to help the artists from Africa to have a home here;  to support them, to distribute their work so they’re more visible.  But it takes time…

Liz:  I think in New York is that it takes persistence – you just have to keep on going out, meeting people, going to the shows, going to the events, and what makes it harder is that people come and go…  You finally connect with someone and six months later they’re off to London or Bamako or wherever their next journey is ….

Lydie:  Yes, and that’s hard sometimes to explain that to people who don’t live here… nothing is fixed, everything is moving… one week a store closes, a new one opens, then a building is torn down, a new one replaces it…

For me this is a beautiful challenge – I can bring together everything I like – I’m very happy to be able to work with these beautiful artists, but it’s a challenge.. they’re not well known, most have never had an exhibit in the U.S.

Liz:  And you’re competing with people from all over the world, so that makes it harder.

Lydie:  That’s what I like about New York.  When I first came here, I was surprised by all the different languages, the different cultures, and this is just really wonderful. So for me it’s been very easy to adjust to New York.  You don’t ever feel like a foreigner. 

Weendu Design  is located at 195 Chrystie Street, and is open to the public.  You can find more information on their website  

Jake Walker Show

Untitled painting by Jake Walker

Untitled painting by Jake Walker

Got over to Sonia Dutton’s  gallery on the LES where New Zealand artist Jake Walker is having a show, Geyserland.   The title, along with several of the works, pay homage to the geysers, terraces, and waterfalls of the Orakei Karako Valley, which was flooded by the New Zealand government in 1961 to make way for a relatively small hydroelectric dam.  Working in acrylic, Walker creates paintings of pure abstraction, with strong brush strokes and many layers, built up in  stages, giving them a very earthy feel; very often, they’ll contain a burst of bright color.

Untitled painting by Jake Walker

Untitled painting by Jake Walker

For several of the pieces, Walker created his own ceramic frame, after which he improvised the picture, deriving inspiration and the color palette from the frame, so when you closely at his “white” paintings you’ll notice red or blue undertones which pick up those in the frame.  The frames also have a very industrial and architectural feel, their protrusions  evoking pipes, or spindles, or  even Roman irrigation systems.  There’s an all black painting that I really liked – the brushstrokes are very forceful.  The show is very compact, consisting of about a dozen works.  It will be up until November 20th (Wednesdays through Sundays, 1:00 – 6:00) .  Catch it at Dutton Gallery, 124 Forsyth Street, right off Delancey.

The Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue

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Stained Glass – Eldridge Street Synagogue

I first visited the The Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue some years ago when I attended a reading produced by Origin Theatre.  The building fascinated me, and finally this week I took one of the guided tours to find out more.  I learned not only about the building, but  also quite a bit about Jewish life on the Lower East Side.

When this National Historic Landmark opened its doors in 1887, it was the home of a vibrant Orthodox Jewish congregation for many years.  As the community dispersed, the main sanctuary was closed, and fell into disrepair.  Starting in the mid 1980’s, over a 20-year period, the synagogue was restored to it’s former splendor, and now has a stunning new stained-glass window by the artist Kiki Smith and the architect Deborah Gans.  The Museum is closed on Saturdays and major Jewish holidays, when it is used as a synagogue.

The Museum has ongoing cultural and educational events.  Check out the Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas street festival  Sunday, June 7th,  from noon to 4:00, celebrating Jewish, Chinese and Puerto Rican cultures and cuisines.  

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Tenement Museum

Tenement Museum

Even though it can seem like New York City is getting more and more crowded, and apartments are getting smaller and smaller, it’s nothing compared to the way people lived on the Lower East Side in the mid-19th to early 20th century.   The tours at the Tenement Museum (recreated apartments in a 5-storey,1863 tenement building) give you a good idea of the living conditions successive waves of immigrants encountered when they arrived on these shores. Imagine living in one of the 20 apartments in the building in the photo!

I took the “Irish Outsiders” tour, which recounted the lives of Bridget and Joseph Moore, who in 1868 moved from 5 Points to Orchard Street  (then called Kleindeutchland), with three daughters (and left with two).  Through their story I learned much about daily life of the mix of immigrants on the Lower East side (Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews): how they tried to keep their cultural heritage while assimilating, and their struggles to find decent jobs, housing and education – issues immigrants still face today.  The Museum can only be visited through guided tours.  Find out more here

The gift shop is a terrific place for NYC-centric gifts; their book selection is great!