20 October 2020

Visual artist from Kenya Zaawadi Kalema posing in a red hat with strings and a red suit

Photography by: @buchifiles x @mosemosaix | Project: Man in red

There are many inspirational Africans living and working abroad, shining a light on their rich and varied African background. Zaawadi, the Kenyan born Model, Visual Artist, Creative Director, Designer and Stylist based in the US is one such star. His name means “gift” and he certainly does have one for creativity, which he shares with his many followers around the world.

Born and raised in Kenya, Nairobi, he and his family moved to America when he was 12 years old (2008). Zaawadi found going to high school a real culture shock at first. He didn't feel like he really belonged until going to college. Although he studied finance and accounting to make his parents proud, another path quickly captured his imagination. His friends had invited him to join a fashion club where he auditioned and took to the catwalk.

From there, people started noticing his potential. Zaawadi became a sponge soaking up instructions and directions.

“Instead of looking at fashion from a bystander’s point of view, I became the fashion. It became a part of me. I wanted to know more about fashion, to change the perspective of even how I presented myself daily.”  

So how has Zaawadi developed that flair for fashion? He describes himself as ‘an ever-evolving artist’. What he does is multifaceted, and doesn't fit in one box. He’s been in front of and behind the camera, has hosted and presented fashion shows, and now also produces his own projects. These include videos, pictures and shows.

 . . “APhotography by: @kwameblue | Project: Masterpiece

Building his business on social media

It took some time for Zaawadi to build his business. At first, he was a model. But then as he saw Instagram starting to grow, he realised the potential that social media holds - the ability to connect with people you've never met.

"It’s so powerful. The opportunity to make an impact and touch people is incredible."

A lot of people use social media for their own entertainment. But Zaawadi looked at it more from a strategic stance with an analytic perspective. He saw it as a way to connect with those creatives that he usually couldn't. 

People can be very hateful on social media. To counter that, Zaawadi began to show love, especially to those who are forgotten. He became known for that, and just by doing that, he began to build relationships. And now, these relationships cross borders - he has connections with people all over the world.

“One thing I can say about social media, something that I became known for, is showing love. It's the small things - sharing people's posts, commenting, connecting with others.”

 https://images.ctfassets.net/sb7j5o4oxtgv/3oFkZdFuCYyrBimz58Hcaw/d49313a49b1e1278881403aac86fb1b0/Zaawadi_1.png“APhotography by: @kylerjvmes | Project: Highly Melanated

His growing success

Zaawadi realised he was on the right path two years ago. He did a photo shoot with a fellow creative. Afterwards, the photographer took the images and submitted them to Vogue Italy. His work was published in Vogue Italy as the Photo of the Day. This was the stamp of approval he was waiting for, a sign that he was going in the right direction.

Another great success was getting featured on Beyonce's website. Her team curates content to support black businesses, and they worked on a feature on black designers. One of the featured designers was someone Zaawadi had worked with, the founder of Henry Couture Paris.

In LA recently, he and his collective organised a creative getaway. The goal was to organise an event to provide a creative space where people can freely create and get inspired by one another - photographers, models and all different sorts of creatives. The feedback they got was amazing and they hope to organise another event soon.

Another exciting project he’s working on is called Highly Melanated, which highlights the beauty of black skin in its most simple form. The goal is to say "Love your melanin, no matter the shade."

 . . “APhotography by: @simbalic | Project: Return of the male muse

Zaawadi’s enduring connection with East Africa

East Africa is mainly known for its athletes, and usually not as a place where creatives come from. Zaawadi wants to rectify that and represent East Africa, by showing off his homeland’s rich culture to the world. 

He wants to go back to East Africa and support its fashion industry. He’s established himself in the US, and now, building the bridge to East Africa is his end goal. He’d love to help highlight the work of East African creatives by giving them a platform to be seen.

Already his connection with East Africa is reflected in his work. He gets inspiration from the Maasai tribe in Kenya, in terms of the vibrant colours and the different patterns that they use. He mixes vibrant colours with brown skin. He also uses nature in imagery, using the surroundings - blending fashion and nature together. 

Zaawadi may have moved from his native country many years ago now, but Kenya is still very much a part of his life.

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Connect with Zaawadi

Instagram:@zaawadi & @zaawadidirected
Twitter: @zaawadi_
Website: www.zaawadikalema.com