Name: Ify Ubby
Identifying Race: Afro Italian
Current Residence: Singapore
What was your first experience with racism?
You’ll be surprised but I’ve never experienced that in my life…My parents were really well known in Spinea, which is my hometown in the province of Venice. I wasn’t really raised with people looking at me as if I was white or black or whatever, so I really never experienced that. Sometimes I experience people who are ignorant or say silly things because they don’t know or whatever/
One time I experienced this, I didn’t take it too seriously. I was in Trieste. I was studying there and I went to look for an apartment with my friend who is Argentinian, but I was the one talking on the phone. So I called this lady and said we’d like to come see the place in the afternoon. When she saw me, she was like, “Oh wow, it was you on the phone?” I said yeah. She said, “Oh you can go to the Carnival and pretend to be African.”
But she was so cute. She was super nice and telling me about her family, so I knew it was ignorance but not in a bad way.
Does Italy have a problem with racism?
Yes, it is a big problem there. I don’t know why it hasn’t been a problem for me there, maybe it’s the way I talk or the way I do things. Maybe it’s my energy. I’ve traveled around a lot in Italy, but I’ve never experienced it. Maybe now it would be different, but I have never experienced it.
My mother and my father moved to Italy more than 40 or 50 years ago and there were very few black people in Italy and especially in their small town, close to Venice. Surprisingly when there were few black people, the population was more curious to know who they were and where they were from…Probably now [Italians] may see a lot [more immigrants] and now they’re afraid, but back then they were super open.
Have you experienced racism in Singapore?
I’ve never experienced any racism in Asia towards me either. Sometimes when I’m traveling I can tell people are from the countryside and not super educated, and that doesn’t mean that they’re rude or whatever. It just means they don’t have access. They’ve never moved from their area and seen what is outside. They don’t know what the outside world is. And that’s not any fault of theirs.
Even if you think about media, it can really give people a point of view that is completely different from reality…People start believing things about places, like that the people from there are bad or that they would never want to go there because it’s dangerous.
Your brand, Olive Ankara, fuses Nigerian fabrics and prints with Italian design. How did you come up with this concept for Singapore’s market?
I had always thought about bringing Africa to Italy, maybe not just clothes but some furniture or something. Then I arrived here, where there are 365 days of summer and there are not so many black people and no places where I can buy these things. The first time I went back home, I asked my mom if I could take some of her fabric to see if I could make something. The next time I asked if I could take some of her blouses because here is the perfect place for it.
In 2016, I got married in Thailand and some of my relatives came from Nigeria. They decided that we should also have a traditional Nigerian part of the wedding, so they asked me what kind of dress I would like to have in Ankara. I designed it, and they manufactured it and my aunt brought my dress. So I saw the Ankara coming to Asia, and I thought, I have to do that. I arranged for my cousin to help me buy fabric from the markets in Nigeria and then the brand just happened.
Is it cultural appropriation for someone who is not African to wear Ankara?
What I’m trying to do is completely the opposite. Everyone can wear it. Ankara is a type of fabric. In Nigeria and in West Africa it’s used for special occasions—weddings, or Sunday at the church, parties. Now, they’re trying to use it more as everyday wear, but still with the bold prints. They use a more traditional shape of dress, so they don’t have crop tops or stuff like that.
I don’t like the idea that, ‘Oh yeah, that looks good on you because you’re black.” No, that’s a stereotype! That’s just like saying, “Yeah, he’s black, so he knows how to dance.” No way! It’s so stupid.
For me, it’s the same way. Everyone can wear Ankara. If you can wear it and feel unique and original in that dress and you know how to style it, why not? It’s like if you go to a church and you don’t do the prayers and do something bad instead, then that’d disrespectful. But if you’re not a Christian and you still want to go to church, you can, of course, go the church.
It’s the same thing, as long as you’re not disrespectful of the tradition, then why not? It’s a celebration of colors and women wearing different colors or the same colors.
As the world becomes more blended, are we at risk of losing cultures?
That is a problem. Mix of cultures, for example, my husband and I. We are an African and an Italian. In some ways, you can think it’s really nice. We can have the best of both worlds and share. But at the same time, you’re missing something, right? Because we are mixing. My kids will be mixed and their kids also. They will miss a lot of Africa, but it also depends on where they live. I’m already losing a lot of Africa by being raised in Italy.
That’s why I hope other people do something similar to what I do with food or music or something. Keep pushing, keep it alive. It’s nice to keep your culture and move forward with the rest of the world.
Was Olive Ankara a way to keep yourself connected with Africa?
I’ve never been to other places in Africa, just Nigeria. I didn’t really visit Africa as a tourist. Olive Ankara was a research thing for me. The research of my roots. I’ve only been to very few places in Nigeria, but I usually would just go there during the holidays or to visit family…I went to the markets with my cousins and stuff.
The last time that I was there was about 11 years ago. I plan to go this summer. I can’t wait. I want to buy some fabrics and really explore Nigeria. Nigeria is not very safe right now. It’s quite dangerous, especially for me, because I’m a foreigner over there. I’m Nigerian by blood, but I’m still a foreigner.
What does that feel like?
I remember one time when I was a kid after I came back from Nigeria, I had a hard time trying to understand what percentage of me was Italian and what was Nigerian.
If you look at my skin, I’m Nigerian. If you go by culture, I’m Italian. It was really hard to understand. I asked myself, “Where am I from? Am I Italian? No, I’m not. Am I Nigerian? No, I’m not.”
But then after talking with my family, I realized that I was lucky because I had both! You know, I had two, where most other people have one. So I’m so lucky because I can be African when I want to be African, I can be Italian when I want to be Italian. I was so happy about that. It’s so amazing. I’m African, I’m Italian, I’m whatever.