Waiting with Wilson Oryema

Port has partnered with Closed for a series of stories profiling poets who are encouraging social change through their work. We talked to Wilson Oryema about language, climate change and making fashion sustainable

“Whether painted or untouched,

an honest depiction, or a bunch of fluff,

all things carry the same value under the blazing sun.”

– Wilson Oryema

Asked what the primary stimulus for his writing is, Wilson Oryema calmly replies, “Life.” The London-based poet, filmmaker, environmental activist and model – a potentially dizzying combination for some, but not him – finds he can only authentically write on subjects he’s personally experienced: “I’ve tried to do various things in my life outside of poetry and they never work out unless I’m putting 100% of myself into it. For it to make sense, emotionally, it has to be honest, understood and lived.”

Oryema’s focus covers capitalism, modern masculinity and most frequently, how we can adopt more sustainable practices for the planet. His recently published collection of poetry, Wait, meditates on the complex web of constant consumption in the 21st Century, urging us to halt before moving onto the next thing held briefly in our hands. “The voice is such a powerful instrument,” he notes, “and poetry is a great medium because it exists between reems of text and nothing at all. It’s punchy. It gets to the point.” I enquire whether poetry’s resurgence in the digital age is in thanks partly due to its brevity? “It definitely taps into the contemporary brain of quick consumption which has gotten used to headlines, advertisements, skimming information. If you look at the Bible – in the beginning was the word. People can’t escape language. The voice is the first medium of communication they come into contact with and it remains the most important means to define ourselves.”

With the UK Prime Minister recently dismissing the danger of inflammatory language – traitor, surrender, betrayal – as “humbug”, how political language is targeted and weaponised is causing a great deal of public anxiety and division. Oryema reflects that this is nothing new: “After WWII, the propaganda writer Edward Bernays introduced a switch in language through his use of public relations and advertising. You can feel that influence in politics now, through the aesthetically pleasing politician, reliance on focus groups, relentless slogans. A faux-science has been built around language manipulation and we’re in a place now where new levels of mastery have been unlocked, but most people are unaware of the control or influence they’re being exposed to. We know how to instil feelings effectively, what buttons to press. There’s a great Drake lyric which comes to mind – ‘Tell me lies, make it sound good.’”

Oryema went from working at a charity to walking the runway at Paris Fashion Week in a matter of weeks. Scouted on his lunch break, he has gone on to work with Edward Enninful, Hugo Boss and extensively with designer Grace Wales Bonner, who he counts as “an older sister”. In a previous interview he knowingly described himself as a “walking contradiction”, both part of the one of the biggest polluting industries in the world, but separate enough to offer a critical perspective. By only choosing to work with brands aligned with his values, it’s clear he feels he can best shape the world of fashion from within, using his work as a platform for change.

His latest documentary examines the toxic chemicals and natural fibres in fashion manufacturing and their unseen effects on the human body. “In the production process, there’s about 8,000 different types of chemicals that clothes are exposed to through their entire manufacturing, from farm to store,” he explains. “We have millions of pores, composed of billions of trillions of cells, so we’re constantly absorbing fibres around us. We’ll think about the environmental cost of the fashion industry, but don’t typically think about the dangers of petrochemicals directly on our body. How do we reconcile that? Are there any effects? The documentary delves into this and looks at some of the chemicals used, as well as alternatives that can reduce your risk. We have to take care take care of our surrounding environment, but also not lose sight of self-care, protecting the human body.”

Having just joined the Global Fashion Agenda, a forum arguing for a change in how clothing is produced, marketed and consumed, Oryema has publicly stated that the future of fashion will be rooted in accountability. Expanding on this, he rationalises that, “with the advent of the information age, the internet, connected devices, the brightness of our screens has reduced the amount of darkness in the world. There’s nothing that isn’t being captured or tracked in some way, whether that’s the end user or back end. Traceability is now becoming a big trend and we’re coming to a point where we’ll be able to track everything, with new companies like EON creating digital identities for clothes. Once these things become totally visible, when parties have to take ownership of their production – how much waste you’re producing, how many physical stores you own, how you treat your workers – there’s going to be no dark spaces to hide secrets. This transparency will lead to much more accountability.”

Originally born in Clapham, Oryema grew up in Brixton surrounded by British Red Cross research and pamphlets from the Salvation Army due to his mother working for both, in addition to a number of other charities. Did this emphasis on care – for others, for the world at large – subconsciously shape him? “Naturally we are the sum of our environment and our surroundings. I’ve somehow strolled into a space where I’m considered an activist or environmentalist. Whatever I’m doing, though, I don’t see any way forward for myself that isn’t improving my surroundings. Whether it’s my writing or photography or film, I want to play a role in creating social change. Art has this ability to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily come into contact with or care about issues like climate change. I want to contribute new perspectives.”  

Last year saw six million citizens the world over join in a mass global climate strike. I ask whether this is an encouraging sign, and just how optimistic he is about stemming the damages brought by climate change? “This may come as a shock, but I am supremely hopeful,” he replies. “Lots is already being done and I can see so much promise in people right now. There was a recent news story about a schoolchild committing suicide because they were so scared of climate change. If people are bullied or scared into thinking they’re the cause, if you back people into a corner, you’ll naturally evoke feelings of paralysis and apathy. Problems are never solved through fear. Long term thinking relies on hope – we have to stay calm.”

Wilson Oryema wears Closed Spring 2020 throughout

Photography: Paul Rousteau

Styling: Dan May

Styling assistant: Ellie May Brown

Hair and makeup Ditte Lund Lassen using Oribe Hair Care, Weleda and Glossier.com