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Your Space Or Mine

Bevan Agyemang’s label TSAU is the embodiment of his Ghanaian heritage and ‘London aesthetic’ of his youth

Bevan Agyemang’s work is a synthesis of all his distinct influences. From the vibrant London community of his youth to the Ghanaian heritage of his family and his travels around the globe, the expansive vision of this multidisciplinary artist draws on a unique constellation of references and experiences.

Fascinated by space and how we inhabit it, he initially gravitated toward street photography because it appealed to his curiosity about people, style, and how we signify group belonging. But these interests eventually coalesced in the creation of TSAU, the acclaimed design studio founded by Agyemang which draws on his vast range of influences to create beautiful garments and objects which distil his ever-evolving personal style and his interest in artisanal techniques. “It’s an acronym of The Space Around Us,” he explains. “‘us’ being everyone.”

Talking to me over Zoom, he’s sat in a beautiful, considered-looking room with Moroccan plastered walls and a daybed scattered with bold, embroidered cushions. Sun streams in through a Victorian sash window and it feels like an appropriate convergence of the very London and African design elements that recur throughout the visual language of his work.


Words by Emily Dinsdale

Agyemang grew up in Harlesden in northwest London – a Caribbean-centered community he describes as “enclosed” but hugely influential in ways he wouldn’t necessarily appreciate until he’d gained some distance. “There was a stage where it was very frustrating because I felt like I was caged in,” he recalls. “But I didn’t realise how all of those little nuances that were happening within the scene helped me to develop my style and my perspective. And now, I’m grateful for those experiences. It wasn’t until I moved out and came back around that I understood the importance of what I had gone through.”

Despite the profound influence of this “London aesthetic” and the brands he aligned himself with as a teenager, it was when he left home to study and travel that his horizons really began to expand. He explains: “My personal style started to develop, because I was travelling much more, and picking up different pieces on the way, as well as learning artisanal techniques from the communities I was spending time in.”

A pivotal moment came towards the end of his studies when Agyemang’s father presented him with a box of family photographs. “Those photographs of my parents… I think kind of gave me foresight into the future and an understanding where I was going with everything,” he says. The striking style and fashions he encountered in those images continue to inform his designs to this day, including an image of his father that particularly captured his imagination: “That silhouette!” he exclaims in awe. “I always try to recreate that. And I think that silhouette lives within the TSAU collection.”

Now, his vision of TSAU will be realised in an upcoming pop-up taking place in London’s Piccadilly Arcade – a conceptual event he hopes will be an experience in itself; as if stepping into the world of TSAU. The space will function as a showcase not just for Agyemang’s latest collection of clothes and objects, but also for his films and images. As the latest emerging designer to be featured by BUILDHOLLYWOOD, the launch of the store will also be accompanied by billboards around the city featuring Agyemang’s striking imagery. “It’s really going to touch my soul,” he says when I ask him how he’ll feel to see his photography displayed on the very streets which played such a formative role in his youth. He tells me he’s particularly excited about the billboard on Goldhawk Road. This was a significant site of childhood memory where he’d accompany his mother while she shopped for fabric and African foods, and there’s such a beautiful and emotive circularity about the idea of his imagery now occupying this very location all these years later.

In the lead-up to TSAU’s BUILDHOLLYWOOD collaboration, I talk to Agyemang about coming to new realisations about his past, the intersection of different cultural identities, the words of wisdom he’d pass on to young creatives, and all the special sites he’d take us to on a whistlestop tour of west London.

 For anyone who might not have encountered your work, I wondered if you could introduce yourself and TSAU?

I started out as a street photographer. I was always interested in exploring spaces and the people within those spaces, so I was always lurking around watching and documenting different individuals. I used to find it really interesting how people moved around in different spaces, and how people made sense of the world around them. I guess I was also trying to find out about myself and how I felt about things.

I grew up in inner-city London, where I was enclosed in my community and never really travelled or ventured out much. I grew up in Harlesden, which is northwest London – a real Caribbean-centered community. So, even though I have African origins, I always felt I had a Jamaican experience growing up.

I guess throughout those 15 years of my life, I kind of wanted to kind of explore myself outside of that. So when I started to go to university, I started my culture studies discipline and I read a book by Naomi Klein called No Logo, and I tracked back and everything started to make sense. As I was growing up, the uniform was all about logos to identify with the people around you. And then I started to understand branding a little bit more and I wanted to explore things outside of that.

By the time I started street photography, I kind of understood myself and where I was going. I travelled to different countries. I went to India, which was a really heavy experience and also helped me develop empathy.

So this continued to go on, and I continued to document it as a photographer… but it was never really about the tool of photography. A few years later, I developed the brand TSAU which is an acronym for ‘the space around us’ because it was all about how I was influenced by the things I had seen and all my experiences. And my personal style started to develop, because I was travelling much more, and picking up different pieces on the way, as well as learning artisanal techniques from the communities I was spending time in.

How would you describe the aesthetic you developed during this time? Is there any kind of thread that kind of recurs throughout your work and ties all these different interests together?

I think my origins of being Ghanaian ride through everything that I do. There are so many layers to me but, at the same time, I think that is the nucleus of everything I do. Spiritually, I think it’s something that lives inside of me.

I feel like anytime I need to recharge and I need a new sense of perspective, I go back to Jamestown in Ghana. I work with a lot of people within that community. If I’m going to shoot out there, I work with them to teach them how to do production, cast models. So I feel like there’s a healthy exchange of skills happening. And also I’m more or less trying to help build a foundation out there, which will enable them to be able to work for themselves. I have a strong relationship with the community out there. And I think that is at the root of everything I do.

That’s such a strong visible presence of history and lineage throughout your work. I love the pictures of your parents and their style. How do that sense of family and the past inform what you do?

There was actually an integral moment which was a big shift for me… Growing up, I wasn’t that close to my father. I mean, he was present but we never had the conversations that a father and son maybe should have. But there was a day – I think it was in my last year of uni – and he gave me a box of photographs. And at the time I had just discovered Malick Sidibe and all the African photographers who had begun to document the post-colonial identity of Africans. So, by the time my father gave me this box of photographs, I was like, ‘Ah, this is just so personal to me!’ Because I was looking at all these other references and here are those same images, but my family lineage! So everything he hadn’t told me through words, I was able to learn through those images. Even just the box alone… just opening the box and smelling the inside, it kind of set alive some things in myself.

At that time, I still had a London aesthetic about me. But when I saw some of those photographs, there was a balance of, you know, Africans that were still trying to be traditional but also understanding that there’s a colonial identity there. So it was a new thing that was being bred. Looking at those images – one image in particular – I saw myself in my father. And then there was a connection there that became stronger.

And also that character – that silhouette! – I always try to recreate that. And I think that silhouette lives within the TSAU collection. So yeah, those photographs of my parents and understanding their journey from Ghana to London and everything in between, I think kind of gave me foresight into the future and an understanding where I was going with everything.

And maybe you weren’t ready to receive those photographs earlier? Maybe he gave them to you at such a perfect time when you were most receptive to those images?

Whether it was conscious or subconsciously, it came at the right time.

You mentioned being a London boy and having a London aesthetic. I wonder if you could tell me a bit about how the city has shaped your style and your ideology as a designer and photographer?

There was a stage where it was very frustrating because I felt like I was caged in, and I felt like I needed to escape all of that. But I didn’t realise how all of those little nuances that were happening within the scene helped me to develop my style and my perspective. And now, I’m grateful for those experiences. It wasn’t until I moved out and came back around that I understood the importance of what I had gone through.

Also, I think when I started to do the reading, then I understood the psychology and philosophy behind everything else that was going on at that time. Before, I was living the experience, but afterwards I realised why I was actually going out and buying certain brand names.

Even though I’m always trying to communicate my origins – where I’m from, my experiences – there’s almost a contemporary sense of that London culture that wants to come through. It’s almost like a there’s a tribal aesthetic, but then there’s also a contemporary thing coming through. And I think that’s the balance of me, because London experience on the streets is so important but also I want to talk about my experiences outside of Harlesden and my origins in Ghana.

Yes, your work is a perfect synergy of all those things, isn’t it? How do you think you’re going to feel seeing your images on billboards on these streets that are so important to you?

So important, for different reasons, because there are some areas where I could remember going shopping with my mum, carrying her bags. You know, all those markets I used to complain about having to go to. But now, where I find myself mostly is in those markets!

Then there’s also the other spaces, those aspirational spaces where we used to travel to because, you know, maybe growing up with not much, you wanted to buy into brands and a lifestyle that was aspirational. So, seeing billboards in those two different spaces is a perfect synergy of all of the things that I’ve experienced, you know? For me, it’s really is going to touch my soul once I actually see them erected. And something I’m really looking forward to.

Could you tell us a bit about the pop up in Piccadilly Arcade, and how that integrates your photography work and your designs?

Yeah, the pop up space is almost like a conceptual space where I can further the conversation. What’s most important is that I’m able to connect with day-to-day people, to communicate what TSAU is about and people get to experience this through different senses… it could be through physical objects, or it could be through the clothing, or movies that I’ve kind of created and put together. Community and relationships with people is at the heart of what keeps it going.

If you were to take someone on a whistlestop tour of London – 24 hours of your most important landmarks that feel really special to you –  where would we go?

Harlseden is definitely not the same place it used to be but there are still businesses that’ve lasted for like 35 years. I think it’s important to go to Starlight Record Shop, you know, for the vinyl experience. And also Hawkeye Records shop as well as Hawkeye Restaurant, which is right next door. There are so many layers of stories that the people who own these shops can tell. Now I have two kids and I constantly go back and have them experience some of those stories from the guys that own those stores, and how difficult it was for them when they came into London maybe during the Windrush period. And they have managed to establish their stores, and still have their stores today.

But then, in Ladbroke Grove, it would be Portobello Road, where I have relationships with a lot of the guys that have grown up, in and around the area as well… Kensal Green, Kensal Rise. There’s a particular guy called Herby Herby Mensah, who used to be part of the glam rock period. All the subcultures that were coming alive, especially in that Ladbroke Grove area – the Teddy boys the Rastafarians –  the friction between those subcultures is really what brought Notting Hill Carnival alive. So I think it’s an important spot, especially in West London.

And there will be a billboard in Goldhawk Road because Shepherds Bush was where I spent a lot of time with my mum shopping for fabrics and buying imported foods that my parents would want from back home. So that I guess those would be important spaces to me.

That sounds like a great day out! In what ways do you see your brand developing? And what direction would you like it to move towards in the future?

Right now, I think everything’s happened so naturally, I almost feel like I’m on a cloud that’s been naturally taken in the direction it needs to be in. But I guess within the next two years, I think I will probably do a fresh catwalk show for the brand, which I think will enable me to tell the story in a different way. And I’m always looking for different aspects through which I communicate the story because, as an artist, I produce things through different mediums.

I have objects that I produced for the pop-up space which I had produced in Ghana, but they are really like small objects. And the idea is, I’d want to be able to scale up those ideas and make them bigger, in terms of design.

What advice would you give to young creatives?

I think it’s so easy to look at everything that’s going on around you sometimes, especially on social media and you want to almost rush the process. My advice would be to believe in your own process, not to pay attention too much as to what is going on elsewhere and try and live through the experience. Nobody can take your experiences away from you. Anything that you develop that comes from a real place is always going to stand out. I think the minute you start to look at what’s going on around you too much, then you start to develop versions of that and I think, instead, just believe in your process and things will happen naturally.

I mean, it’s easy to say. There are times of frustration, I’m not gonna lie. But the way I see everything happening now, I realise that everything happened in the way it was supposed to. And it lasts longer. This is forever.

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