South AFrican illustrator Karabo Poppy’s take on sneaker culture celebrates African design

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Written by Michelle Cohan, CNN

Of all the artwork lining South African illustrator Karabo Poppy’s home, perhaps most notable is a gigantic, multicolored stack of Nike shoeboxes filling an entire wall.

Her “tower,” as she refers to it, has been a work in progress since the age of seven. It’s a cornerstone of what makes her the distinguished multimedia artist she is today, with a resume that includes Netflix, Google and Coca-Cola. And in Johannesburg, where she lives, it’s hard to miss her murals sprawled across everything from water towers to basketball courts.

“When I started my (art) journey, I was really inspired by hip-hop, rap and basketball, and I’d always seen this theme of Nike Air Force 1s and Air Jordans,” she recalls. “I’d always associated that with Black people really creating groundbreaking, global, effective work and I really wanted to be a part of it.”

From Nike to Netflix, this illustrator is making noise with her artwork

Even from a young age, Poppy felt she needed to look the part. Growing up in the small mining town of Vereeniging, south of Johannesburg, she says she did not meet an artist until she was in high school — and her family did not greet her decision to pursue an art career with excitement.

But the Forbes’ “30 Under 30” creative found a supportive community through sneaker culture.

“People identify from their sole, S-O-L-E, on purpose,” says DeJongh “Dee” Wells, a self-proclaimed “sneakerhead” and creator of the podcast “Obsessive Sneaker Disorder (OSD).”

South African multimedia artist Karabo Poppy in streetwear clothing she designed for label Rich Mnisi.

South African multimedia artist Karabo Poppy in streetwear clothing she designed for label Rich Mnisi. Credit: Bruce Buttery for CNN

“They choose their footwear very specifically to give them a little glimpse of ‘who I am and what I’m about; what’s important to me,'” Wells says, whether it’s an iconic pair of Jordans or maybe “a Jeremy Scott Adidas sneaker with the wings, because they’re holding on to dreams of hope and change.”

Shoebox collections like Poppy’s tower are a source of pride within sneaker culture, according to Wells. By having those boxes serve as her “vision board,” he says, “(Poppy) was speaking what she’s doing today into existence.”

Wells’ statement holds truth for the 28-year-old illustrator. She has collaborated with Nike on several occasions, starting in 2019 when she designed three styles of Air Force 1s that sold out in a matter of days, and even landed on the feet of basketball legend LeBron James.
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Poppy shows off one of her first Nike Air Force 1 shoe designs, with her name stitched on the back. Credit: Bruce Buttery for CNN

The Air Force 1 has been both an inspiration and a launching pad for Poppy’s career. From drawing on the shoes with whiteout in high school, to painting her first mural while wearing a pair, she says it was monumental to see her name stitched onto a shoe that’s been such a big part of her journey.

Most recently, she worked with Nike on a release of the Jordan “Why Not?” Zer0.4 sneaker, basketball player Russell Westbrook’s latest signature shoe.

The origins of sneaker culture

Sneaker culture is hard to define, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, historian and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

Ultimately, she says, it’s a group of individuals interested in the history and the storytelling opportunities offered by sneakers. “Companies make these things, but it’s culture that transformed them into objects that have meaning,” Semmelhack tells CNN.

Walt "Clyde" Frazier in 1971 shown here playing basketball with the first iteration of the "Puma Clyde" shoes.

Walt “Clyde” Frazier in 1971 shown here playing basketball with the first iteration of the “Puma Clyde” shoes. Credit: Focus On Sport/Getty Images

The rise of sneaker culture began in the 1970s when shoes designed for sports like basketball and tennis crossed over into lifestyle fashion, according to Wells. Both he and Semmelhack describe the moment when the famously well-dressed New York Knicks basketball star Walt “Clyde” Frazier teamed up with Puma to make the Puma Clyde shoe as a turning point in function-to-fashion footwear.

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The simultaneous birth of break-dancing and hip-hop in New York City also fed into the burgeoning sneakerhead trend.

“You begin to see how this intertwining of music, sport, dance, fashion, New York kind of all begin to weave together in the 1970s. This paves the way for the huge cultural uptake in sneakers,” says Semmelhack.

The original Nike "Air Jordan" shoes worn by Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan, circa 1985.

The original Nike “Air Jordan” shoes worn by Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan, circa 1985. Credit: Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Perhaps the watershed moment for modern sneaker culture was when NBA star Michael Jordan signed with Nike to launch Air Jordans in 1985. His dominant success as a player and global popularity boosted shoe sales; Jordans have gone on to become one of the bestselling shoe lines to date.
By the time a young Poppy encountered sneaker culture in the early 2000s, it had become a full-fledged global phenomenon. Shoe exchanges have since popped up in Cape Town, while African brands are growing across the continent and beyond.

“It’s the most diverse culture that I know,” says Wells. “I’ve been to parts of the world where I don’t even know the native language, but a simple point, head nod, or thumbs up, basically saying ‘I see you, I see your kicks, I like your kicks.'”

Creative inspiration

Uniting Poppy’s diverse artistic output is a central theme: creating images that “preserve the African aesthetic.”

She says inspiration comes from a seemingly ordinary place — the barbershop. This was the first place she saw Black beauty represented, she tells CNN.

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Poppy in front of a local salon in Johannesburg, a place that gives her a lot of inspiration. Credit: Bruce Buttery for CNN

“Hair has been something that’s important for not only my family but a lot of African people as well; it’s really like the center of our identity in a way,” she says. “So, when I started drawing, I’d draw people having really fresh haircuts or beautiful braids.”

“Within all of my work you’ll see nuggets of a zigzag and that represents cornrows that you see in beautiful patterns; you’ll see combs, you’ll see people that look familiar to myself and my narrative,” she adds.

Those designs are evident in her shoe collaborations with Nike, a partnership that Wells says is all too rare in the world of sneakers. “We need to see more female designers in the industry. There’s not enough,” he says.

Combs feature in this Air Force 1 sneaker design by Poppy, a 2019 Nike release.

Combs feature in this Air Force 1 sneaker design by Poppy, a 2019 Nike release. Credit: Nike

Poppy acknowledges the challenges faced by women in her field and hopes to serve as a torch bearer for future generations of Black female creatives.

“I’m extremely proud to be a Black female African illustrator because this was a space, I’ll say 10 years ago, there weren’t a ton of us there,” she says. “There’s a certain way in which we tell stories that I think the world not only will enjoy, but I think the world needs.”

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