There’s something about travel that changes your perspective. Being in an alien atmosphere with foreign tongues and customs forces you to rely on an often underutilized part of yourself – that part that is more instinctual, open and exploratory. That is if you’re doing it right. Author Miriam Beard once said, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” For Zimbabwean native Patrick Simbarashe Chakauya, creator of Butsu Footwear, his diverse upbringing in concert with his vast travels have transformed his identity, spirituality and art. “Our sneakers have afrocentric influences, we are basically telling the African success story no one else has told,” he said. Butsu started as Chakauya sat at home in Zimbabwe broke and looking for a way to fund his summertime wanderlust.
“I needed to raise money for experiential travel. I believe that as an artist, you need to get out and explore the world in order to get the stimulus you need to make you a full artist. I always think every single art form is beautiful on its own but once you combine it with the experiences you have, it makes it even deeper.” After coming up with a game plan, he reached out to friends in Italy who had connections to manufacturers. He was accepted into a design program for budding designers and things rapidly took off from there. The kicks, which practically speak for themselves, are bright, bold and evocative.
Definitely not for wallflowers. It is the antithesis of the minimalist chic, monochromatic look seen on street corners, rooftops and other social habitats around the country. The muse behind the shoes, according to the 22-year-old recent college grad, is a young man – African born and raised, who has left the continent to make a great life for himself. He is unique in his style choices, personally conscious and an expert conversationalist. Growing up in Africa, Chakauya had an intimate look into the bustling world of fashion due to his mother, a women’s clothing designer. His firsthand look into the industry as a youngster – which no doubt influenced his work today, included hanging around bustling factory spaces and seeing his mother design for beauty as well as practicality for her mature female clientele. At age 16, he was awarded a scholarship to complete his high school coursework as part of an International Baccalaureate program in Asia
The muse behind the
shoes … is a young
man – African born and
raised, who has left the
continent to make a
great life for himself.
for three years, another markedly influential experience. There, he studied alongside students from over 90 different countries. He spent time in many of the continent’s major metropolitan areas and completed service projects in rural areas as well, all the while soaking in all that he could while also learning a valuable lesson in cultural awareness. “To be fair, from their part – many (Asians) have never seen a Black man before,” he said. “I used to go to the Great Wall of China, and that’s a tourist attraction but I would be an attraction as well. People I did not know would stalk me and ask me to take family photos with them. People would want to twirl with your hair because they’ve never seen hair like that before. Sometimes people would be scared.
Butsu, a derivative
of the word
Buddhist altar or
shrine in Japanese.
You would be sitting next to them on the train and they would get up and move because they were clearly afraid of you.” Unfortunately, his experiences are not unique. Much has been written about the Black experience in Asia as being at times very problematic. In a piece for National Geographic, travel writer Heather Greenwood Davis, describes her family’s month-long stay as one of the “hardest” visits they’ve ever made. She shared examples of her husband’s brown skin being pinched and her children’s hair being very closely photographed.
She said the attention was at first amusing and then became annoying very quickly. “We couldn’t concentrate on tours because of all the cameras pointed at us. We couldn’t walk quickly due to the crowds swarming us. We were grumpy. What we looked like was ruining our chance to enjoy where we were.” Despite the uncouth interactions, Chakauya shared that his time in the east greatly informed his approach to design. “I got a chance to experience the food, the culture, the people… all of those things play into my aesthetic. The name Butsu itself is a reflection of my experience in the east.” Butsu, a derivative of the word butsudan, means Buddhist altar or shrine in Japanese. In his own mother tongue – Shona, it simply means shoe. For him, Butsu serves a dual purpose.
“I see my body of work as a gift to the world but at the same time I’m honoring all the people that came before me by doing something of significance with my life,” he said. “It plays on the two things. It’s my legacy.” The shrine, which has it roots in nearly every ancient belief system on the planet, is significant to Chakauya for other reasons as well. In Africa, the infamous exercise of coloni zation has nearly obliterated or ostracized many tribal and ancestral practices. Droves of natives have over the past few hundred years, traded in their ancient teachings for lessons found between the pages of Bibles and Qur’ans. Some natives even refer to ancient faiths as forms of witchcraft and idolatry.
It was during his time in undergrad at Middlebury that the former architecture student decided to embrace that which had been labeled taboo through the help of a friend whose father is a Ghanaian spiritual leader. “He’s one of the first people that reached out to me like, dude, all these things you’re practicing are not really authentic and this is where our culture exists and who we really are.” Chakauya, who at that time decided to drop Patrick and go simply as Simba (which means “the power of God”) shared that his Christian background made him apprehensive at first but he believes his newfound convictions have made him more comfortable and self-assured. On the Butsu website, he gives viewers a personal view into this part of his life as his own personal shrine is featured on the site’s home screen.
“Everywhere I go, I set up a shrine,” he said adding that he changes the water each day and keeps it looking beautiful in honor of those who came before. “You nourish them the same way you need to be nourished. You ask for guidance, protection, good health and they answer in abundance. It’s a sacred place and you’re the one who gives it all the power it has.” “If you’ve lived in different countries throughout your youth you don’t really know where you belong. And as you move further and further away from home, this (spirituality) is one of those things that grounds you in the western world.” Chakauya shared that while he is internally cogent, his boots won’t be staying put too much longer. The world traveler plans to explore much more in the future. “I want to go to as many places as humanly possible during my lifetime.”
Ebony is the editor in chief of the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper and Indiana Minority Business Magazine. You can connect with her on Twitter @ebonythewriter.