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Weaving Through the Fabric of Disney and Kugali’s ‘Iwájú’

Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pan-African entertainment company Kugali’s 6-part original series about a young girl’s coming-of-age story living in a futuristic Lagos, Nigeria, ‘wraps’ viewers in vibrantly colored and patterned clothing that captures the show’s cherished African heritage, debuting today, February 28, on Disney+.

When watching Iwájú, it’s impossible not to get wrapped up immediately in all the geometric and nature-inspired patterns, accented in every color of the rainbow. It’s a defining trait of the series, produced by Pan-African entertainment company Kugali Media and Walt Disney Animation Studios, that aims to capture the heart of African fashion and the expression of a cherished heritage. 

Iwájú debuts today, February 28, on Disney+. 

“I wanted the whole show to feel like it was an Ankara fabric, which is a traditional Nigerian cloth with a lot of patterns and colors,” explains production designer Hamid Ibrahim. “And the reason I picked that specifically is because one way a lot of people identify with their African roots is through their clothing. And Ankara fabric is how a lot of people in Lagos, Nigeria specifically would identify with their roots, or even how those in the West harken back to their home in Lagos. I wanted that prevalent within the whole show in a way that was meaningful and made sense with the world-building.”

The collaboration with Kugali is the first-of-its-kind for Disney, with the studio having never teamed up in this way with outside companies in its one hundred years of filmmaking. Cinesite was tapped to produce the 3DCG animation for the series, marking the studio’s first animated project with Walt Disney Animation Studios. Cinesite’s production team is led by Joel MacDonald (producer) and Ellen Poon (VFX supervisor).

The groundbreaking series of six episodes, released today, is set in a futuristic Lagos, Nigeria, 100 years from today. The exciting coming-of-age story follows Tola, a young girl from the wealthy island, and her best friend, Kole, a self-taught tech expert, as they discover the secrets and dangers hidden in their different worlds. 

According to series director Olufikayo Ziki Adeola, “The heartbeat of my hometown resonates through every scene,” and a big part of that included the voice cast, which includes Simisola Gbadamosi, Dayo Okeniyi, Femi Branch, Siji Soetan, and Weruche Opia.

“We thought about what was going to be a great way – given that we have six episodes of 20 minutes each – to capture as much of the spirit of Lagos as possible,” notes Adeola. “And one of the most important things was vernacular. So, it was important that the characters spoke like real-life Lagosians. With all the characters, their accents are fully and unapologetically Nigerian, they use pidgin English, some characters speak in Yoruba and that was important because speech and accents that aren't authentic to the place where we’re telling this story is already a departure from our vision.”

Another key factor in bringing Lagos to life in animation was the wardrobe of the characters in Lagos, also referred to as “the place of aquatic splendor.”

“Tola, on her onesie, has a lot of cowrie shells which, in a lot of African cultures, tend to represent wealth,” explains Ibrahim. “The cowrie was also a form of legal tender in Nigeria and seemed appropriate for the daughter of a wealthy man.”

He continues, “All the characters’ clothing embodies different shapes that speak symbolically to their characters. Tola’s clothing carries a lot of round shapes in the beginning and, as she tries to rebel, the clothing shapes become more edgy. And then we have Tunde, her dad, with more square ships, even his claws, everything's very box-like because he’s boxed into his perspective and is not as innocent and free as Tola. Then we have Kole whose clothes have more of a hexagon pattern, which rests somewhere between Tola and her father.”

The patterns Ibrahim included in the clothing also influenced the way the animated world around them was formed and colored, even down to the trash.

“In the mainland of Lagos, specifically in the market, you will find a lot of paper and stuff on the ground,” says Ibrahim. “And if you just captured that on camera, it may look a little bit nasty. But if you were to change those into shapes that have different colors, it adds a beauty to that thing that might have been nasty before. So, the paper you see on the ground in the markets is, again, inspired by the bold colors that tend to appear on the Ankara fabric.”

Ankara patterns are found all over the series, and are used in scene transitions, marketplace umbrellas, on Tola’s lizard pet, and, most uniquely, on the shipping crates that serve as the lower foundation on some of the tall housing towers on the mainland. 

“Lagos is already one of the most overpopulated cities in Africa and we’re definitely top 10 in the world, in terms of overpopulation,” shares Tolu Olowofoyeku, cultural consultant on the series. “So if you go 100 years forward, and people still keep moving from all over Nigeria to Lagos because they're looking for greener pastures, then those who can't afford the expensive housing on the island will move to the mainland, making it even more and more choked up, which is why we designed the towers, where they're just trying to house as many people as possible. And at the bottom of the towers, you have the shipping crates.”

Ibrahim adds, “Lagos is a port city and, because of that, a very cheap way for people to establish housing, which is happening today, is using the shipping crates as materials to modify and build into a house. In our show, we have this giant tower, which is used to house a large number of workers inside the mainland. And all those crates have shapes. And the reason those crates have shapes is they end up making a pattern when you stack them on top of each other. And that creates a pattern that engulfs the mainland itself.”

But even with so much detail and thought put into the incorporation of Ankara patterns throughout the story, Olowofoyeku says it wasn’t a difficult job to sort through it all. 

“Most of the Ankara patterns don't have a deeper meaning,” he says. “It's not like you see an Ankara pattern of flowers and that means ‘prosperity.’ It's just a cool design. So, I didn't have to sort through patterns and meanings to make sure it all was correct. But, like Hamid said, we definitely deliberately chose certain patterns for certain things, but that was improvised in production. I would say the bulk of the work was just data gathering.”

While Olowofoyeku and Adeola hail from Lagos, Ibrahim and quite a few others on the Kugali team do not. Then, of course, there was the Disney team, local to the states. 

“Because I'm Nigerian, and I live in Lagos, I have a lot of information in my head, but I needed to actually put that information in a format that the artists at Disney Animation, and even some of the Kugali artists who might not be Nigerian, can use as they work on the show,” says Olowofoyeku, his fellow filmmaker Ibrahim coming from Uganda. “If I wanted them to design a house, every house in Nigeria has a fence and a gate. And everyone in Nigeria has a generator to power their house. So that means every house has a place where you keep the generator. And because there's a gate, there has to be someone who attends to the gate. So, houses have a gate man's house, which is just a very small cubicle right next to the gate.”

He continues, “All these little details, things that I knew instinctively because I live in Lagos, I have to actually take pictures and videos of to explain it. I captured so much footage over the years when we were creating this show.”

Iwájú’s production became somewhat of a master class in learning about Lagos, its population of 21 million, and how to convert it all into a futuristic city bustling with the latest technology. 

“In the markets, you see characters carrying food or other goods on their head on trays to sell,” says Olowofoyeku. “That happens in real life Lagos. And we just exaggerated it in the wardrobe by giving these characters exoskeletons, so that they can carry even more weight on their head. And as you’re sitting in traffic, people will come up to you to try and sell you dogs. In our futuristic Lagos, cars can fly, so we created a drone system that can still sell to cars sitting in air traffic. Everything we put in this film stems from real-life parts of Lagos, then we exaggerated by following the growing rate of things.”

Even the Ankara fabric patterns were adjusted for some of the wealthier characters in the series, including Tola’s father Tunde and Bode, the series’ main villain, who wears stately three-piece suits called Agbádás. Instead of traditional geometric patterns, the suits and robes include designs more akin to a circuit board. 

“It's visual storytelling,” notes Ibrahim. “You want to express something that's deeper than physical truth. Tunde’s passions are his creations, which all have a tech-like circuit board pattern to them, so we wanted the clothes he wears, and those in the wealthier circles, to reflect that passion for modern technology.”

With a metropolis that spans over 400 square miles, it’s impossible to include all the details the filmmakers had hoped to incorporate. However, the creativity in the clothing, the environments, the buildings and sculptures, and the futuristic tech featured in the series is unique to Lagos and, from the first time he saw the character designs to reviewing the first few shots in animation, Adeola says production on Iwájú was like “being drip-fed instances of realizing this dream of seeing Lagos brought to life through animation,” and he knew the team was on to something, in true Disney spirit, magical. 

“Not everything we wanted to add made it to the final cut and, if you go to other areas in Lagos, you’ll notice different themes and rhythms,” admits Adeola. “But an analogy I think of is, if you listen to one hip-hop song, it’s not the same as every hip-hop song, but you get a feel of what hip-hop is. It's kind of like that with our show. When you watch this, and you see all of the different elements we spliced in, you get a feel of the larger spirit of Lagos. Then you throw in the character voices, and you're like, ‘Wow, these characters feel real. Their spirit, their essence, that was when I felt the most satisfied because I realized that our intentions were coming across in the animation.”

The whole production process has been an emboldening one, according to Ibrahim, and has solidified his, Adeola’s and Olowofoyeku’s mission at Kugali, summarized by the acronym, E.I.Q. 

“The E stands for ‘Economy’ as in ‘growing the entire creative and visual economy of Africa,” explains Ibrahim. “I is for ‘Innovation.’ This project itself is the first time innovation has been done with Disney in this way, and it's Africans leading it. And then Q stands for ‘Quality’ or ‘high-quality stories.’ And, based on the reviews we’ve been getting, Iwájú looks like it has done that, too. Iwájú showed us that we're on the right path. You know when you know something, but then you get validated by somebody who is a giant, it kind of solidifies what you know. We’re still on the same journey. We have the same vision. But now we're just moving on to bigger and better things.”

As for what those “bigger and better” projects are, we’ll have to wait and see. “Iwájú,” as explained by Olowofoyeku, is part of a phrase in the Yoruba language that is, “Ojó iwájú,” which means “the day ahead” or “the future.” And that’s exactly where Kugali plans to keep their eyes focused.

“We’re going to keep moving forward,” says Olowofoyeku. “And we’ll see where we go.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at