by Elsie Cullen
On April the 9th, La Soufrière volcano in St.Vincent and the Grenadines began erupting, displacing thousands of people across the island. Since then, we’ve witnessed the incredible efforts of creatives, both on the island and across the diaspora, coming together to help create change.
In this interview we speak to Karen DeFreitas Fraser, founder of fashion and design brand, Soka and Sokarnival, who has been working on the ground to help provide ongoing support to those finding refuge in shelters. Prior to the eruptions Karen’s creative works had already been disrupted by COVID restrictions, however, no one could have imagined the devastating impact that would eventually take place in April.
Please introduce yourself! Who are you and what do you do?
I do a lot of things! However, I’m mainly known for my design brands Soka and Sokarnival, which scored me a listing as one of the top ten Caribbean designers to watch. My work mainly uses printwork made from images of historical St Vincent women and scenery; alongside a lot of hand dye, tie dye and Batik etc. Aside from that I’m a teacher and run an NGO focusing on Caribbean Women’s empowerment, using workshops to help develop creative entrepreneurship and personal development. However, since the volcanic eruption, everything has been put on hold and now I spend my time packing boxes and supporting families in need.
How long have you been designing and sewing for?
I officially started in 2008, and I was learning from legendary local seamstresses in the streets of St Vincent. After that I started doing my own thing and slowly realised that I would need to enrol in formal training which led me to apply for Parsons in New York. I had the opportunity to work with a range of creatives like Zac Posen, Yigal, Olivia, Bullet Magazine and many more. Then in 2015 I officially launched my brand ‘Soka’ as a part of my thesis, ‘Ode to Dancehall Music’.
What’s the vision behind the work you create?
The creative voice at Parsons was very monotone, there weren’t a lot of black students in my time and barely anyone from the Caribbean. At that moment, I knew I had to speak for us. As a designer, I see myself more as a storyteller and wanted to base my works on the theme ‘Caribbeanism’. I gravitate towards telling stories, for example, I did a collection called ‘Saturday mornings going to the market with my grandmother’ . In reality, I see myself as a historian and have an album full of Caribbean women from the 1800’s and 1900’s. I’m simply fascinated by their stories, for example women like Creole Belle and a bunch of other women who led rebellions etc. I’m just fascinated by their stories and the absence of her story in Caribbean history. I wanted to start doing further research but since COVID, everything has been put on pause and then the volcano happened so it’s just been crazy.
COVID had so many varying effects on people all around the world, what was your experience like as a designer during the lockdown?
COVID was kind of like a blessing for me as it gave me a lot more free time. I transitioned to online teaching and so in the periods when I was off duty I spent a lot of time creating, sewing and draping etc. But also my business died as the post office closed down for like a year and so nothing could be shipped out. Thankfully I still had my teaching job. All creative outputs from my brands Soka and Sokarnival came to a standstill, however, I’ve been using this time to develop and rebuild, which again, is a blessing.
Fast forward to the Volcano, was it ever a thought that the volcano would erupt in your lifetime? How has this experience been?
I had researched and found out that the Volcano erupted after every 100 year interval and this was our 100th year anniversary, so I feel like I should have prepared myself. But yeah, you just never think it’s going to happen. I guess it just had to do what it needed to.
We’ve all been affected mentally by the eruption, I’m constantly reminding myself that it’s normal to feel ‘like this’ after everything we’ve experienced. In the beginning it was crazy with all the emergency warnings and panic, but when that began to die down, that’s when we really started to feel down. It got really hard when it started flooding, it felt so overwhelming and so we’ve been working in waves and just managing our emotions.
Before the eruption there wasn’t a strong network of creatives and I didn’t really feel like I fit in but then when the Volcano erupted, everyone automatically came together and started doing what we had to do. I feel like I’m no longer ‘a creative’, instead, I’m just the person who packs boxes. However, in some ways it’s brought us all closer together, and now it’s like we meet every Friday to just hang out with each other. Before this eruption, this probably would have never happened. For example, I started collaborating with another TShirt designer to create some shirts for fundraising.
A lot of people have been congratulating me on the work I’m doing, but genuinely it’s not me. All of us have come together in such selfless ways to really create change. This is the first time I’m really seeing a True Vincy spirit, both at home and across the diaspora around the world. All of us have one mission, which is to help other Vincentians, and that’s been keeping us going.
In terms of the long-term rebuilding process, do you see creatives and creativity having a continued influence on the future?
Right now I work with the Hairouna Film Festival and we were thinking about ways we could support people in the shelters who need support with their mental health. At the film festival we do movie nights and also want to run more activities for children in shelters. There are many ways we’re coming together to create change. At this moment everything is needed.
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