Allison Swank is Putting the World onto African Talent

The producer and filmmaker on a journey from Missouri to Johannesburg via New York and Lagos and working with everyone from ?uestlove to Major Lazer

Allison Swank

Words: Tommy Dennis | Photographs: Bantu Khotso

Independence Missouri, where Allison Swank hails from is very far from her current home in Johannesburg. Home is a stretch though, because she actually lives out of a suitcase and her current location in Joburg was only chosen because of its proximity to the airport. 

Working with the likes of adidas, BadBadNotGood, Mumford & Sons and most recently having produced four videos for Major Lazer with filmmaker Adriaan Louw, Allison's racking up those frequent flyer miles. Locally she's worked with everyone from Riky Rick to Frank Casino and has started to shoot artists in Nigeria, too. Furthermore, she worked with Lebogang Rasetheba on the MTV Base special The People vs The Rainbow Nation and has produced for Boiler Room. By setting up her own company the Swank Group, Allison's aim is to document the freshest young talent coming out of Africa.

All of this started with an interest in film, specifically what she refers to as "being enamoured with the glamour" of films.

"I grew up in middle America where hardly anything is glamorous. Look it wasn't the sticks, we weren't hillbillies, at least that's what we told ourselves but the people south of us were. It was basic middle America; I mean I was even a cheerleader."

Allison Swank

So Allison attended UCT, completed her masters in African studies and then moved to New York with suitcase and a credit card and started working in TV – editing a food history show on CBS.

"I lived in a garage. The quintessential New York story. I was 24 at the time. The Roots started OkayPlayer and needed someone for OkayAfrica and so I became the content manager. Because of my background I started the film division at OkayAfrica and after three years realised that I really hated winters in New York. I was going back to South Africa for every holiday and after one of those holidays I just never left." 

What motivates a young American living in New York, working with ?uestlove and hanging out with the Broad City crew to move to Joburg? 

Allison Swank

"I guess, I'm trying not to be too trite, like, it's amazing, the weather and the complexity, all those things are true, but I think there are stories here and there's space for creatives try something, fail, and reinvent. There's space for that and that's really cool because it's so rare. It's not oversaturated like the major cities of the world. Like in New York I felt that everybody was waiting to be impressed all the time and that's very boring. I think it's very easy to be impressed by Joburg when there's so much raw talent." 

That aspect of Johannesburg, the ability to create something unique is in some ways the reason why Johannesburg has always been so seductive to outsiders. For some reason, people feel they can do things in the City of Gold that can't be achieved anywhere else (that nickname plays a part). But, like Allison says, the city is complex and navigating the social tapestry that is borne out of a terrible history must be intimidating to any outsider – let alone an ex-cheerleader from Missouri. 

"I view my role in this space as having resources and relationships to bigger platforms so that I can put people on. Whether that's actors or dancers or stylists or art direction, I like assembling the best teams borne out of talent and getting them involved into, like, a Major Lazer video."

Allison Swank

This desire to do things her way has worked well and it makes sense that she started her own company early last year. The narrative that Africa is rising is a bit long in the tooth now and the price of fuel is still astronomical but, at least in the creative industries, the continent is starting to grab the world's attention. Allison has been making her name as a documentarian of our creative talent, which in turn brings her into contact with international tastemakers and brands. 

"There's so much sick music and style here and I know how that sounds but its true! I think that oversaturated places like London and New York where they think they've seen it all are like WHOA!"

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