How ‘Africa Fashion’ At The V&A Celebrates The Global Impact Of African Creativity

There’s a silk and raffia dress from Cameroon-born couturier Imane Ayissi and a re-imaging of the traditional Nigerian ìró by Shade Thomas-Fahm – known as Nigeria’s ‘first fashion designer’ – in fact, everywhere you look, there’s innovative creativity. Having opened this month (2 July – 16 April 2023), the Africa Fashion exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum is a milestone moment celebrating 45 designers from over 20 African countries.

The landmark show celebrates the global impact of contemporary African fashions and is the UK’s most extensive exhibition of African fashion to date. Celebrating the vitality and innovation of this vibrant scene, it is as dynamic and varied as the continent itself.

Over 250 objects are on display as part of the exhibition, with approximately half of these drawn from the museum’s own collection, including 70 new acquisitions. Many of the garments on show are from the personal archives of a selection of iconic mid-20th century African designers – Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah and Alphadi, marking the first time their work will be shown in a London museum. The exhibition also celebrates influential contemporary African fashion creatives including Imane Ayissi, IAMISIGO, Moshions, Thebe Magugu and Sindiso Khumalo.

Giving an in-depth back story, Africa Fashion showcases these pieces and the stories behind them, alongside personal insights from the designers, together with sketches, editorial spreads, photographs, film and catwalk footage.

In the accompanying Africa Fashion coffee-table book (£25; edited by Christine Checinska), Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, writes: “The staging of Africa Fashion at the V&A coincides with a period when the need to reimagine the practice of the museum along more equitable and encompassing lines could not be more apparent… Today, we appreciate more and more how certain peoples’ histories have been hidden or misrepresented. The Africa Fashion exhibition and accompanying book reflect V&A’s broader commitment to focus on work by African and African diaspora creatives.”

From Amanda Gorman in kente cloth on the cover of American Vogue, to Michelle Obama’s outings in Duro Olowu, the fashion of Africa exerts a worldwide pull. Africa Fashion – the book – supports the exhibition in exploring how a radical post-independence creativity sparked a cultural renaissance across the continent, when designers such as Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah and Nina Gessous drew on past traditions and reinvented them. Now, a new generation, such as Nigerian fashion designer Lisa Folawiyo, Ghanaian woven bag maker AAKS, and Kenyan jeweller Ami Doshi Shah, show how diverse the African fashion scene is.

Dr Christine Checinska, senior curator African and African Diaspora: Textiles and Fashion, adds:Our guiding principle for Africa Fashion is the foregrounding of individual African voices and perspectives. The exhibition presents African fashions as a self-defining art form that reveals the richness and diversity of African histories and cultures. To showcase all fashions across such a vast region would be to attempt the impossible. Instead, Africa Fashion celebrates the vitality and innovation of a selection of fashion creatives, exploring the work of the vanguard in the 20th century and the creatives at the heart of this eclectic and cosmopolitan scene today. We hope this exhibition will spark a renegotiation of the geography of fashion and become a game-changer for the field.”

Starting with the African independence and the liberation years that sparked a radical political and social reordering across the continent, the exhibition looks to explore how fashion, alongside music and the visual arts, formed a key part of Africa’s cultural renaissance, laying the foundation for today’s fashion revolution.

Across contemporary couture, ready-to-wear, made-to-order and adornment, the exhibition also seeks to offer a close-up look at the new generation of ground-breaking designers, collectives, stylists and fashion photographers working in Africa today. It explores how the digital world accelerated the expansion of the industry, irreversibly transforming global fashions as we know them.

Within the ‘Politics and Poetics of Cloth section of the exhibition, the importance of cloth in many African countries and the way in which the making and wearing of indigenous cloths in the moment of independence became a strategic political act is considered. Wax prints, commemorative cloth, àdìrẹ kente and bògòlanfini are shown – fragments of a rich textile history that includes thousands of techniques from across the continent.

On display is a commemorative cloth made in the early 1990s following the release of Nelson Mandela, featuring a portrait of the soon to be first Black President of South Africa and the words: ‘A BETTER LIFE FOR ALL – WORKING TOGETHER FOR JOBS, PEACE AND FREEDOM.’

Artsi, fashion designer, Maison ArtC sums it up: “Africa Fashion means the past, the future and the present at the same time. The joy of life and the joy of colour is completely different and very particular to the continent. It’s a language of heritage, it’s a language of DNA, it’s a language of memories.”

Africa Fashion is curated by the V&A’s Dr Christine Checinska, senior curator of African and African Diaspora Textiles and Fashion assisted by project curator, Elisabeth Murray. The exhibition is supported by Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, GRoW @ Annenberg, with additional support from Merchants on Long

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