The African Fashion exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London presents contemporary African creative minds and the vitality and impressiveness of Africa towards global fashion. Through politics and tradition, it tells the story of African fashion from the 1950s through 1990s to the current times, and the impacts of it as a tool of resistance, brilliantly revealing a tale of agency and abundance from an African perspective.
As entering the exhibition at the west wing of the museum, the visitor is welcomed with a brief overview of the meaning of Africa present in the name of the exhibition. “Africa” means multiple histories, cultures and expressions altogether exploring the depth of Blackness, by highlighting its political sense with all its nuances and complexity. Pan-Africanism is also explored as a socio-political concept which stands for the unity of African countries, promoting oneness amongst African people and its diaspora around the world. Known for its vast research and fashion archives, since 1895, the V&A compromised their showcase of the very best of art and design, by never showing and misrepresenting African art due to colonial machinations. As the first fashion exhibition exclusively celebrating African design and heritage, African Fashion begins to address the cruciality of representation and the undeniable impact of its many varied cultures and creation towards a global fashion scenario.
When talking about African fashion and diaspora it is crucial to comprehend the process of independence that happened in the 1960s that shaped a new sense of what it means to be Black and African in a post-colonial landscape. The spectator is taken into a time travel through the very first cultural and social impacts of colonial emancipation. Presented with the idea of cultural liberation through music and art, the viewer is presented with a display of books related to the Mbari Artists’ and Writers’ club” founded in 1961 in Ibadan, Nigeria. On the same display, visual communication played a fundamental role in the independence of countries such as Nigeria. Posters, T-shirts, and pamphlets praised new national autonomy, creating a sense of belonging and earning back African heritage.
With enough understanding of the process of developing a national identity and expression post-colonisation, the viewer finally encounters the first fashion displays of the exhibition. In 1957, the Ghanaian Prime Minister Kwame Kkrumah wore a Batakari to an Independence celebration. This act goes beyond fashion, it is also a political statement defying the norms of Western formal attire, such as European suits and ties. Right beyond the visitor’s sight is displayed an example of Kente cloth, rich in colours and geometrical details, the strip-weaver cloths are an “ancient textile type created by stitching woven fabric to create a finished cloth”. The colours of this garment can represent different aspects of life: historical events, proverbs, daily life, or individuals in pop culture.
Contrasting with a yellow background, the display also presents kente variations in different colours, formats, and prints. Adire, translated as “tie and dye”, is made through the use of a stencil (presented on the right corner of the display) using a starch resist agent, often cassava flour. Adire is a clear representation of how African fashion and crafts are regularly used by western societies with zero acknowledgement of its origins. The exhibition is actively questioning the viewer about its own perception of fashion, beauty, and culture, it’s like everything the Western says about Africa is being revoked and presented in a whole new way.
During emancipation, fashion played a fundamental role in the creation of an African and Pan-African identity. Many turned to garments as a tool to express their identity, creative minds, and own cultural background, promoting a renaissance in the arts and design field. This boom in creative minds and economic investment, gave the opportunity to many African emerging designers to develop and show their work worldwide. Moving to a burgundy room the vanguard of African fashion is displayed. Starting with Alphadi, “the magician of the desert”, the Mali fashion designer used fashion as a vehicle of unity and prosperity. His work is displayed from tailor-made embroidered waistcoats and a hat made of cotton also known as the hula. In the sequence, the viewer is introduced to Naima Bennis, a Moroccan designer ahead of her time, who built her own business in fashion in 1966. Bennis’ work is displayed contrasting with Alphadi’s, challenging the erroneous western concept that African fashion is all the same. Following to the right, Kofi Ansah designs are presented, telling the story of Ghana in Europe. Differently from the other designers Ansah studied in London and started his career working for traditional European design houses and later making his own creations for the royal family. Working in London for a white and wealthy clientele, Kofi makes sure to maintain his African heritage in each one of his creations. It is presented to the public, Kente made with different colours and paired with other fabrics like lace to create a tailored silhouette, which clearly represents the fusion between European and African fashion.
The second part of the exhibition promotes the idea of “capturing change” through photography. As with fashion, photography also played a crucial role in capturing the changes post-independence and in the development and re-claim of African culture and heritage. Somehow photographic cameras were able to secure within a piece of art the euphoria and agency in the building of a new path. Following a blue hallway, the viewer is presented with multiple black-and-white pictures by the artists Rachidi Bissiriou and Seydou Keita. The main purpose of their work was to portray everyday life in Benin in a relaxed, intimate, yet, sophisticated way. Alongside with the wider visual arts, fashion was responsible for reshaping marginalised concepts regarding African fashion and Blackness, conveying exuberance and modernity. The fusion between post-independence, ultra-modern and traditional garments is in each of the photographs displayed, as every artist from different parts of the continent had a purpose and common dream: to show the world the real face of Africa, “fashion allows us to show the continent in the way we know it”.
In the third part of the exhibition, the viewer is taken to the second floor of the museum, where the concept of “cutting-edge fashion” is presented. African creatives are charting their own course through fabrics, patterns, and the mix between the modern and the traditional through different perspectives that African fashion is meaningful and that it deserves a voice. The fact that the last part of the exhibition is being displayed on a different floor, reinforces the socio-cultural aspect that will further be explored by the viewer, that design and fashion are officially entering a new chapter of embracing heritage and showing to the world cultural roots without censure. The upper floor is divided into five parts: minimalism, mixology, Afrotopia, adornment and artisanal.
Challenges the notions that African fashion is based on bright colours and statement patterns and prints. With the distinct use of colours, shapes, fabrics and minimal design, fashion brands like Mmusomaxwell, Katush and Moshions reinterpret tradition and modern aesthetics.
Mixing is a great part of African fashion, the mix of fabrics, techniques, patterns, prints, colours, shapes and textures is a strong reference to the past and the future. This area of the exhibition explores the idea of intentionally fussing over different cultural references and traditions, from the Moroccan babouche turned into sports shoes, to the Xhosa beadwork being translated into nightwear. This is just another example of how cultures across the African continent started to recreate and invent their national identities based on the mix of aesthetics.
Afrotopia is a place for imagination and hope. This part of the exhibition presents through fashion a claim for social and political changes. Afrofuturism emphasises on manifesting a better world for Black people, but also acknowledging the issues within the community. Artists like Adebayo Oke- Lawal and Nao Serati are using their voices to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights, the importance of Black women in society or confronting environmental causes.
Accessories and jewellery are an active part of African fashion, considering its sentimental importance and representation of cultural exchanges and traditions. This part of the exhibition invites the viewer to see adornment from a different perspective beyond prettiness. Each artist revisits its roots through the use of organic materials, natural resources and handmade labour, proposing the idea of jewellery being an outfit and not merely an accessory.
As many might believe, haute couture is not an exclusive practice of European houses, but something that has always happened in Africa. Handmade embroidery takes centre stage in fashion and the fusion between fabrics and rich technique are the base of artisanal garments. The concern with the environment while maintaining community is crucial in the construction of a circular and local production.
African Fashion exhibition is a beautiful tool for educating not only the ones interested in fashion and design but also people in general. This exhibition tells the story of Africa through the lenses of Africans, giving voice to the group that suffered through oppression and violence for centuries. African Fashion came to acknowledge the importance of Black culture and to erase the misconception of otherness and that “all Africa” is the same. Africa is plurality, fashion and art are proof of it, by constantly presenting different perspectives, traditions, minds and ideas within the diaspora.