Africa Fashion is a landmark exhibition celebrating the irresistible creativity, ingenuity and unstoppable global impact of contemporary African fashions. It will be the UK’s most extensive exhibition of African fashions to date, celebrating the vitality and innovation of a scene as dynamic and varied as the continent itself.
Words Pearl Boyd
Over 250 objects are on display, many of them 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. Africa Fashion showcases objects and the stories behind them alongside personal insights from the designers, together with sketches, editorial spreads, photographs, film and catwalk footage.
Starting with the African independence and the liberation years that sparked a radical political and social reordering across the continent, the exhibition explores 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 offers 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. From global fashion weeks to celebrity wearers and the role of social media, Africa Fashion will celebrate and champion the diversity and ingenuity of the continent’s fashion scene.
This show forms part of a broader and ongoing V&A commitment to grow the museum’s permanent collection of work by African and African Diaspora designers, working collaboratively to tell new layered stories about the richness and diversity of African creativity, cultures, and histories, using fashion as a catalyst. The exhibition begins with a contemporary ensemble that combines shimmering silk with exuberant layers of raffia by Imane Ayissi. Born in Cameroon, the couturier sits at the crossroads between fashion systems, bridging historical and contemporary periods, continental and Global Africa, artisanal craft making and haute couture. This ensemble introduces the idea that African fashions are beyond definition and that creatives can and do choose their own paths.
AFRICAN CULTURAL RENAISSANCE-
The African Cultural Renaissance section focuses on the African liberation years from the mid-late 1950s to 1994. The political and social reordering that took place galvanised a long period of unbounded creativity across fashion, music, and the visual arts. On display are protest posters, publications and records embodying this era of radical change. Early publications from members of the Mbari Club, established for African writers, artists, and musicians, will sit alongside the cover artwork for Beasts of No Nation by Fela Kuti, a call-to-arms album which embodied the communal feeling of frustrations with the politics of the time but also the energy of Africa’s creativity and its artists’ drive to create beautiful things.
POLITICS AND POETICS OF CLOTH-
Politics and Poetics of Cloth considers 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. Wax prints, commemorative cloth, àdìrẹ kente and bògòlanfini will be shown – fragments of a rich textile history that includes thousands of techniques from across the continent. Highlight objects include a strip of printed seersucker cotton from the V&A collection featuring the image of an open palm and the words ‘freedom in my hand I bring’ incorporating the newly independent Ghana insignia – a visible expression of community concerns as well as national, and individual identities. Also 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”.
Capturing Change focuses on photographic portraits of the mid-late 20th century, capturing the mood of nations on the brink of self-rule – each shot documenting the modernity, cosmopolitanism and fashion consciousness of individuals with agency and a desire to use it. The euphoria of decolonisation coincided with the democratisation of photography made possible through cheaper film and lighter weight cameras. Photographic portraits taken in studios and domestic spaces became affirmations of agency and self-representation, making pride in being Black and African visible. Highlights from this section include studio photography from Sanlé Sory, Michel Papami Kameni and Rachidi Bissiriou.
Artisanal will showcase a blue and white ensemble of DAKALA CLOTH by NKWO, who work with small-scale artisan makers across the African continent that specialise in hand crafts such as hand dyeing, weaving, beading and embroidery. In Sartorialists, costume designer, stylist and photographer Gouled Ahmed’s self-portraiture revolts against cultural norms, mixing textured garments from the Horn of Africa with contemporary everyday materials to play with notions of identity.