On Saturday, London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum opened “Africa Fashion” (through April 16, 2023), a landmark exhibition dedicated to fashion from around the continent, from its independence era to today.
“Our guiding principles are the centering of African-ness, with all its nuance, its contradiction, and its complexity,” said Dr. Christine Checinska, the museum’s senior curator of African and African Diaspora textiles and fashion, who organized the show. “Africa is the starting point, but it’s an inclusive and an expanded, expansive Africa that’s not solely tied to geography. It’s more about an inner spirit.”
The show features 45 designers from more than 20 countries, with over 250 objects on display—including garments from the personal archives of mid-20th-century pioneers, such as Shade Thomas-Fahm, credited as “Nigeria’s first fashion designer” for modernizing styles such as the iro, a traditional Yoruba skirt, and Mali’s Chris Seydou, who, while working with the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, contemporized indigenous textiles in designs of his own.
Accompanied by notes, sketches, photos, films, and runway footage, their creations have never before been shown in a London museum. Their impact during the liberation years was enormous, however; and it lives on in a new generation of designers, stylists, photographers, and multidisciplinary creatives who are again changing the landscape of fashion on the continent—and around the world.
“There is this new form of Pan-Africanism in the air when it comes to fashion practitioners,” Checinska told Artnet News. “This new Pan-Africanism recognizes difference; there is room for polar opposites.”
It is embodied by A Dialogue Between Cultures, a piece that Marrakech-based Maison Artc designed specially for the show—an oversize organza trench coat cum burka embroidered with the hand of Fatima, or hamsa, a symbol of good luck.
It weaves through the work of Johannesburg-based Thebe Magugu, winner of the 2019 LVMH Prize, as well; he recently became the first “amigo” for Alber Elbaz’s AZ Factory, unveiling a collection that asks, “What if Africa was the birthplace of couture?” The show includes pieces from his Alchemy collection, inspired by African ancestry and spirituality and created in collaboration with South African stylist and traditional healer Noentla Khumalo. Magugu’s abstract photos of the bones and objects that she uses in her practice of divination became its main print.
Also on display is a boldly colored dress embossed with bulging eyes from Selly Raby Kane’s 17 Rue Jules Ferry collection, designed in homage to the late Senegalese painter, sculptor, playwright, poet, and performance artist Issa Samb (a.k.a. Joe Ouakam). He lived at the namesake address in Dakar, “a mythical space of transgressive creative processes and cross-disciplinary vision,” Kane said.
She carries this vision forward as part of a local art and design collective, creating futuristic, performance-based fashion presentations—and recently, short magical realism and sci-fi films—that pluck from cultures near and far while looking to the precolonial histories and mythologies of her native Senegal.
“There is often with designers like Thebe and Selly this wonderful drawing on the past to imagine the future, but also invoke a future that’s already here,” Checinska said. “They are shifting the whole language of fashion,” she added. “The fashion world is turning towards Africa, and African creatives are doing things in their own way.”
The exhibition has a section for photography capturing the growing agency and cosmopolitanism of mid- to late-20th century Africa, from the portraiture of Sanlé Sory and James Barnor to domestic family photos gathered during a public callout last year.
There are fashion-adjacent works, too, including the cover art for Fela Kuti’s 1989 record Beasts of No Nation, not to mention a program of musical performances and live events.
Below, see a selection of images from “Africa Fashion.”
“Africa Fashion” is on view at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum from July 2, 2022, through April 16, 2023.
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