An illustrated review of the V&A’s ‘Africa Fashion’ exhibition, written by Carol Ann Dixon, Ph.D. More than 250 items featured in this showcase, including contemporary couture by fashion-forward collectives (such as MMUSOMAXWELL and Lagos Space Programme), strip-woven aṣọ-òkè and kente textiles, Adire indigo-dyed fabrics, and east and southern African kangas.
‘Africa Fashion’ in focus
The V&A exhibition’s thematic focus on modern and contemporary avant-gardism in fashion and styling – spanning a period of c.70 years, from the post-independence decades of the 1950s and ’60s through to the 2020s – was refreshingly well-structured, insightfully documented and stunning to view.
I usually tend to be a little bit wary whenever I read about curators from one of the UK’s major museums attempting to showcase “Africa [?]” in a single exhibition. There is always a concern this type of continent-wide presentation can trigger the resurgence of problematic institutional practices dating back to the colonial era – persistently reducing the diverse cultural heritage of fifty-five nations, and their diasporas, to a vague and superficial survey of “Africa [Everything/Anything]!”
However, this exhibition curated by Dr Christine Checinska was both nuanced and thoughtful in its visual narration of African influences on world fashion. The showcase presented more than 250 objects, ranging from haute couture items, woven textiles, slogan-printed contemporary fabrics and jewelled accessories, through to photographic portraiture, documentary films, lifestyle magazines, and LP cover images. Almost a third of the items on display were outfits, photographs and printed sources from the V&A Museum’s collections, including a significant number of new acquisitions.
Presented in the round, and arranged over two floors of display space, the exhibition opened with a thematic contextualisation and tracing of key moments in the history of textile making, fabric printing, dress design and adornment. Using the mid-20th century decades of anti-colonial activism, decolonisation and independence as a departure point, the initial sections showcased a multiplicity of cultural objects that characterised how post-independent nations emerging from centuries of liberation struggle chose to represent and express their hard-fought freedoms via politically-inspired ‘liberatory aesthetics’ of dress and styling.
Influential books, periodicals, popular music albums and visual artworks at the vanguard of this period of monumental transitions – such as Aimé Césaire’s celebrated Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a Return to My Native Land], the literary journal Black Orpheus (est. 1957), and Miriam Makeba’s album ‘Pata Pata’ (1967) – were positioned next to a radiogram within a 1950s/60s-themed assemblage to evoke the socio-cultural and political ‘milieu’ of the independence era, and the spirit of Pan-Africanism.
The use of these textual, audio-visual and popular culture reference points continued throughout the rest of the presentation, with the studio portraiture and street-based photojournalism produced by luminaries such as Ghanaian-British photographer James Barnor (b. 1929), Mali’s Seydou Keita (1921-2001) and Malick Sidibé (1936-2016), also from Bamako, lining the alcoves and interstitial spaces separating the grouped garment displays.
Overall, given the scope of this expansive brief, the exhibition was both comprehensive and dynamic, with some thought-provoking, fashion-forward concluding sections and film footage showing 21st century expressions of androgyny, gender fluidity, hybrid cultural identities and sustainable design. However, there was a very strong bias towards West African fashion heritage, and in particular Nigerian and Ghanaian avant-gardism, shown on both floors – reflecting the historic biases within the V&A’s collections.
With the exception of a spotlight on Morocco – primarily represented through the oeuvre of Casablanca’s Naima Bennis (1940-2008), Artsi Ifrach’s embroidered silk artwork (“A Dialogue Between Cultures”), and two Djellaba created in 2020 by Amine Bendriouich from Marrakech – much more could have been done to address the significant under-representation of diverse North African fashion, styling and creativity. For example, the beauty and legacies of Indigenous Amazigh cloth-making and jewellery (from the past, and also in its present-day manifestations), as well as the political aesthetics of post-independence Algerian fashion after the war of 1954-1962, seemed markedly absent. Additionally, textile artists and stylists from the East African nodal cities of Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Antananarivo, Madagascar, were equally worthy of being foregrounded in a continent-wide showcase about modern and contemporary fashion design.
‘Africa Fashion’ continues at the V&A until 16 April 2023.
Related content on the Museum Geographies site:
Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s (V and A Museum, London), written by Carol Ann Dixon, Ph.D.