It’s March 1957 and the Ghanaian prime minister Kwame Nkrumah declares his nation’s independence from British colonial rule. He delivers his speech to the world dressed in kente cloth, the silk cloth of West Africa traditionally crafted and worn by Asante and Ewe populations since at least the 17th century. In ridding himself of his European suit in favour of kente, Nkrumah sends a strong message to the world.
Ghana and other African nations are at the beginning of the liberation and independence years that will radically shift the politics and cultures of the continent. Fashion, alongside the visual arts and music, will be part of this cultural rebirth and a means to self-definition.
The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) exhibition Africa Fashion (until 16 April 2023) is a visual exploration of the history, glamour and craftsmanship of African fashion design. Clothing, accessories, videos, photographs and archival materials present Africa not as a monolith, but as a place of plurality, diverse cultures and numerous sources of inspiration that engender abundant creativity.
More than 250 objects are on display and about half of these are from the museum’s collection, following an acquisition of nearly 100 new additions. Some items are tied to socio-political issues, others are simply expressions of beauty.
Beauty and diversity
The exhibition’s interpretation begins with a foreword by Christine Checinska, the V&A’s senior curator, African and African Diaspora: Textiles and Fashion (see box, p41). She remarks that since the museum’s creation 170 years ago “African creativity has been largely excluded, or misrepresented, owing to the historic division between art and ethnographic museums rising from our colonial roots and embedded, racist assumptions”.
Historic biases growing from an assumption that African creations were “primitive” often resulted in them being relegated to store rooms and basements. Africa Fashion accords the objects on display as much significance as the vintage Balenciaga, 18th-century Sèvres porcelain, William Morris designs and Tang dynasty hairpins that can be seen in other galleries.
Focus on contemporary collecting
As a world-leading museum of art, design and performance, the V&A should be a space in which African and African diaspora creative excellence is represented. Our international standing gives us a voice that is almost always heard. That voice could be used not only to discuss the materiality of works, but also to tell stories about the richness and diversity of African creativity cultures and histories, using the works as a catalyst.
Africa Fashion has provided us with a unique opportunity to extend our collection beyond its existing limited holdings of fashion and textiles created by creatives of African heritage. More than 45 designers from over 20 countries feature across the two floors of the exhibition. We have made nearly 100 new acquisitions. This marks a turning point for us as an institution and shows our commitment to contemporary collecting from Africa and its diaspora.
Our guiding principle for Africa Fashion has been to centre multiple and varied African voices and perspectives. Conversation has been essential to our process. The selection of the acquisitions was therefore made in dialogue with the fashion creatives themselves.
We wanted to know which works they felt best represented their thinking and practices. This approach lays the foundation for the future, as we continue to work collaboratively to develop collections and exhibitions
of relevance to people of all cultures, all sections of society and all perspectives.
Christine Checinska is the senior curator, African and African Diaspora: Textiles and Fashion, at the V&A
The tone of the exhibition is set: boldness and pride. Africa Fashion espouses Nkrumah’s reclamation and celebration of African clothing traditions as an artform of self-expression and innovation rooted in centuries past.
The exhibition is organised chronologically, with the first half, on the ground floor, covering historical fashion from the 1950s to the 1990s. One section explores the textile traditions that took on new political meanings as the continent evolved. Another section highlights the ambitious designers that established brand identities across Africa and further afield. QR codes on the interpretation panels lead to webpages offering more information than can be provided within strict word counts. Though somewhat distracting, a soundscape on a short loop uplifts the space.
Homage to heritage
Historic photography displays demonstrate the ability of photographers active in the 1960s and 1970s to adapt the conventions of their medium to accommodate the new tastes and fashion consciousness of their sitters. The work of Benin’s Rachidi Bissiriou, Burkina Faso’s Sanlé Sory, Mali’s Seydou Keïta and Ghana’s James Barnor, who opened the first colour processing lab in the city of Accra in 1969, sits alongside crowd-sourced domestic photographs sent as a response to the V&A’s call-out for fashion artefacts related to the post-liberation years. Treasured photos were sent in accompanied by fascinating stories.
The inclusion of these family portraits lent by the public loosens the boundaries between professional designers and the general population, and between curators and audiences. Africa Fashion is as much about people as it is about fashion.
The second half of the exhibition is on the mezzanine level of the accessible and easy-to-follow galleries. It covers contemporary design and is organised under several themes: ceremonial attire, contemporary couture, street-style and everyday wear interrogate culture, race, sexuality and gender. The designs challenge notions of what African fashion and its people can be.
South African label Maxhosa Africa’s colourful bold knits reference beadwork from the Xhosa, a group primarily from southern Africa. Nigerian Adebayo Oke-Lawal’s label Orange Culture challenges harmful ideas of masculinity and explores male vulnerability through the employment of pastel pinks and baby blues, which are still often perceived as feminine.
A sustainable future
As an interpretation panel exclaims, fashion “realigns the sense of self while expressing who you are, or, perhaps more accurately, who you are becoming”.
With calls across all sectors to consider climate justice and sustainable practices, a selection of designers featured in Africa Fashion directly address the environmental and ethical issues that stem from the fashion industry. One outfit by the British-Nigerian designer Nkwo Onwuka is made from his own invention, Dakala Cloth – waste fabric that has been stripped and then sewn together before small-scale artisan makers across the African continent specialising in hand crafts such as hand-dyeing, weaving, beading and embroidery, add their embellishments.
These designs sketch a vision for an equitable and sustainable future or fashion in which multiple contributors are valued and provided for.
The abundant creativity, vibrancy and anticipation of change from these designers echo the sense of agency and excitement that African nations experienced in the independence years. Fashion has always been a way to speak about oneself and an expression of how one wishes to be seen. Africa Fashion shows the continent’s desire for agency and sovereignty, expressions of pride in being Black and African, and an indefatigable energy that spills over borders.
An exhibition such as this was long overdue at the V&A. The museum’s fashion galleries span five centuries and contain the largest and most comprehensive collection of dress in the world. It was time to include Africa, with all its connections and variety, in the story.