Victoria and Albert Museum
Until 16 April 2023
I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.
Kwame Nkrumah, 1958
V&A video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5U7yG9pnqs
A celebration of African creativity, pride and identity covering 20 countries and 45 designers and displaying more than 250 objects is showing in the ground-breaking exhibition at the V&A. The curator, Christine Checinska, recognises that this ‘conscious celebration’ cannot cover all the aspects of Africa’s complex and diverse history of clothing. Indeed, Africa is a huge and populous continent; its history involves colonial and postcolonial influences as well as European appropriations that deeply affected its evolution. The focus of the exhibition is on art, in terms of its form and materiality but also the art in the beauty of the products. Personal dignity, global impact and important meanings are conveyed in the different garments on display and explained further in interesting captions, film footage of models walking along catwalks, videos and photography.
Traditional fabrics are on show, such as kente cloth, Ankara, kanga and àdìre, revealing a rich cultural tradition of handmade weaving and hand-printing that deserves appreciation and respect. The exhibition suggests that producing traditional clothes is a political act as well as a social statement. In the 1960s, when over 17 counties obtained independence from colonial rule, a new sense of pride and hope arose. Leaders such as the Prime Minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, dressed in kente cloth when he announced the country’s independence; his garment was an assertion of the country’s legacy and identity.
The exhibition develops chronologically, exploring the period from the independence years until the end of the 20th century; this last section focuses on the reappropriation of African clothing. The governments supported local mills and protected African products from rapacious westerners. On the upper level, the exhibition develops further, displaying the models of contemporary designers who opened up African fashion globally and paying special attention to the sustainability and equity that would exist in an ideal world in which everybody would thrive equally and there would be no differentiation because of race, gender or class. The ongoing storytelling engages the onlooker in the distant past of African culture, in the effects of colonisation and in the pan-Africanism that followed. The idea of Africa as an underdeveloped reality affected by poverty and disease is therefore challenged and the emphasis is on its artistic creativity and cultural pride. The exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and raw materials, which were manufactured in European countries, impacted the history of the continent, impoverishing its economy but also inspiring the possibility of an interaction with western culture that would potentially diversify and nuance the already rich African tradition and would incorporate elements such as imported beads, for example. The stereotyped labels of simplicity and the use of bold colours and patterns are therefore contested via the skills and creativity revealed in the creations on display. The exhibition is an opportunity to learn more not only about fashion but also about African culture and the African continent, which has connections with the Middle East as well as Europe through the Iberian Peninsula.
Posters and T-shirts commemorating independence are on display with traditional textiles like Ewe and kente cloths and the famous pink trousers and cape by Imane Ayissi (2019), an outfit that recalls ancestral material in the use of fringes and European evening dresses in the wide cape and long, loose trousers. Stencilled Ankara textiles were imported from the Netherlands, which imposed colonial rule but also influenced the local production of textiles, such as the Yoruba àdìre (Nigeria). A mixture of tradition and modernity can be seen in Alphadi’s work (Mali) too. Kente cloth is featured in a woman’s jacket and a corset made of metal is applied to the bodice of a dress that is reminiscent of Tuareg art. Naima Bennis’s kaftans (Morocco) convey the idea of women’s independence, while the BlueZone collection by Kofi Ansah (Ghana) mixes Eastern, Western and African traditions, a cross-cultural influence that testifies to the global view of African designers. Some of the designers, such as Kofi Ansah and Shade Thomas Fahm, studied fashion and design in London and practised their art in renowned European fashion houses before moving back to their original countries to start their own business.
The garments, accessories and jewels on display on the first floor have been created by a wide selection of contemporary designers who combine traditional materials with American and European influences, that is, raffia, grass, straw and synthetic cloth. The pieces are joyful, diverse and innovative. They communicate a sense of hope and gender fluidity and celebrate variety and imagination as well as the liberation of Black women. Minimalist clothing with straight lines and monochrome colours stands alongside bold and colourful geometric patterns and transgressive outfits such as the ‘Yoff’ dress (Senegal, 2017), inspired by urban subculture in Dakar. The engagement ensemble by Kofi Ansah (Ghana, 2014) for the wedding of David Adjaye and Ashley Shaw-Scott also celebrates the importance and significance of traditional clothing. The kente cloth expresses joy and identity, confirming the distinctiveness and stylishness of African fashion.
The section on adornments is particularly rich and interesting, featuring objects that mix precious metals, such as silver and gold, and organic materials, such as straw, salt, sisal and shells. The items look like clothing rather than jewels, such as the ‘Tankë’ and ‘Amezon’ (2019) made with cowrie shells, which were used as currency in the past and symbolise womanhood and fertility in their vulva-like shape. Some of the necklaces dress both the neck and the chest, as in the ‘Faridah’ necklace (Kenya 2019), which is made of recycled brass. Thus, the exhibition encompasses wide-ranging aspects of African fashion and culture, provoking and impressing the viewer with its complexity and the diversity of its historical and artistic roots.
Carla Scarano © 2022.