Western fashion can be an insular beast, obsessed with its own heritage, its familiar stamping grounds, the well-beaten four-city track of London, Paris, Milan and New York. But last weekend, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a new exhibition opened that champions and celebrates not another city, but an entire continent: Africa. “Africa fashion, rather than African fashion,” asserts Dr Christine Checinska, curator of African and African diaspora fashion at the V&A and lead curator of this exhibition. “I like the ambiguity of it, I like the open-endedness of Africa fashion. Because I always felt that to call it African fashion, that phrase, that term is too small, I think to keep all of that complexity and nuance alive. I think that it’s really important for me to say that African fashions are undefinable.”
Checinska allows that trying to showcase the complete richness and depth of Africa’s fashion in an exhibition would be an impossible task. “We knew that we had to present a story that was only ever going to be a glimpse,” she says. Of the 54 countries that comprise the continent, 25 are represented, making this the most extensive exhibition of African fashions ever staged in the UK.
Beginning in the African liberation years of the 1950s and moving to today, the focus is resolutely on contemporary fashion rather than historical textiles. A number of designers have loaned pieces from their personal collections, including Nigerian Shade Thomas-Fahm, and the estates of Ghanaian Kofi Ansah and Malian Chris Seydou. A focus on the politics of cloth explores wax prints and commemorative fabrics, including one made in the early 1990s following the release of Nelson Mandela. Alongside each, there are a mix of sketches, films, catwalk footage, and domestic photography of 10 families recording African and African diasporic fashion in real life. The clothes vibrate with colour, texture and life.
More than 250 objects are on show in Africa Fashion, and 70 of those are new acquisitions. Part of the exhibition’s remit is to extend the number of African textiles and fashion pieces currently in the V&A’s collection — as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum during the summer of 2020, the lack of representation of creatives who are black, indigenous or people of colour in museum collections around the world was highlighted. “We always knew what our history was. We always knew that we needed to do something about it,” says Checinska.
Checinska emphasises that the Africa Fashion exhibition was in the works before she took on her role in June 2020. This and the creation of her position are part of the museum’s desire to acknowledge the impact and importance of African fashion. “It’s recognising the need to focus on a scene that’s so influential, so innovative, so exciting, but also recognising that we needed to do something about our holdings.”
The exhibition comes at a time when the fashion industry is increasingly focused on the market possibilities of the African continent. Chanel recently announced that its next Métiers d’Art collection, devoted to the skills of artisan ateliers in Paris owned by the brand, will be held in Dakar, Senegal on December 6 — the brand’s first fashion show on the continent. Dior staged a Cruise show in Marrakesh in 2019, showcasing a collection created in collaboration with African textile producers and designers. That same year, the South African designer Thebe Magugu won the LVMH Prize, and has since designed a collection for AZ Factory, the Richemont-owned brand founded by the late designer Alber Elbaz, while his own collections have garnered international plaudits.
Magugu says he sees his arresting clothes as modern relics, expressive of stories of South African culture. One print, which at a distance seems like innocuous polka-dots, is actually comprised of fingerprints taken from Olivia Forsyth, a former spy for the apartheid government in the 1980s. Magugu’s work is included in the exhibition — because, Checinska enthuses, “It’s brilliant fashion.” That is her measure, she asserts, for any inclusion. “Is it beautiful? Is it stunning, gorgeous fashion? Yes, it’s got a message too. But the two things meet.”
It is marked that the exhibition chooses to avoid two routes: an exploration of the legacy of European colonialism, and the notion of cultural appropriation or even appreciation of the dress of African countries by non-African designers. The phrase Checinska uses is “conscious celebration”. “It’s not a complete throwing out of politics, it’s not a complete throwing out of colonial history,” she says. “Yes, you can walk [the exhibition] and find out the traces of colonisation. I think just as traces of colonisation are here in everyday life — as a person of colour, you are conscious of the traces. But we don’t need to, in this moment I think, focus on it specifically.”
Checinska shoots down, immediately, the idea of showcasing fashion drawing on Africa for inspiration. “We want to focus on African creativity. The minute you start to look at designers in the global north, that have been influenced by African art or African creativity in fashion and textiles, the focus goes away from the designers themselves, the makers, the stylists on the continent,” she says. “I really felt so strongly that in this moment, we as creators of African heritage, we have to just stand tall in who we are.”
To April 16 2023, vam.ac.uk
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