Victoria and Albert Museum, London
July 02, 2022 – April 16, 2023
Opening on 2 July 2022, the exhibition will be the UK’s most extensive exhibition of African fashions to date, celebrating the vitality and innovation of this vibrant scene, as dynamic and varied as the continent itself. Over 250 objects will be on display for the exhibition, with approximately half of these drawn from the museum’s collection, including 70 new acquisitions. Many of the garments on the show are from the personal archives of a selection of iconic mid-twentieth century African designers – Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah, and Alphadi, marking the first time their work will be shown in a London museum. The exhibition will also celebrate influential contemporary African fashion creatives including Imane Ayissi, IAMISIGO, Moshions, Thebe Magugu and Sindiso Khumalo. Africa Fashion will showcase these objects and the stories behind them alongside personal insights from the designers, together with sketches, editorial spreads, photographs, film and catwalk footage.
The exhibition begins with a contemporary ensemble that combines shimmering silk with exuberant layers of raffia by Imane Ayissi. Born in Cameroon, the couturier sits at the crossroads between fashion systems, bridging historical and contemporary periods, continental and Global Africa, artisanal craft making, and haute couture. This ensemble introduces the idea that African fashions are beyond definition and that creatives can and do choose their own paths. The ground floor of the exhibition will continue with an African Cultural Renaissance section that will focus on the African liberation years from the mid-late 1950s to 1994. The political and social reordering that took place galvanized a long period of unbounded creativity across fashion, music, and the visual arts. On display will be protesting posters, publications, and records embodying this era of radical change. Early publications from members of the Mbari Club, established for African writers, artists, and musicians, will sit alongside the cover artwork for Beasts of No Nation by Fela Kuti, a call-to-arms album that embodied the communal feeling of frustrations with the politics of the time but also the energy of Africa’s creativity and its artists’ drive to create beautiful things.
Politics and Poetics of Cloth will consider the importance of cloth in many African countries and the way in which the making and wearing of indigenous clothes in the moment of independence became a strategic political act. Wax prints, commemorative cloth, àdìrẹ kente, and bògòlanfini will be shown – fragments of a rich textile history that includes thousands of techniques from across the continent. Highlight objects include a strip of printed seersucker cotton from the V&A collection featuring the image of an open palm and the words ‘freedom in my hand I bring’ incorporating the newly independent Ghana insignia – a visible expression of community concerns as well as national, and individual identities. Also on display will be a commemorative cloth made in the early 1990s following the release of Nelson Mandela, featuring a portrait of the soon-to-be first Black President of South Africa and the words ‘A BETTER LIFE FOR ALL – WORKING TOGETHER FOR JOBS, PEACE AND FREEDOM’.
Shade Thomas-Fahm (b.1933), Chris Seydou (1949 – 1994), Kofi Ansah (1951-2014), Alphadi (b.1957), Naïma Bennis (1940-2008), and their peers represent the first generation of African designers to gain attention throughout the continent and globally. Marking the first moment in which their work will be shown in a London museum, the next section, The Vanguard, will trace their rise and impact, their creative process, and inspirations, brought to life by real stories from those who loved and wore their distinctive designs. Highlights include a re-imaging of the traditional Nigerian ìró by Shade Thomas-Fahm – known as ‘Nigeria’s first fashion designer’. Alongside will be a dress of silk and lurex from 1983 by Chris Seydou, known for promoting indigenous African textiles like bògòlanfini on the global stage. Ghanaian fashion designer Kofi Ansah’s iconic fusion of African and European aesthetics will be represented in a blue robe with traces of the Japanese kimono, the European judge’s robe and the West African agbádá robe. The innovation of Alphadi, described as the ‘Magician of the Desert’ will be shown with a dress of cotton and brass from 1988, gifted to the museum by the designer.
Capturing Change will focus on photographic portraits of the mid-late 20th century, capturing the mood of nations on the brink of self-rule – each shot documenting the modernity, cosmopolitanism, and fashion consciousness of individuals with agency and a desire to use it. The euphoria of decolonization coincided with the democratization of photography made possible through cheaper film and lighter-weight cameras. Photographic portraits taken in studios and domestic spaces became affirmations of agency and self-representation, making pride in being Black and African visible. Highlights from this section include studio photography from Sanlé Sory, Michel Papami Kameni, and Rachidi Bissiriou. The stylish color portraits of James Barnor will also sit alongside domestic photography of 10 families gleaned from the V&A’s public call-out in January 2021. On the mezzanine level of the exhibition, the new generation of ground-breaking designers, collectives, stylists, and fashion photographers working in Africa today will be celebrated. A new piece designed specifically for the exhibition, ‘A Dialogue Between Cultures’, by Maison ArtC will introduce this floor.
The first section on Minimalism will feature a look by Rwandan fashion house Moshions, known for re-imagining traditional Rwandan forms and cultural motifs into contemporary pieces. Paying tribute to the ceremonial attire worn historically by Rwandan royalty, the menswear look on show references the traditional Umwitero, a sash draped over the shoulder as well as beadwork and embroidery taking inspiration from Imigongo aesthetics. Mixology will feature an ensemble from IAMISIGO’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection, ‘Gods of the Wilderness’ which references ancient west African masquerade costumes. For this collection designer, Bubu Ogisi was inspired by traditional West African abstract performance art, and the unique visual identity and traditions of adornment which have been created by different individual cultural groups.
Artisanal will showcase a blue and white ensemble of DAKALA CLOTH by NKWO, who work with small-scale artisan makers across the African continent that specializes in handcrafts such as hand dyeing, weaving, beading, and embroidery. NKWO explores ways of using waste materials in her designs while still preserving traditional textile craft skills. DAKALA CLOTH, made from waste fabric is stripped and then sewn back together with a technique that gives the appearance of traditional woven cloth. Afrotopia will feature a look from Thebe Magugu’s Alchemy Collection that centers on African spirituality and the relationship we have with our ancestors. The designer collaborated with Noentla Khumalo, a stylist and traditional healer, on the collection. Alongside will be a look by Selly Raby Kane, which takes inspiration from Afro-Futurism.
In Sartorialists, costume designer, stylist and photographer Gouled Ahmed’s self-portraiture revolts against cultural norms, mixing textured garments from the Horn of Africa with contemporary everyday materials to play with notions of identity. Ahmed’s work challenges the lack of nuance in the depictions of non-binary Black Muslims’. In Adornment a neckpiece made of brass, sisal and borax salt from Ami Doshi Shah’s ‘Salt of the Earth’ collection examines the talismanic properties of jewellery and the storytelling ability of materials drawn from nature. Co-Creation spotlights personalised, contemporary twists on tradition with commissioned bespoke outfits made for the wedding of Lady Ashely Shaw-Scott Adjaye and Sir David Adjaye OBE by Kofi Ansah. Over the course of four appointments at his atelier in Accra, Ansah and the couple discussed every aspect of the designs, made from Ashanti Bonwire kente cloth from the designer’s extensive collection. The couple were later photographed for British Vogue magazine wearing their Kofi Ansah designs.