Victoria and Albert Museum
(7 July 2022 – 16 April 2023)
Review by Anjali Joseph
The V&A’s Africa Fashion exhibition comes, writes the museum’s director Tristram Hunt in a foreword to the book that accompanies the exhibition, ‘at a period when the need to reimagine the practice of the museum along more equitable and encompassing lines could not be more apparent’. Lead curator Christine Checinska’s exhibition offers a change of orientation from the usual focus of the V&A when it comes to textiles and fashion: either housing extraordinary collections plundered from former colonies, or showcasing the work of designers familiar in and from the west – Christian Dior; Alexander McQueen. With Africa Fashion, the museum is acknowledging that African countries are not simply repositories of tradition, but also creators of that more ephemeral, witty, and contrarian art: fashion.
The story does begin with tradition reclaimed, in the 1950s and 1960s. Seventeen African countries became independent in 1960 alone. Notable is Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, wearing kente, the vibrant striped handloom that Checinska sees as a symbol for the syncretic nature of African fashion – distinct colours woven into a harmonious whole, but which retain a tension between their elements rather than melting into each other. Cultural migration keeps occurring with textiles – industrial copies of traditional Javanese wax-resist batik were sold in West Africa when they couldn’t be sold in Java because of a technical fault; subsequently, such prints became local and interchangeably known as ‘Dutch print’ and ‘African print cloth’. Motifs recur through the more than 60 years covered in the exhibition – àdirę indigo resist cloth from Ibadan, for example, reappears in a 1997 ‘Indigo Couture’ collection by Kofi Ansah – and there is a wealth of photographic evidence, both of the formal manifestations of fashion in shows or portraits of designers, but also, perhaps even more charmingly, in what would now be called ‘street style’ – the portraits of beautifully dressed men and women taken in and out of studios, like James Barnor’s ‘Ever Young’ studio in Ghana.
One of the achievements of the exhibition is to introduce a roll call of some of Africa’s most important designers through the decades. They begin with the pioneers: Shade Thomas-Fahm, the first international fashion designer in Nigeria, who returned from a course in fashion at Central Saint Martins in London just in time for independence in 1960, with Juliana Norteye in Ghana and Chris Seydou in Mali, who used ceremonial bògòlanfini cloth, adapted for use as a luxury material. Much later, things have continued to evolve between countries and between generations: a 2021 US Vogue cover shows Amanda Gorman wearing a kente cloth designed by Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton, incorporating the brand’s initials into the design; and a pair of fake leather babouche slippers by Hassan Hajjaj made in 2020 unofficially borrow the Vuitton monogram, and slap a green Nike tick on top. The exhibition, economical though it has to be in transmitting a sense of six decades of fashion across an entire continent, succeeds in transmitting both a pride in the intricate craft handed down through tradition, and the insolence and insouciance that characterise great style.