With its first-ever exhibition on African fashion, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (known as the V&A), the world’s largest museum of applied arts, decorative arts, and design that was created 170 years ago, is attempting to address its colonial past.
The landmark exhibition “Africa Fashion” features objects, sketches, textiles, photographs and films from across the continent — exploring design from the African liberation years from the 1950s to the 1980s, as well up-and-coming contemporary designers.
The show aims to provide a “glimpse into the glamor and politics of the fashion scene,” the project’s curator, Elisabeth Murray, told press agency AFP. “We wanted to celebrate the amazing African fashion scene today. So the creativity of all the designers, stylists, photographers, and looking at the inspiration behind that”.
Lead curator Christine Checinska calls the exhibition “part of the V&A’s ongoing commitment to foreground work by African heritage creatives.”
Founded in 1852, the V&A Museum’s history is closely linked to colonialism, as some of its collections were established at the time, as Queen Victoria expanded its global empire — including in Africa.
The Asian collections, for example, include exhibits that date back to the India Museum established by the East India Company in 1801.
Many of the garments on display come from the personal archives of famous African designers from the mid-20th century
African art and culture were long overlooked or misrepresented at the museum, says curator Checinska, who is a women’s fashion designer and art historian. This, she says, is due to the historical division between art museums and ethnographic museums, “arising from our colonial roots and embedded racist assumptions.”
“Africa Fashion” is paving new perspectives for the museum and is a testing ground “for new equitable ways of working together,” she said.
African fashion is political
The exhibition is divided into different sections—with names like “Afrotopia,” “Cutting-Edge” and “Mixology.” The sections deal with topics such as sustainability, gender, race, sexual identity or politics.
The first section, “African Cultural Renaissance,” highlights protest posters and literature from the African independence movements. They are shown in the context of the fashion of the time.
Clothing in Africa always had a political aspect to it, as knew Ghanaian Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah, who proclaimed the country’s independence in 1957, making it the first Black African colony to do so. He also symbolically traded European suits for traditional smocks made of the colorful Kente cloth.
Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana to independence from Britain in 1957
Textiles play an important role in the exhibition. The Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui once said, “cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners”.
African fabrics are unique
“The Vanguard,” central attraction of the exhibition, showcases the works of pioneers of modern African design.
On display are designs by Alphadi from Niger, Shade Thomas-Fahm from Nigeria and Kofi Ansah from Ghana. They experimented with African textiles and styles such as beading, creating innovative designs with cross-cultural influences.
Thomas-Fahm’s designs, for example, reinvented traditional African dress for the “cosmopolitan, working woman.”
Nigerian designer Shade Thomas-Fahm (born 1933) is one of the pioneers of modern African fashion
Another highlight of “Africa Fashion” is Moroccan designer Artsi’s custom design inspired by a British trench coat and a Muslim hijab. The design is meant to raise questions about how to “present Africa in England,” Artsi told AFP.
These are precisely the questions “Africa Fashion” aims to raise. It wants to stimulate a timely discourse on how Britain’s colonial history should be dealt with in art.
“Africa Fashion” is on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until April 16, 2023.
This article was originally written in German.