Africa Fashion means the past, the future and the present at the same time. The joy of life and the joy of colour is completely different and very particular to the continent. It's a language of heritage, it's a language of DNA, it's a language of memories.
The irresistible creativity, ingenuity and unstoppable global impact of contemporary African fashions are celebrated in an extensive display of garments, textiles, personal testimonies, photographs, sketches, film and catwalk footage in this exhibition. Many of the garments on show hail from the archives of iconic mid-twentieth century African designers – Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah and Alphadi. Alongside these are personal insights from influential contemporary African fashion creatives, including Imane Ayissi, IAMISIGO, Moshions, Thebe Magugu and Sindiso Khumalo, as well as highlights from fashion trends of the day, which are on display for the first time.
Foregrounding individual African voices and perspectives, the exhibition presents African fashions as a self-defining art form that reveals the richness and diversity of African histories and cultures. Africa Fashion celebrates the vitality and innovation of a selection of fashion creatives from over 20 countries, exploring the work of the vanguard in the twentieth century and the creatives at the heart of this eclectic and cosmopolitan scene today.
Across contemporary couture, ready-to-wear, made-to-order and adornment, the exhibition seeks to offer a close-up look at the new generation of ground-breaking designers, collectives, stylists and fashion photographers working in Africa today. It explores how the digital world accelerated the expansion of the industry, irreversibly transforming global fashions as we know them.
I feel like there's so many facets of what we've been through as a continent, that people don't actually understand. Now, more than ever, African designers are taking charge of their own narrative and telling people authentic stories, not the imagined utopias.
Starting with the African independence and liberation years from the mid-late 1950s – 1994 that sparked a radical political and social reordering across the continent, the African Cultural Renaissance section looks at the long period of unbounded creativity. Spanning fashion, music, the visual arts, protest posters, publications and records, we see objects that embody this era of radical change. Early publications from members of the Mbari Club, established for African writers, artists, and musicians, sit alongside the cover artwork for Beasts of No Nation by Fela Kuti – a call-to-arms album which embodied the communal feeling of frustration with the politics of the time, but also the energy of Africa's creativity and its artists' drive to create beautiful things.
The Politics and Poetics of Cloth considers the importance of cloth in many African countries, and how the making and wearing of indigenous cloths in the moment of independence became a strategic political act. Wax prints, commemorative cloth, àdìrẹ, kente and bògòlanfini are featured – examples of a rich textile history that includes thousands of techniques from across the continent. On display is 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".
The first generation of African designers to gain attention throughout the continent and globally can be seen in the Vanguard section. The rise and impact, creative process and inspirations of Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah, Alphadi, Naïma Bennis, and their peers are traced, and brought to life by real stories from those who loved and wore their distinctive designs.
Capturing Change focuses on the portrait photography of the mid-late 20th century, capturing the mood of nations on the brink of self-rule. The euphoria of decolonisation coincides with the democratisation of photography which was made possible through cheaper film and lighter weight cameras. Shots document the modernity, cosmopolitanism and fashion consciousness of individuals, whilst portraits taken in studios and domestic spaces became affirmations of agency and self-representation – visibly taking pride in being Black and African. Highlights from this section include studio photography from Sanlé Sory, Michel Papami Kameni and Rachidi Bissiriou. The stylish colour portraits of James Barnor also sit alongside domestic photography of 10 families gleaned from the V&A's public call-out in January 2021.
The new generation of ground-breaking designers, collectives, stylists and fashion photographers working in Africa today are celebrated on the mezzanine level of the exhibition. A first section on Minimalism features 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 featuring beadwork and embroidery that takes inspiration from Imigongo aesthetics.
The Mixology section features 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 that 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 specialise in crafts 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, using a technique that gives the appearance of traditional woven cloth.
Afrotopia features a look from Thebe Magugu's Alchemy collection, created in collaboration with Noentla Khumalo – a stylist and traditional healer. The collection centres on African spirituality and the relationship we have with our ancestors. 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.
From global fashion weeks to celebrity wearers and the role of social media, Africa Fashion will celebrate and champion the diversity and ingenuity of the continent's fashion scene. The exhibition forms part of a broader and ongoing V&A commitment to grow the museum's permanent collection of work by African and African Diaspora designers, working collaboratively to tell new layered stories about the richness and diversity of African creativity, cultures, and histories, using fashion as a catalyst.
Book tickets to see Africa Fashion from 2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023.