Global Africa Collection at the V&A

The term Global Africa refers to Africa and its global diasporas. The V&A's Global Africa collection brings together works by artists, designers and performers of Global African descent, alongside works that represent Global Africans.

'Self Evident', photograph, by Ingrid Pollard, 1995, Brighton, England. Museum no. E.327-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

'Global Africa' – historic collecting practices

Global Africa's presence and cultural impact is all around us today, just as it was at the inception of the V&A. Yet, in our museum, as well as many others across Europe, the creative expressions of Global Africa, in its myriad and varied forms, have often been largely excluded, or misrepresented, owing to the historic division between art and ethnographic museums – arising from our colonial history and compounded racism. Historically, most museum collections have privileged objects relating to certain classes, races and genders.

Many of the objects held by British and European museums with African collections were acquired in the late 19th century, during the radical social, political, economic and cultural devastation brought about by the colonisation of much of the Global South. The forced acquisition and display of these objects served to articulate, maintain and disseminate stereotypically negative, racialised views of Africa, Africans and their descendants. At the time, this material culture was represented by Global North perspectives, as sitting outside of the art and design world. The acquisition of African artefacts was also associated with imperial conquest, such as the British punitive raid on Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874.

Badge, before 1874, Kumasi, Ghana. Museum no. 369-1874. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Objects from the post-Columbian Caribbean were largely deemed not to be worthy of acquisition, by force or otherwise, due to the racist colonial attitudes brought to bear on the creolised cultural expressions. Caribbean material culture was seen as neither African, nor British or European, emerging as it did in the crucible of plantation slavery. Here, multiple cultures collided and coalesced, creating something unique and distinct to some – but impure and of little value to others. This resulted in a diverse, yet inconsistent, range of material finding its way into museums.

It must also be acknowledged that few museum collections of Global African objects in Britain were created by people of African descent, and this framework remained largely in place until the 1990s.

V&A Global Africa Collection

However, while the V&A does not have a dedicated African collection department, we do hold a significant number of objects from the Continent and its global diasporas, including the Caribbean. This includes historic and contemporary artefacts from Egypt, Ghana and Ethiopia, contemporary fashions from 22 of the 54 African nations, as well as ceramics, textiles and glassware from northern Africa, along with prints and photographs from southern Africa. The collection similarly holds fashion, textiles and furniture, alongside prints, drawings, paintings and photography created by artists, designers and makers from the Caribbean, or of Caribbean heritage – from Ronald Moody to Althea McNish, and Tam Joseph to Hew Locke. The global focus of the collection means that the work of African American artists like Khaleb Brooks and Carrie Mae Weems, alongside African American related artefacts are also present.

Spirit of the Carnival, print, by Tam Joseph, 1988, Great Britain. Museum no. E.1233-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The broad geographic and artistic scope of the collection refutes the idea of a singular African aesthetic and identity. Like many museum collections in Britain, the V&A Global Africa collection also contains objects said to represent Black and African people, some more racially stereotypical in their rendering than others. For example, William Mulready's painting The Toyseller (1835) shows a black toy seller holding up a toy to a white child who shrinks away from his gaze, or two Meissen porcelain dessert bowls (about 1765 – 75) which are decorated with near-naked figurines, depicting an orientalised fantasy of Black women.

'The Toy Seller', oil painting, by William Mulready (RA), 1835, Great Britain. Museum no. FA.149[O]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ongoing work

The V&A has a role to play in the development of equitable museum practice by strategically turning our focus to Global Africa, and we must work collaboratively with those of African and African Diaspora heritage to interpret historical and contemporary Global Africa material culture for future generations.

'The Black House', photograph, by Colin Jones, 1973 – 76, Islington, London, England. Museum no. E.300-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In recent history we have been consciously representing creativity from Global Africa across programmes and activities dedicated to art, design and performance. Through displays such as Staying Power (2013) and Between Two Worlds (2023), prominence has been given to multiple and varied African Caribbean identities in Britain, primarily in the twentieth century period. Africa Fashion (2022 – 23) highlighted the diversity of works produced by a number of post-Independence and contemporary Black and African fashion creatives based on the Continent. In 2022 – 23, we made over 100 new acquisitions from across Africa and the diaspora, including the first objects representing Rwanda and Eswatini. This work reaffirms the V&A's ongoing commitment to grow its permanent collection of work by African and African Diaspora creatives, and tell new layered stories about the myriad of cultural expressions emerging from Global Africa.

Additionally, addressing the legacies of colonial heritage remains a priority for the V&A. The historical contexts of the plantation slavery and colonial eras and their immediate aftermaths must be considered and robustly interrogated as part of our museum practice, if we are to understand the centuries-old Global Africa presence in Britain and beyond. We also have to consider the nature of the ongoing interwoven, yet uneven, relationship between Britain and the former colonies, and how that continues to shape museum policy and practice. These are precisely the issues that sculptor Thomas J. Price's work explores through his arresting yet contemplative depictions of everyday people. In his 2023 display at the museum, this work is set in critical dialogue with the V&A's historic collection.

Woman studying a gold coloured sculpture of a womans head
V&A gallery technician with the work 'Lay It Down (On The Edge of Beauty)', by Thomas J Price, 2008, UK. Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for the V&A

Why does this strategic focus matter? It matters because of the role that museums like the V&A have in promoting culture and heritage, in shaping the way we interpret and understand the world around us. Consequently, it is critical that Global African creative excellence is represented at the V&A. Through our exhibitions and events, we contribute to current debates about racism, social justice and decolonisation, using our collections as a catalyst to reflect on the entangled relationship between Global Africa and Britain. We also seek to reflect such debates through our collecting strategies and day-to-day ways of thinking and being, at an individual and institutional level, working to build an equitable future together.

Header image:

'The Black House', photograph, by Colin Jones, 1973 – 76, Islington, London, England. Museum no. E.300-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London