V&A trail: Africa fashion

Inspired by the exhibition, Africa Fashion, this trail leads you out of the V&A Fashion galleries and exhibition space, and highlights where you can connect with more African fashion and textiles – both modern and historic – across our collections.

Click on the map links to find the objects on our digital map.

Stop 1: North African Fashion display

Photo of model in dress on catwalk, image of gallery
Left: Dress, part of the series 'She has 99 names', by Karim Adduchi, 2017. Museum no. ME.19-2021. Right: View of Islamic Middle East, the Jameel Gallery, Room 42, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This display, which expands on the Africa Fashion exhibition, brings together a variety of North African garments, from historic pieces like 19th-century abas (cloaks) and jewellery, to playful babouches (slippers) that combine modern branding with traditional style.

It also features a contemporary dress by Karim Adduchi, part of the series She has 99 names. The collection is rooted in Amazigh (Berber) culture and is inspired by the unbound complexity of a woman's identity. Whether focusing on emotions, crisis, nostalgia or a personal migration experience, for Adduchi, collaboration is an important part of his work, as "what brings us together is much greater than what puts us aside".

See more of Karim Adduchi's designs come to life at the V&A in Museum Leila, a short film by Nadira Amrani.

Stop 2: Europe Supported by Africa and America

Sculpture in greens, reds and metal grey
Europe Supported by Africa and America, by Sokari Douglas Camp, 2015. © Sokari Douglas Camp, courtesy of October Gallery

In this work, Sokari Douglas Camp takes the late 18th century abolitionist print by William Blake, Europe Supported by Africa and America, as her starting point. Inspired by a family photograph of three friends at a wedding in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the sculptor 'Africanises' Blake's work by dressing her three contemporary figures in West African cloths.

The steel sculpture shows 'Africa' on the left, wearing a green, yellow and red Igbo pattern. 'America' is on the right, dressed in pink and gold paisley – a fabric that illustrates the exchange of design aesthetics across the globe. Both support the central figure, 'Europe', who is wearing a Piet Mondrian-style geometric print. Through her own British-Nigerian lens, the artist critiques historic European dominance, and challenges inequality through the display of the figures.

Stop 3: Untitled, Vulcan series

Map link: Jewellery, Room 91

image of large metal ring, image of gallery
Left: Untitled, Vulcan series, by Emefa Cole, 2012. Museum no. M.13-2020. Right: View of Jewellery, Room 91, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The artisan Emefa Cole trained both in Britain where she grew up, and in Ghana, where she was born. There she worked with the goldsmiths of the Asantehene in Kumasi to learn the traditional Ashanti lost-wax casting technique for gold, which she used to forge the cavernous spiral structure of this ring.

Cole was inspired by volcanic activity – both its destructive and life-giving capacities – to create the ring, which was shown at the Fashion and Design Week in Accra, Ghana, in 2013. Made from oxidised silver with applied gold leaf, its majestic design appears to have been hewn from the Earth's glowing core.

Stop 4: Faces and Phases

Left, portrait photo of person standing against a black and white patterned background, right, shot of gallery
Left: 'Bakhambile Skhosana, Natalspruit' from the series 'Faces and Phases', gelatin silver print, by Zanele Muholi, 2010, South Africa. Right: View of Photography Centre, Room 101, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Working in photography, video and installation, Muholi's work offers a platform for Black LGBTQIA+ experiences, often focusing on politics and the post-apartheid gay rights movement in South Africa. The four portraits shown here are from the series Faces and Phases. Muholi began the ongoing project in 2006 to document the lives of lesbians, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

Through these portraits Muholi creates a space for their sitters to represent themselves however they feel comfortable in front of the camera. Muholi, a self-described 'visual activist' speaks about this series as a collective portrait, a way to "express our gendered, radicalised, and classed selves in rich and diverse ways".

Stop 5: Costume worn by a dancer from Adzido Pan African Dance Company

Left, african dance ensemble theatre costume, right, view of gallery
Left: Costume worn by a dancer from Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble, about 1999. Museum no. S.806-2017. Right: View of Theatre & Performance, Room 105, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This costume featured as part of the closing dance in Sankofa, a performance by the Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble, which ran between 1991 and 2001.

The skirt is made of printed cotton textiles known as ankara, African-print cloth or Dutch wax, which have been fashionable in West and East Africa since the late 19th century. Ankara as a textile is historically rooted in colonial global trade, as Europeans replicated Indonesian batik and began to export wax fabrics across Africa. Production began to shift to Africa in the 20th century, and Ankara has been used over the years as a signifier of the continent. The textile is however, one among many types of fabric which are used in Africa today, and therefore should be appreciated as part of, rather than the sum of, African textiles.

Stop 6: Alessandro de' Medici, Duke of Florence

Map link: Paintings, Room 81

left, dark portrait painting of a man in black wearing a black hat, right, view of painting gallery
Left: Alessandro de' Medici, Duke of Florence, oil painting, after Jacopo Da Portormo, about 1550, Florence. Museum no. CAI.171. Right: View of Paintings, Room 81, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alessandro de' Medici, known as the Black Duke of Florence, was of mixed parentage – his father part of the ruling Medici family and his mother of African descent. Known as a fashionable man, Alessandro became the ruler of Florence in 1530. The first hereditary Medici ruler and the family heir after decades of political instability in the region, he was assassinated in 1537.

In the 16th century, clothes were an integral part of projecting status. Alessandro here presents himself as a Renaissance man, wearing a white shirt, black doublet, gown and hat. Black clothing represented restraint and grace in Florence, while also being one of the most expensive types of cloth to produce at the time.

Explore more about this painting and Alessandro's presence across the museum through a cameo portrait in room 111 and his inclusion in the Fashioning Masculinities exhibition.

Stop 7: Tunisian Man's Sash

Left, detail of material in reds and blues, right, view of gallery
Left: Man’s sash, maker unknown, about 1850, Tunisia. Museum no. 808&A-1852. Right: View of Britain (1760–1900), Room 122, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This section of a sash is a skilful and rare example of Tunisian weaving from the 1850s. Silk weaving guilds have existed in urban areas of Tunisia since the 12th century, using silk produced naturally in the country but also imported from the 19th century onwards. This piece was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and was purchased by the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) as an example of a 'tasteful' and 'well-balanced design'.

The sash is a microcosm of the global collections that exist in many institutions across the UK. Though detailed information is not always kept for items like this, it is important that they are recontextualised and spotlighted as society re-examines its colonial past.

Stop 8: Portrait of Melissa Thompson

Left, painting of woman sat in chair with yellow background, right, view of painting in gallery
Left: Portrait of Melissa Thompson from The Yellow Wallpaper Series, oil on linen, by Kehinde Wiley, 2020, London. Museum no. E.59-2021 . Right: View of Britain (1760–1900), Room 125, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Nigerian-American artist Kehinde Wiley's work addresses the historic lack of representation of Black people in portraiture. Here, the artist has painted Melissa Thompson, whom he spotted walking through Dalston, east London, and invited to pose for him. The finished work, which is part of Wiley's series The Yellow Wallpaper, explores themes of feminism and identity.

Thompson, as with Wiley's other sitters, is presented wearing street-style clothing, disrupting the tropes of European portrait painting. Wiley appropriates a traditional pose, one often used for scholars and religious leaders. Thompson's left hand is open to us, and she seems to gesture towards the viewer, whose gaze she unflinchingly meets. Wiley has rendered her street style with the sort of care usually reserved for depicting people in their formal clothes – but here instead capturing the intricacies of her ripped trousers and casual hoodie.

Stop 9: Sugar bowls with figures of America and Africa

Left, two porcelain sugar bowls featuring black figures, right, view of gallery
Left: Sugar bowls with figures of America and Africa, modelled by Johann Friedrich Eberlein, made by Meissen Porcelain Factory, 1765 – 75, Germany. Museum nos. C.2559-1910, C.2560-1910. Right: View of Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 3, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The representation of African people through the clothing attributed to them can reveal so much about the colonial mindset. Adorning a pair of 18th-century European sugar bowls, these figures reflect the commodification and exotification of Black people.

The male figure, representing America, is dressed in a brightly coloured feathered skirt and headdress. The female figure, portraying Africa, wears a flower-printed skirt and offers a lemon. Neither outfit is an accurate historical representation of clothing worn on the African or American continents. Instead, the figures present an exoticised European view of Africans reinforced by the then slave apologists.

Header image:

Portrait of Melissa Thompson from The Yellow Wallpaper Series, oil on linen, by Kehinde Wiley, 2020, London. Museum no. E.59-2021 . © Victoria and Albert Museum, London