By Christine Checinska and Elisabeth Murray
Africa leads the way when it comes to cutting edge global fashions. The impact of African creativity cannot be denied. Yet there are many ways in which to explore this inspirational scene – many ways to manifest an exhibition about it. Africa Fashion is a timely celebration of the vitality and innovation of key creatives at the heart of the scene during the 20th century post-independence era and now in this contemporary moment. Giving a platform to designers, stylists, photographers and wearers from over twenty five countries across a broad spectrum of aesthetics, this exhibition is part of the V&A’s ongoing commitment to foreground work by African heritage creatives.
We are a blended team, consisting of participants with differing skills, knowledge bases and aesthetic vocabularies, alongside diverse cultural, racial and gendered backgrounds. This post sets out our way of working from the inception of the project to its delivery.
Centring Africa and representing multiple and varied African voices and perspectives is essential to our approach, all the while recognising the connections and disconnections between being on the continent and in the diaspora. This would not have been possible without the generosity of the fashion creatives represented in the show, who liberally shared their time and expertise. From meetings and studio tours over Zoom (a result of curating during Covid) to choosing which pieces to display over WhatsApp, their points of view and voices underpin every aspect of the show. Fundamental too has been the contribution of those in industry, including many powerhouse women such as Nisha Kanabar at Industrie Africa or Omoyemi Akerele at Lagos Fashion and Design Week. Hundreds of conversations have shaped the narrative of Africa Fashion and over 80 of the garments on display have now joined the V&A’s permanent collection, ensuring this dynamic fashion scene is represented in perpetuity.
Closer to home it’s important to recognise that while the exhibition narrative is centered in Africa, the V&A is physically based in London, England. Founded in 1852, African creativity has largely been excluded, or misrepresented in the museum, owing to the historic division between art and ethnographic museums arising from our colonial roots and embedded racist assumptions. Like all exhibitions we want Africa Fashion to reach a wide audience, but we are also present to the importance of the exhibition to our local African and African diaspora audiences. Our Africa Fashion Co-design Group of 16 – 24-year-olds and the Community Focus Panel, championed by our Learning and Interpretation teams, have been a vital part of the project. These multi-generational groups provided essential feedback, encouragement and critique that added a richness of experience to the exhibition narrative and a series of accompanying events. These conversations emphasised the fact that African fashions are both irresistible and undefinable.
Africa Fashion marks a watershed or a point of transition that encourages us to appreciate the past while looking forwards to the future. It builds on the foundational work completed by past and present members of staff such as Carol Tulloch, Helen Mears, Janet Browne and Nicola Stylianou, all of whom recognised the need to expand our focus to incorporate objects and stories connected to Africa. Expertise drawn from the wider ecosystem of departments across the museum – Exhibitions, Conservation, Photography, Learning, Interpretation, Technical Services – has come together with external project staff in the telling of this story of African fashions.
With so much fashion photography and film in the exhibition, it was wonderful to have the photography curators Marta Weiss, Hana Kaluznick and Lydia Caston on hand throughout. Creative visionary and critical friend Sunny Dolat‘s contribution to the research and development phase of the project was invaluable, scoping out new designers at a time when it was impossible for us to travel, and generously sharing his knowledge with us. This collaborative approach characterised by sharing and exchange was replicated in the working relationship we developed with exhibition designers WestPort and graphic designers POCC, culminating in the unique use of the space that visually references the idea of collective power.
Our Africa Fashion graduate and early careers volunteers assisted in the initial research stages of the project and, in doing so, gained insights into exhibition making within a national museum.
The V&A’s Global Narratives Network – a group made up of interdepartmental staff members of colour – proved to be a valuable sounding board, especially when it came to selecting mannequin colours that represented a range of Black skin tones. This was a great way to sense check the research that our Conservation team had begun with us, including developing a new female mannequin head in collaboration with model Adhel Bol.
Our African Heritage Guides similarly lent their support. This group, under the stewardship of Janet Browne, has run African heritage tours since 2016. Africa Fashion has also given us an opportunity to devise a new fashion and textiles focused trail, allowing visitors to guide themselves around the museum in search of related objects and stories within the permanent collections.
The conversations and collaborations that have shaped the making of the Africa Fashion exhibition are a testbed for new equitable ways of working together that allow us to imagine and call into being the V&A of the future. But there is still much work to be done. There is a sense in which our work will never reach completion as museums, like all art institutions, are organic living things that should change over time as they respond to the historical contexts that we find ourselves in and anticipate the pressing global issues to come.