V&A presents its first African fashion exhibition | VIRGINIA

The Victoria and Albert Museum will open its first exhibition on African fashion this week, more than 170 years after its creation.

Featuring designers who have worked with names such as Beyoncé and architect David Adjaye, Africa Fashion aims to look across the continent’s fashion, exhibiting designs, photography and film from 25 of the 54 countries.

Christine Checinska, curator of African fashion and the African diaspora at the V&A, said the exhibit was overdue. “It is a moment of transition that marks the commitment we have to celebrate African creativity at all levels,” she said.

The V&A was founded in 1852 and its legacy and reputation is linked to British colonialism across Africa. Some of its most valuable items were acquired through colonialism, such as the Maqdala Treasures which entered the V&A collection after being taken during a British military campaign in Ethiopia in 1868. This exhibit could be considered a part of a larger movement to recognize these histories and to bring a more diverse range of voices into the institution.

The exhibition took more than two years to prepare. The team of curators consulted with external experts, a group of young people from the African diaspora and an intergenerational community panel. The designers were also involved in choosing the presentation of their work.

Marriage of David Adjaye and Ashley Shaw-Scott. Photography: Robert Fairer

“We wanted to showcase the pan-African fashion scene – that’s really what connects the creators of the show,” Checinska said. “So whether it’s from Morocco to South Africa or from Ghana to the west, [we want] to try to strategically break these old colonial borders.

Located in the fashion galleries, Africa Fashion is divided into two parts. The bottom section covers historical outfits and images from the 1950s, while the floor is dedicated to contemporary designers and photography.

The first section is an introduction to the rich history of fashion overlooked by most British galleries until now. It includes moments such as Ghana’s then Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah dressed in kente cloth to announce his country’s independence from British rule in 1957, and the popular studio portraits of photographers such as Rachidi Bissiriou, Sanlé Sory and Seydou Keïta, from the 1960s and 1970s.

Other cases explore the work of fashion designers – some of whom are household names across Africa, but little known outside the continent. Names of note include Alphadi, a Nigerian designer who used metalwork from his Tuareg heritage on glamorous dresses in the 1980s, and Shade Thomas-Fahm, a Nigerian women’s favorite designer for work wear in the 1980s. 1970.

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In the upstairs gallery, designs from the modern era are surprisingly political – brands such as Rich Mnisi, Orange Culture and Sindiso Khumalo address feminism and LGBTQI+ rights in their collections.

“I don’t think it’s a new thing,” Checinska said, pointing to engravings commemorating independence in the historical section. “What if it doesn’t carry a message?” It is almost a modernization of this textile tradition.

Aesthetics that have their roots in African countries have long been subject to cultural appropriation, with European designers using them in their collections. Africa Fashion deliberately does not address this burning issue. “It’s amazing work and we don’t want people to miss it,” Checinska said. “We center African creativity and we hope people come in and are inspired, want to walk away and embrace and engage in a respectful way.”

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