At the entrance to the new African fashion exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a message from curator Christine Checinska. “Since 1852, the V&A has sought to showcase the best in art and design,” she writes. “Yet African creativity has been largely excluded, or distorted, due to the historical divide between art and ethnography museums resulting from our colonial roots and entrenched racist assumptions.”
The new exhibition, which opens on Saturday and will run until April 2023, is “a landmark”, V&A director Tristram Hunt said during a preview. “This long-awaited showcase … consciously celebrates the genius of African creativity in all its diversity and ingenuity.”
Clothing, photographs, albums, magazines, other fashion-related objects and testimonials from more than 20 African countries are displayed on two floors, in a collection that celebrates the diversity of fashion and culture of the continent from the 1950s – shortly before most African countries gained independence — until today.
There are homages to the designers: Moroccan Naima Bennis, born in 1940, who created elegant evening capes; the Nigerian Shade Thomas-Fahm, who ran the Maison Shade boutique in Lagos in the 1960s; Chris Seydou from Mali, born in 1949, who presented bògòlanfini, a handmade cotton fabric dyed with fermented mud, on international catwalks; or the Ghanaian pan-Africanist Kofi Ansah, born in 1951, who is said to have been inspired by Japanese kimonos, telling his children: “The West is not always the best.
There are reminders of the role fashion has played in African politics, such as in 1957 when then Ghanaian Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah wore kente to announce his country’s independence from British control.
More recent moments are also included, such as an ornate golden suit worn by Nigerian music superstar Burna Boy (whose real name is Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu) at the 2020 Grammy Awards.
Present are several featured designers, who are grateful for the attention the exhibition will bring to their work, but also wonder why it has taken so long for such an event to be staged.
“It was too late,” laughs Nigerian stylist and designer Bubu Ogisi. “It’s a nice way to decolonize the museum. This is just the beginning. His label IAMISIGO is based between Lagos, Nairobi and Accra.
Ogisi says his pieces have been featured in ethnographic museums in Germany and other parts of the world. Any exhibition creates greater awareness of what African designers are doing, she adds. “It should have been done maybe five years ago, but time always heals everything.”
In a speech, curator Checinska says the exhibit is the result of dozens of conversations with creators. “There are of course many ways to be fashionable and African,” she says.
Aisha Ayensu, creative director of Ghanaian luxury fashion brand Christie Brown, which features two pieces, praises the exhibition as “well thought out and very well curated”, and appreciates that the museum took the time to “do it right and to tell our stories in a good way”.
“It’s an exciting time; it’s history in the making,” says Ayensu. “We hope it’s not some kind of fad or trend. It is to entrench the position of African fashion. It creates awareness of the multitude of brands that already exist, and hopefully opens doors for how we can merge with the rest of the world… not just with inspiration but with commerce.
“I’m so happy to be here. It’s an honour,” says designer Alphadi, born Sidahmed Seidnaly and based in Niger. “Africa is a continent, Africa is not a city,” he points out, standing next to an exhibition of his work, which features woven raffia kuba fabric. “The time has come for Africa… We have the fashion, the beauty is there, and we are supposed to promote that.”
The 65-year-old, who launched his brand in the 1980s, founded Fima, the International Festival of African Fashion, in 1998. Its next iteration will take place in Niger in December, and Alphadi invites European and American designers to attend and exhibit their work together.
The V&A Africa Fashion exhibition also saw the museum produce a 224-page book, for which the British-American playwright wrote a prologue. African fashion “is agency at its finest because it creates a future in which Africans are defined by no one but ourselves,” Greer writes.