Narrative threads: ‘Africa Fashion’, V&A, London

This was one of the most purely exciting exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time. So vibrant and visually assured, it stimulates one’s sight in the same way a complex gourmet meal explodes in multiple flavours across the taste buds.

Seasoned visitors to the V&A might not be surprised by this. Quick note for those unfamiliar: ‘the V&A’ – originally, and in full, the Victoria & Albert Museum – is renowned as a leading art and design museum and, in particular, is home to the largest fashion collection in the world. So, when a V&A exhibition focuses on costume or dress, it has that additional frisson of excitement to it – take, for example, the extraordinary Dior show back in 2019.

With a potential scope far wider than a single-house retrospective, ‘Africa Fashion’ goes all out for plurality and works on a number of levels. Starting in the 50s (“the African independence era”), it looks at fashion in its broadest sense, displaying clothes alongside other ephemera such as political posters, magazines or album covers.

Walking through the dizzying range of exhibits, trying to take it all in, I felt the curators had certainly succeeded in conveying to me (a white, British observer) the designers’ key role in Pan-Africanism – the continent defining its own identity in opposition to colonisers – without compromising their own individual identities. In fact, the way clothing is used to signify identity – not just regional or political but also familial and hierarchical – is explained and emphasised.

As you might expect, my interest in Africa (not yet matched by my knowledge, I’m ashamed to say) has mostly been on the musical side. Thanks to the sterling efforts of several record labels to unearth and distribute releases from African bands both past and present, listeners like me can make a journey of sorts from identifying a ‘Pan-African’ music (entry level: there is something quite distinct and unifying about all African music when it first hits my Western ear) to burrowing further into the range and variety of genres the continent has to offer. (So far, I’ve fallen for desert blues, Nigerian highlife, Ethiopian jazz and Benin funk, among other things. If you’re asking.)

I include that digression because after looking at such an important period through just one lens (poring over CD booklet photos and sleeve notes), I could appreciate the skill with which the exhibition provides context and reportage. The outfits on display are captivating and remarkable, but you can also see a large part of ‘Africa Fashion’ as a parallel photography archive. After all, one possible way to describe style is a marriage of the clothing to the attitude: the fascinating portraits on display show no only what people wore, but how they wore it.

After exploring the pioneering work of those mid-20th century leading lights, ‘Africa Fashion’ broadens out into the V&A’s vast, circular, elevated exhibition space to showcase work from contemporary designers and artists, bringing the story bang up-to-date. This might have been overwhelming in its almost delirious élan, were it not for – again – the expert curation, marshalling the designs into themes and categories that struck the right balance between unified and diverse.

There is still plenty of time to see this (closing date 16 April 2023), and I urge you to go. If you’re already steeped in matters Africa or fashion, you don’t need my recommendation. But the show in itself is so thrilling, important and informative that I’m tempted to call it required viewing: the less you know, the more you’ll learn. In the interpretation, Christine Checinska, V&A Director of Africa and Diaspora: Textiles and Fashion, makes the point that this area of African history has before now fallen into the gap between coverage from art and ethnographic institutions. ‘Africa Fashion’, with its weave of exhilarating creativity and deft storytelling, takes a major leap towards filling this gap.


(Photos by AA.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s