Meet Dr Christine Checinska, The Curator Championing African Fashion
How Dr Christine Checinska is Leading the Way in Documenting African Fashion
By Ranji Mangcu
Women have always been drivers of culture – space-makers, building networks and transferring culture through every avenue available to them. What African American author of Black feminist theory Kimberlé Crenshaw coined as an “intersectional” experience has – in conjunction with undeniable genius, dynamism, and entrepreneurship – instilled range, empathy and perceptiveness that helps us understand the needs of society. It’s about identifying where we can fill the gaps, and where we can build anew.
From rectifying informational gaps about African fashion, to enacting the infrastructural development of African fashion industries through collaboration, what is apparent across the board is a commitment and renewed sense of priority to building a connective fashion industry, driven by collaboration and investment in the collective.
This year, African Fashion International is celebrating the women who are driving African fashion both on and off the continent, from all corners of the fashion system. Braving the somewhat apocalyptic realities of the world – from regional wars to climate and inflation crises – they are driven by visions of the African continent’s fashion futures.
From business and journalism to design and curatorship, women continue to move against the rules and limits of individualism, tokenism and glass ceilings to demonstrate the boundless possibilities of success and value-creation in the fashion industry.
Meet the first trailblazer we are celebrating:
Dr Christine Checinska
In 2022, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum prompted more than a few raised eyebrows across the fashion, fine art and curatorial scenes when it announced an exhibition titled “Africa Fashion”, dedicated to the history and culture behind fashion on the continent.
For a multitude of reasons, people doubted that the V&A, an institution so closely tied to Britain’s colonial history, was in the right position to tell the story of African fashion honestly, and without all the representational pitfalls that often emerge from stories told about Africa, on Africa’s behalf.
Many claimed to see right through it as a delayed attempt by an institution under pressure to “decolonize”, to rectify centuries of erasure with one, catch-all exhibition.
The storyteller at the helm of this landmark exhibition was the V&A Museum’s Curator of African and African Diaspora Fashion – fashion designer, artist, writer, academic, curator and storyteller, Dr Christine Checinska.
Faced with the monumental order of curating 52 nations’ worth of fashion histories into one exhibition, Checinska assertively positioned the exhibition as a starting point in the curatorial storytelling of African fashion histories, highlighting the networks of fashion, philosophy, and cultural identities that connected the continent.
Checinska started the conversation off with a bang, in a blockbuster exhibition that celebrated key elements of African fashion, from the communicative nature of traditional cloths in post-Independence Africa, to the fashion histories built by the likes of Shade Thomas-Famm and Alphadi, and all the way up to the cosmopolitan, contemporary fashion landscapes being built by the likes of Thebe Magugu, Tokyo James and Imane Ayissi.
The exhibition has since travelled from London’s V&A to the Brooklyn Museum, in New York City.
Checinska’s career in fashion spans three-decades, starting out in the 80’s as a designer for British retailer, River Island. In a podcast with London College of Fashion titled “African Style Archive: Tosin Adeosun in Conversation with Dr Christine Checinska”, the fashion multi-hyphenate explains that her experience of being the only woman of colour in most fashion-industry rooms drove her to consider the sartorial practices of her Jamaican-migrant elders as part of greater cultural movements, transformative to those living in the present. Fashion gave her multiple avenues to tell those stories.
Through several seminal works, Checinska’s focus on the social power of fashion has shed light on where this phenomenon that we love intersects with our human experiences to give us the style and cultures that we hold dear. She writes:
“Fashion is a part of the process by which the unequal distribution of power within society is constructed… but fashion can also be used to challenge and contest one’s position within society…”
Operating from the standpoint that, across the African diaspora, fashion has been a vehicle through which we speak about ourselves and curate how we want to be seen, her years of cultural work shift the paradigms of not only the fashion industry, but the fashion conversation in its entirety.