The Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘Africa Fashion’ exhibition which features AFI Fastrack winner Thebe Magugu and AFI designer, Christie Brown, is a belated celebration of Africa’s contribution to the global fashion world.
The Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition on African fashion has been one of the most anticipated in the world of art and fashion. For those who have been avidly following the growth of African fashion, it’s a ‘finally’ moment. And for those who have not, it’s an opportunity for them to see just how much of a contribution the African continent has played in global fashion.
The first time I heard about the exhibition, I was nervous. So many things can go wrong with the curation of an exhibition. I immediately thought back to the criticisms that 2015’s China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute faced.
Many were mindful to point out the cultural appropriation issue the theme of the Met Gala and the exhibition presented, how it was the fashion industry pandering to the Chinese luxury consumer in the hopes that it will result on them spending more on Western luxury brands than they were already doing.
However, the museum was quick to allay fears, saying that the exhibition was to contextualise the impact of Chinese art and culture on Western fashion. What the exhibition did, more than anything, was to introduce the world to a slew of Chinese designers like Guo Pei, she of the famous Rihanna robe, and China’s top stars and influential brand ambassadors like Fan Bingbing.
That exhibition is still one of the most successful in the museum’s modern history and there are high hopes that the V&A’s African Fashion exhibition will be just that.
Curated by Dr Christine Checinska, the exhibition opened on July 04 and will run until April 16, 2023. Checinska is the of African and African Diaspora Fashion at the V&A.
In a press release, the museum says the exhibition spans the mid-20th century to contemporary creatives through photographs, textiles, music and the visual arts.
“Africa Fashion explores the vitality and global impact of a fashion scene as dynamic and varied as the continent itself. Curator of forthcoming exhibition Africa Fashion, celebrating the irresistible creativity, ingenuity and unstoppable global impact of contemporary African fashions.”
It is honestly about time.
For decades, the fashion world has been looking to Africa for inspiration and taking from the continent without any shame. From the fabrics and prints, dyes and culture, Africa has been impacting global fashion without being given recognition.
“African fashion it something that has existed forever,” Checinska said in a video by the museum introducing the exhibition. “It is something that has been a part of us. African fashion is the future; African fashion is now.”
There have been instances of textiles indigenous to African countries being used in a manner that leads to accusations of cultural appropriation. While some in the global fashion industry may allude to how African countries not having solid fashion bodies and associations that protect the works of designers has led to their works being copied, it still is no excuse.
In an article on the exhibition for The Conversation Benita Odogwu-Atkinson writes that the exhibition forces the fashion industry to look beyond a “Eurocentric perspective and draw from a broader source of creativity with respect – and appeal to a wider market. It is time to break the stereotypical elitist view of Africa and fashion,” Odogwu-Atkinson writes.
More importantly, she addresses how the exhibition will also bring to light the brilliance of African designs.
“The Western use of African textiles, colours, patterns, and style often exhibited disrespect and lack of understanding, resulting in appropriation rather than appreciation. At last, in this exhibition, the opportunity to celebrate African fashion has arisen, providing recognition and status to wonderful sources of inspiration, creativity, and cultural abundancy.”
Of significance is that Africa Fashion features two designers who have previously collaborated with African Fashion International.
South Africa’s Thebe Magugu, who won the AFI Fastrack in 2015 before going on to be the first African designer to win the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2019, is one of the featured designers. Ghana’s Christie Brown, who has showcased with AFI as recently as March in Abu Dhabi, is also featured.
Other designers who have been showcased under the AFI banner included in the exhibition are Neo Mofammere’s brand, Nao Serati and Rich Mnisi.
AFI prides itself in creating a network for designers, exposing them to a global audience and customer base. This exhibition is a step in the right direction by a respected art body, to pay homage to an industry that has oft been taken for granted and not given the respect it deserves.
It is exciting that it is curated by a person of African descent, who knows the importance of Africans telling their own authentic stories.
“(The exhibition is about) Documenting and showcasing our history and culture,” Magugu said in the video introducing the exhibition.
“I feel like there’s so many facets of what we have been through as a continent and as a country, that people don’t actually understand. It’s often that our story has been told by other people and I feel like now more than ever, African designers are really taking charge.”