There’s a distinct buzz around the Africa Fashion exhibition at London’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum.
The event, which opens on July 2 and stretches across two floors, is a fascinating mixture of fashion from the mid-20th Century to the present day, told through photography, film, magazines and mannequins.
It features the work of 45 designers from more than 20 countries, and has more than 250 objects on display, 70 of which are new acquisitions. Starting with the period when many African nations were declaring independence, the exhibition examines the role fashion played in the continent’s cultural renaissance.
More than 50 mannequins have been dressed in exquisite outfits showcasing Africa’s creative spirit. It is colourful and fun, but there is a purpose.
“I think for us fashion is a kind of catalyst through which we can give people a glimpse into the myriad histories and cultures on the continent,” said Christine Checinska, the lead curator. “That’s also what we hope people will take away – just the sheer thrill and relish of the potential of African creativity.”
“There’s a real sense of collective power, and a sense of pan-Africanism in spite of difference,” she added.
The exhibition features the work of some of the most important names in the development of African fashion, including Folashade “Shade” Thomas-Fahm, who is often described as Nigeria’s first modern designer.
After studying fashion in London in the 1950s, Thomas-Fahm returned to Nigeria and became known for using traditional textiles in her work. Her early forays into fashion came at the same time as independence movements sprung up across the continent.
“In the 50s and 60s there was a kind of confusion about our identity,” she told CNN last year. “Everything Western was being praised and nobody seemed to care about our own indigenously produced materials. I just never felt that way.”
An archive of achievement
It is, however, the work of new and groundbreaking designers that really catches the eye. Among the many contemporary designers featured at the exhibition is Nigerian Lisa Folawiyo, who created her own label 17 years ago. Speaking from Lagos, she said she was excited to have been asked to take part.
“We’ve seen that globally what we do has been well received and it’s worn all over the world and I do feel like it’s about time that people realize that African fashion is beyond (the continent). It’s just fashion for whoever, wherever.”
Her work is showcased on the first floor of the exhibition, near to pieces by multi-award winning South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi. “It’s no secret that the V&A Museum is one of the most revered and respected museums in the entire world, and to be part of an exhibition that really looks at African designers is fantastic,” he said, from his Cape Town studio.
He added that the exhibition will provide a valuable record of achievements in African craft and storytelling.
“It’s important that African designers and artists are celebrated in an exhibition such as this, because long term, it’s a case of having archives where people are able to go back to and see, ‘this is what happened during this time.’”
Africa Fashion runs until April 16, 2023.