Inside the V&A Museum’s “Africa Fashion” Exhibition in London

Words by Roni Omikorede

All images courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Clothing has the ability to tell stories and leave impressions of a person long after they have physically left a space, and it is the intersection of fashion and history that the Victoria and Albert Museum in London ambitiously presents with the new major exhibition “Africa Fashion”.

As one of the world’s leading art institutions, the V&A has been at the forefront of exhibiting masterpieces and culturally relevant artefacts throughout its 170-year history. However, its success is associated with the British colonialism in Africa that paved the way for the acquisition of many of the objects in its vast collection.

So, while it may be a little surprising to learn that “Africa Fashion” is the first exhibition at the museum to focus on the sartorial achievements of the continent, it is also not unexpected, when you consider the meteoric rise of music genres, literature and performing artists hailing from Africa over the past decade. Quite simply, everything coming out of Africa now is too big to ignore, and “Africa Fashion” is one of the way the museum is moving to acknowledge and bring a diverse range of voices into the institution.

Musicians such as Tiwa Savage and Wizkid and writers the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Yaa Gyasi have been great representations of their homelands’ creativity on the global stage, and it was only a matter of time before some attention was paid to the burgeoning fashion scene in Africa. “It is a moment of transition that marks the commitment that we have to celebrate African creativity across the board,” says Dr Christine Checinska, the V&A’s senior curator of Africa and diaspora fashion.

Under the curation of Checinska, “Africa Fashion” brings together hundreds of objects, clothing, photographs and sketches by 45 designers from more than 20 countries, spanning from the mid-20th century to today, showcasing the rich heritage and dynamic styles of African cultures.

From the offset, it is clear that the “Africa Fashion” exhibition is designed to take visitors on a sartorial journey through the past to the present day. Beginning with the foundations of the textile industry and a brief history of the traditional woven fabrics worn across the continent, the exhibition centers the people who blazed the trail that contemporary designers follow today. From prime minister Kwame Nkrumah wearing kente to announce Ghana’s independence from British rule in 1957 to Nigerian designer Shade Thomas-Fahm fitting the traditionally wrapped iro skirt with a zipper, sartorially historical moments are that have mostly gone under the global radar are spotlighted instead, many of them for the first time. Rounding out the first section of the exhibition are the works of creatives such as Kofi Ansah and Chris Seydou along with photographs of studio sessions and family portraits from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Taking the stairs to the upper level deposits the visitor into the current (and future) landscape of the African fashion scene. Modern designs from contemporary creatives such as South Africa’s MmusoMaxwell, Nigeria’s Orange Culture and Cameroonian-born Imane Ayissi show just how far African fashion has come, especially when it comes to politics, sustainability, gender or sexual identity. From Kenneth Ize’s intricate use of aso oke fabric and the gender-fluid creations of Rich Mnisi to the cowrie-shell headdresses of Ivorian artist Lafalaise Dion, each display is a celebration of both the individuality of self-expression and shared cultural connection that runs through African fashion.

More than two years in the making, the V&A’s curatorial team collaborated with photographers, stylists and industry experts from Africa and the diaspora, in an effort to ensure authenticity and to emphasize the voices of those at the center of African fashion. The results include “Who Dey Shake”, a short film by Nigerian photographer Lakin Ogunbanwo and Nataal media, inspired by traditional dance movements and the idea of performing for a camera. The idea was sparked by Checinska’s interest in movement and how clothing and adornment relates to identity through the performance of style.

“The concept made me think of ‘cultural day’ in Nigerian primary school and the energetic performance that always happens then. I also thought about the Bata dance stemming from Yoruba drumming traditions,” Ogunbanwo explains. “This story captures the joys of performing to the camera while showing off your finest African fashions. With sometimes ordinary, sometimes extravagant movements, the dancers communicate a feeling of confidence, satisfaction and elegance. And the magic of the moment is that, if you look closely, the clothes might just be dancing on their own.”

While a comprehensive look at the fashion of the African continent has long been overdue, according to Checinska, the existence of “Africa Fashion” and the way it tells the tales of history, culture and creativity through a sartorial lens are proof that late is indeed better than never.

“Africa Fashion” is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from July 2 until April 16 2023