V&A exhibition will use 250 objects to highlight creativity of African fashion

An exhibition about African fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum will attempt to reframe the narrative about the continent, showcasing its independence and creativity following decades of false assumptions.

Africa Fashion opens on 11 June 2022 and will feature 250 objects telling the story of the continent through the work of its most prominent and influential designers.

“It will tell a tale of unbounded creativity and abundance,” said Christine Checinska, curator of African and African diaspora fashion at the museum. “To me that’s very different to the stories we have heard around ‘lack’, when it comes to Africa.”

The continent’s fashion output has been clouded by false assumptions, according to Kimberly Jenkins, who runs the Fashion and Race database, an organisation that aims to “decolonialise” fashion. “While there are regions that are in need due to war and poverty, the entire continent has often been misunderstood,” she said.

“There is the idea that Africa is not capable or equipped to showcase innovation or creative design. After centuries of colonisation and political shifts, for the past few decades the continent was stereotyped as a land in perpetual need of charity.”

The exhibition has been in the works for two years and will feature work from trailblazing designers such as Kofi Ansah from Ghana, Folashade “Shade” Thomas-Fahm and Alphadi from Nigeria, and Chris Seydou from Mali, who all helped to lay the groundwork for the current scene.

“It’s important to demonstrate that the African fashion scene didn’t appear overnight,” Checinska said. “This exhibition tells the story of the fashion scene which came out of the years of independence. It will be a game-changer, because we’ll be speaking about African fashion from an African perspective.”

Africa Fashion will also tell its story through other items including copies of the influential Drum Magazine (dating from 1950 to 1970) and kente, khanga, commemorative and bògòlanfini cloths from the independence and liberation years, plus home movies and family portraits showing how fashions have changed.

While the exhibition will not directly deal with the issue of the cultural appropriation of African culture by the west, it is a subject that will be touched upon in other ways. “It’s quite a hard subject to address through an exhibition,” Checinska said, “but we’ll be addressing it in our associated events, like podcasts and conferences.”

This will not be the first time the V&A has focused on African fashion. In 2004 it held an acclaimed Black British Style show, curated by Carol Tulloch. Since that exhibition, a significant shift for up-and-coming African fashion designers has been the move to digital. An ability to self-showcase their collections online has given the next generation of fashion designers autonomy.

“What we see in the current fashion scene in the African continent is a story of self-representation, self-promotion and an abundance of agency, largely thanks to digital channels,” said Checinska. “The rest of the world has to take note of that.”

Jenkins added: “The year 2020 thrust us into a new era where digital literacy and a familiarity with the digital landscape is necessary for social, economic, political and in many ways creative survival. The interconnectedness of our world and democratisation of having a ‘platform’ is helping expand our awareness of Africa’s richness. We are finally seeing the creativity of Africa in a substantive way.”