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Inside Africa Fashion, the V&A’s new blockbuster exhibition

The curator of the museum’s latest exhibition shares her insight into why it is a true celebration of the continent’s fashion scene

Inside the V&A’s brilliant new blockbuster show Africa Fashion

A new show from the V&A is always a highlight of the cultural calendar – and Africa Fashion is set to exceed all expectations. The landmark exhibition brings together an extraordinary collection of work, from the pioneering 20th century African designers through to new-gen creatives, to showcase the continent’s flourishing fashion scene. Dr Christine Checinska, curator of Africa Fashion, gives an exclusive insight into what promises to be this summer’s blockbuster.

Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Self-portrait, Gouled Ahmed, Addis Foam, Ethiopia

It’s been years in the planning, but Africa Fashion finally opens at the V&A on 2 July – and curator Dr Christine Checinska is excited. “Africa Fashion is the UK’s most extensive exhibition of African fashions to date, giving a platform to creatives from over 20 countries across a broad spectrum of aesthetics. It is both a timely and conscious celebration of this innovative and impactful scene,” she tells The Glossary.

Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Models holding hands, Lagos, Nigeria, 2019 by Stephen Tayo

The exhibition is beautifully researched and presented, focusing on two time periods – independence and liberation, and the contemporary moment – spread across a couple of floors of the gallery. Checinska – a creative designer for brands such as Margaret Howell, as well as a scholar, fashion historian and the V&A’s inaugural Senior Curator of African and African Diaspora Textiles and Fashion – and project curator Elisabeth Murray have brought together over 250 objects to tell this story.

Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Mbeuk Idourrou collection, Imane Ayissi, Paris, France, AW 2019

Indeed, the exhibition opens with a shimmering silk and raffia number by Cameroon-born, Paris-based designer Imane Ayissi whose designs – which weave together traditional African craftsmanship with modern haute couture – are a red carpet go-to of Zendaya, Angela Bassett and Aïssa Maïga. It’s quite a statement and sets the tone for a series of eye-catching and compelling displays.

Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Esther Suwaola, Akure, Ondo, Nigeria, 1960
Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Design by Chris Seydou © Nabil Zorkot

The ground floor concentrates on the mid-late 1950s to 1994, a time of political and social reordering across the continent as countries gained independence. This was an era of radical change, which saw the worlds of music, visual arts and fashion flourish, also known as the African Cultural Renaissance. 

Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Sanlé Sory 'Je Vais Décoller, 1977' © Sanlé Sory Tezeta, courtesy David Hill Gallery
“The story we aim to tell is of agency, abundance and unbounded creativity, one that provides a glimpse of a buzzing fashion scene that is as diverse as the continent itself.”
Dr Christine Checinska

On the mezzanine level of the exhibition, the new-gen designers, collectives, stylists and fashion photographers take centre stage, introduced by a specially designed piece called A Dialogue Between Cultures by the experimental Moroccan house Maison ArtC. The continent’s leading contemporary names are all represented. There’s a menswear look by Rwandan fashion house Moshions, as well as an ensemble from Nigerian womenswear brand Iamisigo’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection, ‘Gods of the Wilderness’, which references ancient west African masquerade costumes.

Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
'Chasing Evil' collection, Iamisigo, Kenya, AutumnWinter 2020
Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Aso Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Ènìyàn, (‘We greet dress before we greet its wearer’) collection, Lagos, Nigeria, 2021. Lagos Space Programme

Nairobi-based Ami Doshi Shah’s brass, sisal and borax salt neckpiece explores the talismanic role of jewellery, while South African womenswear designer Thebe Magugu’s Alchemy Collection centres on African spirituality. This section is one of Checinska’s favourites, representing “designers open to exploring the challenging issues of the day through their work, taking storytelling fashions to a new level.” 

Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Necklace, ‘Salt of the Earth’ collection, Ami Doshi Shah, Kenya, 2019. Courtesy Ami Doshi Shah. Photo by Sunny Dolat

Towards the end of the exhibition, Co-Creation focuses on personalised twists on tradition, with the outfits created by Accra-based designer Kofi Ansah for the wedding of Lady Ashley Shaw-Scott Adjaye and architect Sir David Adjaye OBE taking a star turn. 

Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Alchemy collection, Thebe Magugu, Johannesburg, South Africa, AW 2021
Inside Africa Fashion, The V&Amp;A’s New Blockbuster ExhibitionPin
Kofi Ansah 'Indigo' Couture 1997, Narh & Linda

Africa Fashion showcases a range of works by creatives with differing aesthetic vocabularies, motivations and preoccupations,” concludes Checinska. “The story we aim to tell is of agency, abundance and unbounded creativity, one that provides a glimpse of a buzzing fashion scene that is as diverse as the continent itself.”

Africa Fashion runs from 2 July until 16 April 2023
vam.ac.uk

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