Africa Fashion is a landmark exhibition celebrating the irresistible creativity, ingenuity, and unstoppable global impact of contemporary African designers. The show celebrates the vitality and innovation of this vibrant scene, as dynamic and varied as the continent itself. More than 250 objects will be on display, with half of these drawn from the museum’s collection, including 70 new acquisitions.

    Many of the garments are from the personal archives of a selection of iconic mid-20th century African designers – Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah and Alphadi, marking the first time their work will be seen in a London museum. At the same time, this in an opportunity to discover influential contemporary creatives such as Imane Ayissi, Moshions, Thebe Magugu and Sindiso Khumalo. 

    Shade Thomas Fahm in the late1960s at Simpson Street factory, Lagos…

    Starting with the African independence and the liberation years that sparked a radical political and social reordering across the continent, the exhibition explores how fashion, alongside music and the visual arts, form a key part of Africa’s cultural renaissance, accelerated by the digital revolution. Across contemporary couture, ready-to-wear, made-to-order and adornment, visitors will be able to have a close-up look at the new generation of ground-breaking designers, collectives, stylists, and fashion photographers working in Africa today. 

    Early publications from members of the Mbari Club, established for African writers, artists, and musicians, will sit alongside the cover artwork for Beasts of No Nation by Fela Kuti, a call-to-arms album which embodied the communal feeling of frustration with the politics of the time but also the energy of Africa’s creativity. Politics and Poetics of Cloth will consider the importance of indigenous cloth in many African countries and its political symbolism through wax prints, commemorative cloth, àdìrẹ kente and bògòlanfini.

    Models holding hands, Lagos, Nigeria, 2019 by Stephen Tayo. Courtesy Lagos Fashion Week.

    Highlight objects include a strip of printed seersucker cotton from the V&A collection featuring the image of an open palm and the words “freedom in my hand I bring” incorporating the newly independent Ghana insignia. 

    One of the most touching things on display will be a commemorative cloth made in the early 1990s following the release of Nelson Mandela, featuring a portrait of the soon-to-be first Black President of South Africa and the words “A better life for all – working together for jobs, peace and freedom.”

    Necklace,
    ‘Salt of the Earth’
    collection…

    – Ami Doshi Shah.
    Photo by Sunny Dolat.

    Ghanaian fashion designer Kofi Ansah’s iconic fusion of African and European aesthetics will be represented in a blue garment with traces of the Japanese kimono, the European judge’s robe and the West African agbádá robe. The innovation of Alphadi, described as the “Magician of the Desert”, will be shown with a dress of cotton and brass from 1988, gifted to the museum by the designer. Capturing Change will focus on photographic portraits of the mid-late 20th century, capturing the mood of nations on the brink of self-rule.

    Words: Lavinia Dickson-Robinson

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