The V&A’s ambitious new exhibition is a triumphant attempt to complete the near-impossible task of capturing an entire continent through its fashion. Incorporating textiles, design and still and moving images, ‘Africa Fashion’ takes visitors on a compelling journey from the 1960s to the present day in a bid to reshape existing geographies and narratives of style.
It feels like a glorious celebration. There’s joy in the key points that punctuate the show: a brilliant pink outfit of trousers and kinetic cape by Imane Ayissi from 2019 bams you straight in the eye as you enter. The second floor is dominated by Artsi Ifrach’s Maison Artc ‘A Dialogue Between Cultures’, with its organza, ribbon and plastic-fishbone crinoline, dress and mask at the top of the stairs, while James Barnor’s gorgeous Kodachrome photographs hail us like old friends in an embrace of colour. But there’s also pleasure in the quieter examples: a salt-crystal necklace by Ami Doshi Shah, Ibrahim Kamala’s loving 2022 photographic homage to trailblazing designer Chris Seydou’s 1980s ensemble, the assurance of Gouleh Ahmed’s images of non-binary people. While these moments accrue, there’s never a sense of being overwhelmed by content, there’s a confident restraint, a balance between the headliners and the new kids on the block which always keeps things fresh and unflagging.
Identity and Blackness are core here, and while there’s a political dimension working through the narratives and choice of contemporary designers – Hassan Hajjaj’s customised ‘swoosh’ babouche slippers, for example, with their nod to twenty-first-century consumerism, Bubu Ogisi’s beautiful raffia designs referencing the historical exploitation of the Congo – there’s also just a more simple celebration in the sight of Black designers’ work on Black mannequins, Black photographers and filmmakers working with Black stylists and models, occupying the space right, left and centre.
Above all, ‘Africa Fashion’ has heart. Where shows about fashion design can often be aloof in their presentation of aspirational couture, the curation here never loses sight of the personal, the more intimate narrative, the micro explaining the macro. The renowned and internationally lauded, such as Beyoncé fave Sarah Diouf, are acknowledged, but in displays such as the vitrine devoted to ‘The Unnamed Dressmaker’ or the kente cloth commissioned by a mother to mark the birth of her daughter, the debt is paid to the ostensibly humbler cultures born of tradition and necessity that have contributed so much to the elevated creations stalking the world’s catwalks.
‘Africa Fashion’ uses photography, film and personal objects to bring garments to life, but this approach does double duty here because the visitor understands that Africa style runs through everything. In 1958, Kwana Nkrumah said, ‘I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.’ As the Yoruba concept of itutu or ‘cool’, combined with asé (‘command’) and iwà (‘character’) to create ‘cool pose’ illustrates, it’s a philosophy for life.
You leave this beautiful show with its vision for the future, an Afrotopia, where ‘Fashion is a space for imagination, for hope, for pain, for aspiration. African fashion creatives use their work to actualise a more equitable and sustainable future in which we all thrive.’ Satisfyingly, this exhibition is cut from the same cloth.