African prints

Angela Cobbinah is dazzled by the V&A’s long-overdue exhibition celebrating fashion from Africa

Thursday, 14th July — By Angela Cobbinah

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

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

THE late Ghanaian fashion designer Kofi Ansah, who first hit the headlines in the UK in the 1970s after creating an outfit for Princess Anne, once said: “Without clothes, we cannot play our parts.”

Ansah, a Chelsea School of Art graduate who would go on to propel Ghana onto the international catwalk with his innovative styles, is one of the more than 40 designers featured in the V&A’s exhibition Africa Fashion, from pioneers like himself to the new generation aiming to shake things up.

For those who do not follow the fashion industry, most names will be unfamiliar, and a few are only well known in Africa, making this first ever UK showcasing long overdue.

Its prosaic title belies the dazzling display of garments here, not to mention the textiles, personal testimonies, photographs, sketches and film that accompany them, underlining both the diversity and richness of African fashion and the impossibility of defining it from a vast continent of 54 countries, each with their own history, culture and influences.

“Africa Fashion celebrates the vitality and innovation of a selection of fashion creatives, exploring the work of the vanguard in the 20th century and the creatives at the heart of this eclectic and cosmopolitan scene today,” said Christine Checinska, lead curator.

Chris Seydou, Dress, silk and lurex, Paris, France, 1983. Photo: Courtesy of Lydie Ullmann, Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo: Courtesy of Lydie Ullmann, Victoria and Albert Museum

“We hope this exhibition will spark a renegotiation of the geography of fashion and become a game-changer for the field.”

At its launch earlier this month, she pointed to the exhibition’s opening piece, a 2019 electric pink outfit made out of silk and Cameroonian raffia exemplifying the work of Paris-based couturier Imane Ayissi, which “sits on the crossroads of fashion systems cementing Africa and its diaspora, blurring the borders between craft-making and couture”.

Beyond this eye-catching exhibit, one enters into the first part of the show, for me the more interesting section, which tells the story of African fashion’s international ascent from the mid-20th century through several key figures, including the St Martin’s School of Art-trained Shade Thomas-Fahm whose adaptations of traditional print fabrics for modern wear made her a household name in Nigeria, and Chris Seydou, who paired Malian bògòlanfini cloth with luxury western tailoring.

One should also mention Naima Bennis, and her incorporation of French couture fabrics with Moroccan materials to create, among other things, the female version of the Maghrebi hooded cape.

The work of these pioneers came of age in the post-independence era to signal the political and cultural renaissance taking place.

Mbeuk Idourrou collection, Imane Ayissi, Paris, France, Autumn/Winter 2019. Photo: Fabrice Malard Courtesy of Imane Ayissi

This time of pride and hope is highlighted by a photograph of Kwame Nkrumah wearing traditional kente robes, as opposed to a Savile Row suit, to announce Ghana’s independence from British rule in 1957, and the fashionably dressed youngsters captured through the lenses of portraitists Seydou Keïta, James Barnor and others.

In the upstairs space, where the museum becomes a sort of boutique, the “contemporary creatives” take the stage, cognisant of their heritage but busily disrupting norms and stereotypes.

What could be more different from our common view of what African fashion is than Lukhanyo Mdingi’s fluffy white mohair ensemble made from the fleece of South Africa’s famed Angora goats, or Adebayo Oke-Lawal’s use of organza and pleated chiffon as part of his Orange Culture label challenging hyper-masculinity?

I particularly liked Lisa Folawiyo’s tailored ankara print outfits and the flowing elegance of Rwanda’s Moshions brand.

But it’s no longer just about design. Cotton is at the centre of Awa Meité’s work not only in her garments but her efforts to support those working in the Malian cotton industry, while Congolese designer IAMISIGO seeks to “decolonise the mind” through his “wearable art pieces”.

Verdict: A visual feast

Africa Fashion is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, SW7 2RL, until April 16, 2023. Entry, £16

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