Thu. Jun 8th, 2023

Africa Fashion, the new blockbuster exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, is a shining showcase of 45 designers from over 20 countries. It’s a joyous celebration of the diverse creativity of African fashion from independence and the liberation years to the vibrant contemporary fashion of today. Be prepared to devote a morning or afternoon to this show as there’s so much to see and absorb.

Over 250 objects are on display in the exhibition, with half from the museum’s permanent collection, including 70 new acquisitions. Many of the garments, from the personal archives of mid-twentieth century African designers, are on show for the first time in a London museum – Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah and Alphadi. These designers drew on past traditions, recovered, reinvented them and so laid the foundation for today’s fashion revolution. Designs from contemporary African fashion creatives are here too, including Imane Ayissi, IAMISIGO, Moshions, Thebe Magugu and Sindiso Khumalo.

Sketches, editorial spreads, photographs, film and catwalk footage enhance the costume displays. Showing how the African independence radically shook things up across the continent, the exhibition explores how fashion, alongside music and the visual arts, formed a key part of Africa’s cultural renaissance. Striking displays of couture and ready-to-wear designs show the wide range and creativity of the new generation of designers, collectives, stylists and fashion photographers working in Africa today. Africa Fashion also astutely shows how the digital world accelerated the expansion of the industry, irreversibly transforming global fashions as we know them.

The museum’s catalogue for Africa Fashion by womenswear designer and art historian Christine Checinska is a brilliant accompaniment to the exhibition. And the recently published book by Flammarion Africa: The Fashion Continent by Emmanuelle Courrèges is also fascinating. From the runways in Lagos and the Afropunk festival in Johannesburg, to the “image makers” of Marrakech and the influencers of Dakar or Accra, a new generation of African fashion designers, photographers, bloggers, and artists are redefining the aesthetic contours of the continent. Designers from across the continent reinvent their textile and historical traditions: bazin fabrics blend with plastics, stretch gives body to woven cloth, mesh beading inspires knitwear designs, and the traditional adire print-championed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Michelle Obama-embellishes silk dresses and pencil skirts.

“This is the domain of the Strange, the Marvelous, and the Fantastic….Here is the freed image, dazzling and beautiful….here are the poet, the painter and the artist presiding over the metamorphoses and the inversions of the world under the sign of hallucination and madness.” surrealist artist Suzanne Césaire, 1941

Sure to be one of the most visited shows this year is In the Black Fantastic at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Center. The exhibition has been brilliantly curated by writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun who says “As a concept, the Black fantastic does not describe a movement or a rigid category so much as a way of seeing shared by artists who grapple with the inequities of racialized contemporary society by conjuring new visions of Black possibility.” The exhibition features eleven contemporary artists from the African diaspora who draw on science fiction, myth and Afrofuturism. It’s a real pleasure to spend time here as each artist has been given plenty of space, each in separate galleries, with nothing cramped or crowded together.

Including painting, photography, video, sculpture and mixed-media installations, the exhibition creates immersive experiences that bring the viewer into a new environment somewhere between the real world and an imagined one. Participating artists include Nick Cave, Sedrick Chisom, Ellen Gallagher, Hew Locke, Wangechi Mutu, Rashaad Newsome, Chris Ofili, Tabita Rezaire, Cauleen Smith, Lina Iris Viktor and Kara Walker.

A major new commission by Nick Cave greets visitors on entering the show. The dramatic installation is made of hundreds of casts of the artist’s own arm, joined together like links in a chain. Alongside this are Cave’s incredible Soundsuits. This series of wearable artworks begun 30 years ago in response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. A new Soundsuit commemorating the killing of George Floyd is also shown.

Hew Locke’s installation is a clever series of portrait photographs of the artist masquerading as corrupt kings, tyrants and bandits, while Lina Iris Viktor’s gorgeous paintings were inspired by astronomy, Aboriginal dream paintings, African textiles, and West and Central African mythology.

Wangechi Mutu reimagines the human body and reflects on its imperilled environment, presenting collage and film works alongside two new female figure sculptures made from natural Kenyan materials including red soil, horn and shells.

Works by Sedrick Chisom and Kara Walker probe the ideology of whiteness and America’s history of racial violence. A stop-motion animation by Walker weaves a nightmarish tale of racial violence and domestic terrorism based on events of recent history.

A season of films from filmmakers from across the African diaspora, selected by the show’s curator Ekow Eshun, is running concurrently next door at BFI Southbank throughout July. Highlights include Touki Bouki (1973) by Djibril Diop Mambety, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) and Nuotama Bodumo’s Afronauts (2014) and artist Alberta Whittle’s brilliant Between a Cry and a Whisper (2019).

Africa Fashion, Victoria & Albert Museum, London runs until 16 April 2023. Tickets £16.00

In the Black Fantastic, Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Center until 18 September 2022. Tickets £13.50

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