Africa Fashion: An ‘Afrotopia’ of Fashion, Photography and History from the Continent’s Brightest Creatives


For anyone paying attention, African fashion has definitively made its mark across the globe, becoming a category brand of its own, and informing an immensely relevant and meaningful global conversation about the role of the continent in fashion’s future. At the African Fashion exhibition, an immense undertaking of a show that recently opened at The Brooklyn Museum in New York City, the future and the legacy of African fashion is being presented at a scale rarely experienced — an ambitious perspective on this exciting time in the industry at one of the largest presentations of its kind.

Africa Fashion highlights the journey from the independence era to the present, tracing the pivotal role fashion played in Africa’s cultural renaissance during its liberation years and the foundation it laid for today’s fashion revolution. Originally organised by the V&A in London, the exhibition has since been adapted for The Brooklyn Museum by Ernestine White-Mifetu, who is currently the Sills Foundation Curator of African Art, and Annissa Malvoisin, from the Bard Graduate Centre and currently the Brooklyn Museum’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Arts of Africa.

With contributions from the Museum’s Arts of Africa, Photography, Arts of the Islamic World, Contemporary Art, and Egyptian, Classical, Ancient Near Eastern Art, and other collections, the exhibition delves into the continent’s rich cultural history — a captivating presentation that White describes as an, “immersive presentation of African creativity that highlights not only fashion but also the dynamic diversity of talent coming from the continent.”

The showcase brings together over forty designers and artists from twenty African countries, with many of their works making their debut appearance in the United States. Among the remarkable talents featured is an extensive showing of leading South African creatives, including celebrated names like Trevor Stuurman, Thebe Magugu, Rich Mnisi, and Zanele Muholi, whose works continue to capture the global imagination.

A Journey Through Time

The exhibition commences with the independence era, spanning from the 1950s to the 1990s. This transformative period witnessed a surge of Pan-Africanism that brought with it a sense of a unified postcolonial identity where fashion and expression played integral roles in shaping the creative movement that followed the political upheaval. In the Cultural Renaissance section that kicks things off, the show moves through the radical shifts of the era’s creativity, bringing fashion, photography, literature, and memorabilia into a narrative that is as diverse as protest posters and album cover art.

From there, Africa Fashion moves to the Politics and Poetics of Cloth where the curators explore the political significance of indigenous cloth-making and how it has been worn across the continent. Featuring extraordinary archives of textiles from the Museum’s Arts of Africa collection, displays of wax prints, commemorative cloth, and kente cloth, we begin to understand the power of traditional fabrics as cultural symbols and their role in this new creative movement.

Celebrating The Continent’s Pioneers

The Vanguard section of Africa Fashion presents the works of what the curators describe as ‘the first generation’ of African designers who gained international recognition. Among these trailblazers are Kofi Ansah, Naima Bennis, Shade Thomas Fahm, Chris Seydou, and Alphadi, whose designs from the mid to late twentieth century are displayed together — likely for the first time. Fashion photography from the same period shown alongside their works starts to weave together a thread that comes together in a beautifully detailed and rich tapestry connecting the continent’s fashion landscape.

The Mark of A Generation

In the section Capturing Change, the exhibition begins to chronicle the independence years through portraits, revealing a growing sense of agency and pride in being Black and African. The advent and proliferation of more affordable photographic tools begins to break the barriers that photographers faced in documenting their everyday lives, bringing with it a newfound freedom and opportunity gave birth to artists like Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, who have since come to define so much of our contemporary imagery and style, along with fashion photography by the lesser-known, but equally powerful James Barnor.

Cutting Edge, Contemporary Culture

It’s hard to single out a moment in the exhibition that brings it all together, but it is in the Cutting Edge section that the story of how a new generation of African fashion designers and creatives are breathing fresh life into the story of African Fashion starts to manifest. Thebe Magugu’s viral Alchemy collection — a collaboration with stylist and traditional healer Noentla Khumalo — takes the designer’s uniquely academic perspective of spirituality and ancestral connections into a spectral place. Adebayo Oke Lawal’s work in this section also moves to challenge conventions through his label Orange Culture, along with Gouled Ahmed’s self-portraits that work at the intersection of gender norms and representing nonbinary, Black Muslims.

The Power of Photography

A highlight of the exhibit is The Photographer’s Lens area, which celebrates the influence of contemporary photography and film in fostering creative communities. The works of Zanele Muholi and Omar Victor Diop from South Africa are featured, along with contributions from other inspired African photographers who are making waves across the world like Stephen Tayo, Sarah Waiswa, and Victoire Douniama.

Global Africans

The epic journey through time, cultures and narratives finally conclude with the fascinating and powerful “Global Africa” section that explores the digital world’s role in expanding Africa’s fashion industry and its global influence, showing just how far-reaching the impact has been of African creativity in shaping the global fashion conversation.

Africa Fashion is an incredibly powerful testament to the multifaceted nature of African fashion and its enduring impact on the world stage. From iconic designs of the past to the works that we see all over our Instagrams and Pinterest boards today, the show is a vital experience of the evolution of African fashion — one we can only hope comes to the continent for Africans to experience themselves.

Africa Fashion runs until October 22 at The Brooklyn Museum.

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