An exhibition at London’s V&A museum spanning the medium of fashion and photography explores fashion design from Africa. The exhibition references a span of time that starts during the continent’s independence and liberation years (1960’s – 1994) till present day.

Kofi Ansah designs at exhibition
Kofi Ansah designs at exhibition. Photo Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

It starts by looking at how a newly independent Africa employed fashion and dress to distance themselves from colonisation and the dress of their colonisers. An example of this was Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah purposely choosing to wear a ‘batakari’ smock on Ghana’s independence day. He wore it to signify the unity of Ghana. It was also noted that he used the wearing of Kente in this way. Next up in the exhibition were garments by pioneer African designers like Ghana’s Kofi Ansah (now deceased), Mali’s Chris Seydou, Niger’s Alphadi, Nigeria’s Shade Thomas-Fahm. Their influence, point of view and sheer talent is without a doubt.

It is no wonder that these are names that have cropped up over and over in conversations with reference to fashion design and Africa. Thomas-Fahm is billed in the exhibition as ‘Nigeria’s first fashion designer’. The work (the inspiration and execution) of these designers is proof that they stood on par with their colleagues in the West.

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As one traverses the lineup, there is a photographic section. The works examine how a new cosmopolitan Africa was being documented for years to come in the studios of photographers. It was pointed out that these newly independent African countries were reveling in their new found liberation and what that looked like for the everyday citizen.

Also mentioned was how cheaper photography equipment made for a boom in access to getting one’s photo taken. Studio images by Seydou Keita include one where a gentleman in a Western suit sits holding a flower. Another sees a man standing holding a guitar. Images like this were popular and props played an important role. Ghana’s James Barnor is included. He is noted for being an important part of African photography due to the fact that he was amongst those first to use coloured film. This is then followed by present day designs (both garment and accessory).

The designers range from Cote D’Ivoire’s La Falaise Dion, Ghana’s Christie Brown by Aisha Ayensu, Nigeria’s Lisa Folawiyo, Nigeria’s Bubu Ogisi, Senegal’s Selly Raby Kane, Cameroon’s Imane Ayissi and more. In all the exhibition boasts work from 20 African fashion designers. Modern photographers include Stephen Tayo. The exhibition is indeed an education and a celebration of the talent hailing from Africa. It is on show till 16th April 2023.

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