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Color, creativity and culture: 60 years of African fashion on show in London

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Color, creativity and culture: 60 years of African fashion on show in London

Summary of an entire continent, its past and its present: mission impossible but succeeded for the Victoria & Albert Museum with its choice to present the history of the textile and clothing sector and the effervescent fashion and design scene in Africa today.
“Africa Fashion” starts from the African cultural renaissance at the end of the 1950s which coincided with the end of colonialism.

The story can be summarized in the image of Kwame Nkrumah, premier of Ghana, the first independent country in Sub-Saharan Africa, who for his inaugural address to the nation in 1957 had chosen to wear the traditional dress of colorful kente fabric instead of the usual dark suit. to the West, sending a clear message to the world. Since then, designers have rediscovered traditional fabrics, each with a particular meaning and an ancient history, such as the 800-year-old Mali cotton bògòlanfini or the Congo raffia kuba which is three centuries old. . As the sculptor El Anatsui said, “fabrics for Africans are like monuments to Westerners.”

The newfound interest in tradition has also led to the rebirth of the local textile sector. Economic investments and cultural awakening have brought out the first African designers, pioneers of fashion. Some, like the Moroccan Naima Bennis, remained in their country, while others landed in Europe. Kofi Ansah left Ghana to study at Chelsea School of Art, becoming famous because Princess Anna had worn a beaded top of hers. Shade Thomas Fahm, the first Nigerian designer, after studying at Central St Martins in London modernized the look of her country’s women by creating mini dresses in traditional fabrics. Chris Seydou left Mali in the early 1970s to work in Paris, building an international clientele. The clothes of Alphadi, known as “the wizard of the desert”, are a tribute to the Tuareg culture both in the choice of fabrics and colors and in the use of metal, which transform the woman into an elegant warrior.

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Going up the stairs you pass from the twentieth to the twenty-first century: the upper floor is dedicated to contemporary stylists, with a review of young talents from Kenya and Sudan, from South Africa and Senegal, from Ghana and Rwanda: in all 45 designers from over 20 countries are represented. There is an immense variety of styles and the range of materials used: from the minimalist aesthetic and almost architectural rigor of the creations by Mmusomaxwell, Katush and Moshions to the colorful flamboyant creations by Selly Raby Kane, inspired by the vitality of Dakar. From the “Afrotopia” of South African Thebe Magugu, winner of the Lvmh award in 2019 and loved by Rihanna, to Ami Doshi Shah, a Kenyan jeweler who uses only hard stones and other local materials for his creations.

“My goal is to envelop visitors in the African world and make them understand its great variety and creativity, not only in the field of fashion but also in the field of art, design and music”, explains curator Christine Checinska. The V&A has purchased over 70 items from the exhibition for its permanent collection. “Africa Fashion is a belated recognition, but this is more than an exhibition, it is a step towards a more inclusive V&A,” says Checinska. Even when the exhibition ends, the commitment to recognize and celebrate African creativity will remain.

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