8.23 By Janel St. John
History has a remarkable way of weaving together seemingly disparate events to create a tapestry of interconnected narratives that shape our world. Two pivotal moments that indelibly impacted global culture, music, fashion, and socio-political expression are the founding of Hip Hop music and fashion by inner-city Black teenagers five decades ago, and the wave of independence that swept through African nations in the 1950s, accompanied by the surge of Pan-Africanism and a radical shift in artistic representation and aesthetic. As countries like Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria gained their sovereignty, a renewed sense of pride and agency reverberated across the continent producing a renaissance in visual arts, literature and music. Intriguingly, the fashion borne from these two movements also reflected a merging of aesthetics.
I came of age in the 80s and 90s, so I had the opportunity to watch Hip Hop unfold in real time. A connoisseur of all things design, I’ve been tracking the African influence in fashion for years. The U.S. debut of the ground-breaking exhibition Africa Fashion at the Brooklyn Museum - in the midst of a 50-year celebration for Hip Hop...is the moment I've been waiting for. This my Superbowl! Why? Because both events cement the themes that I have chronicled and championed for decades - that Africa is the Number 1 world influencer of design and media. Now the rest of America has the opportunity to celebrate the amazing creativity, ingenuity, and global impact of the fashion that emanated from the birthplace of civilization. Every fashion aficionado and design student from architecture to z-fold should head straight to the Brooklyn Museum for one of the most important exhibitions of the year, now on view through October 22. Never before, has there been a presentation of this magnitude on African fashion in North America. And…the African aesthetic is the zeitgeist!
Installation view, Africa Fashion. Brooklyn Museum, June 23–October 22, 2023. Photo: Danny Perez
Africa Fashion is pure unbridled energy! It captures the spirit of a continent reawakening to its potential. Beginning with independence - from the 1950s - 1990s, Africa Fashion is organized thematically, and features immersive displays of garments, textiles, photographs, literature, sketches, music, film, and catwalk footage. It illuminates how these elements played a pivotal role in Africa’s cultural renaissance during its liberation years and laid the foundation for today’s fashion revolution. More than forty designers and artists from twenty African countries, are featured; including the first generation of African designers to gain global attention - Kofi Ansah (Ghana), Naima Bennis (Morocco), Shade Thomas-Fahm (Nigeria), Chris Seydou (Mali), and Alphadi (Niger). Mid-twentieth-century designers are featured alongside a new generation of contemporary designers, collectives, and fashion photographers.
"It is a story of unbounded creativity, abundance and modernity told from multiple Global Africa perspectives." -Africa Fashion
Installation view, Africa Fashion. Photo: Janel St. John
Organized by the Victoria & Albert Museum, (V & A) Africa Fashion was adapted for the Brooklyn Museum by Ernestine White-Mifetu, Sills Foundation Curator of African Art, and Annissa Malvoisin, Bard Graduate Center / Brooklyn Museum Postdoctoral Fellow in the Arts of Africa. They drew upon the museum's own collection to create interlocking perspectives for an experience that's visually stunning, imbued with history, and so much more than material & craft.
In 'Politics and Poetics of Cloth,' textiles from the Museum’s Arts of Africa collection create a comprehensive display that includes wax prints and kente cloth and explores the ways in which the creation and fashioning of Indigenous cloth became a strategic political act.
The national flags of Africa's 54 countries are on full display with accompanying text explains the color theory. Each flag's colors represent its country's collective values. The green, yellow and red of the Ethiopian flag symbolized resistance as Ethiopia is the only African nation that remained largely independent from colonial rule. It was political activist and Black nationalist Marcus Garvey who introduced the color scheme red, black, and green in 1920, which became the unifying symbol of Pan-Africanism.
In another section, books, protest posters, vintage magazine covers, and iconic records tell the story of art and politics.
Malick Sidibé (Malian, 1936-2016). Nuit de Noël (Happy Club), 1972/2011. Gelatin silver print, 24 x 24 in. Brooklyn Museum; Frederick Loeser Fund and Alfred T. White, 2011.67.1. © Estate of Malick Sidibé
Photo by Lakin Ogunbanwo,
image courtesy of Nataal
Installation view, Africa Fashion
Photography also has a very strong presence in Africa Fashion. Featured photos chronicle the independence years; there's studio and documentary portraits by artists such as Seydou Keïta (Mali) and Malick Sidibé (Mali) and fashion photography. ‘Through the Photographer’s Lens’ gives voice to underrepresented artists exploring a new African identity and includes works by contemporary photographers and filmmakers including Zanele Muholi (South Africa) and Omar Victor Diop (Senegal). 'Global Africa' explores how digital media accelerated the impact of Africa’s fashion industry and influence, propelling it to become the bellwether of global fashion.
A striking aspect of the show is the mannequins. Of the last five fashion exhibitions that I’ve seen, from Ohio to Virginia, there was one mannequin of color. Africa Fashion is most likely the first U.S. exhibition with an entire show featuring mannequins of color; and they're exquisitely styled in bantu knots, cornrows and head wraps and exude unapologetic Blackness.
“As people of color we wanted our mannequins to represent the beauty of the continent and all of its nuance and difference,” said Dr. Christine Checinska, the curator who led the team that organized the original V & A exhibition. “We were aware that you can’t just go and pick-up mannequins that represented us in terms of skin tone, hair or features. So we worked with a model who was emerging then, who is Sudanese; we worked with her to borrow her features and they became the features of the mannequins.”
Kudos to the curators and organizers for creating a 'must-see' show. They did it for the culture, they did it for the canon!
LISTEN BELOW TO OUR FULL INTERVIEW WITH DR. CHRISTINE CHECINSKA AND FASHION DESIGNER PAPA OPPONG.
Kofi Ansah, Indigo Couture, 1991.
Photo: © 1997 by Eric Don Arthur
Thebe Magugu, Alchemy collection, Johannesburg, South Africa, Autumn/Winter 2021. Photo by Tatenda Chidora
New York-based Ghanaian fashion designer and illustrator,
Gouled Ahmed (Somalian, born 1992). Self Portrait, Addis Foam, Ethiopia, 2017. Courtesy of the artist
The Lagos based, award-winning luxury concept store ALÁRA is now at the Brooklyn Museum! Visitors can shop nearly one hundred brands from more than twenty African countries, including those featured in Africa Fashion, as well as New York and U.S. based designers within the African diaspora.
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