The V&A Africa Fashion Exhibition – A love letter to the African Renaissance

The influence of African talent is immeasurable, and the last few years have seen the continent go through a shift where the once untapped and ignored creative scene now has all eyes on it. From artists selling out major stadiums like the O2 and Madison Square Garden to designers receiving prestigious awards from the global fashion industry; the innovation of this new generation of African talent is being recognised on a level never seen before- something that the V&A’s Africa Fashion exhibition is doing.
by SAYO OLUKOGA Aug 26, 2022

The influence of African talent is immeasurable, and the last few years have seen the continent go through a shift where the once untapped and ignored creative scene now has all eyes on it. From artists selling out major stadiums like the O2 and Madison Square Garden to designers receiving prestigious awards from the global fashion industry; the innovation of this new generation of African talent is being recognised on a level never seen before- something that the V&A’s Africa Fashion exhibition is doing.

Curated by Dr Christine Checkinsa, the exhibition is an ode to African fashion past and present, a topic close to her heart. Christine, who was working for a British brand as a womenswear designer for over 30 years before joining the V&A, tells me about an experience in the industry that sparked her desire to study African & Caribbean fashion history.

“While I was principal designer, one of my colleagues said to me: “Oh, it’s so great that you’re head of design here, because you’re not exactly an English Rose.”

I didn’t really see myself in the work I was doing, so that comment rattled me, and it stayed in the back of my mind. A lot of what I ended up doing after, like my PhD, was rooted in researching Blackness, exploring the history of the African diaspora, and the absence of that within global histories of fashion.”

She explains that her study served as the starting point for putting the exhibition together, which couldn’t be clearer from the minute you walk into the space. The first floor explores what she calls ‘African Cultural Renaissance’, the post-independence era which saw fashion used as a tool of rebellion after decades of colonial rule. It showcases designers from that era like Kofi Ansah and Shade Thomas-Fahm who popularised African styles outside the continent, and a section that explores film, photography, and sent in home photos and fabrics from the public, giving it a personalised touch.

“I want people of African heritage to see themselves reflected in the show, to see ourselves in the family portraits and the garments that came in through the call out. It’s a reminder of who we are, which is vastly different from who society tells us we are”, Christine adds.

Founder and creative director of an African menswear brand, Christele Mbosso tells me that this is exactly what she experienced when she first went to see the exhibition.

“I went in there, and I felt moved that this even existed. To be able to see this exhibition in such a renowned museum like the V&A is super important- it feels like African designers are finally being seen and respected”.

Christele, who started her own brand Maison Mbosso, in her final year at London College of Fashion, tells me about her experience creating her graduate collection, which was inspired by her Congolese-Angolan heritage, and by skate crews across Africa, starting in Ghana.

“I remember trying to research things for my final year collection and not finding anything even on Google, it was just so difficult to find anything on African fashion. Sometimes as a designer, you feel a little alone in telling your story, but I’m glad that I’ve found other people who can relate.”

Despite being raised in Switzerland, and studying in London, Christele tells me that her biggest focus in creating Maison Mbosso is to champion African fashion, giving it a contemporary feel without making stereotypical pieces that show Africa in just one way. Whether that’s through sourcing local fabrics and working with dressmakers on the ground, Christele, much like other emerging designers, are dedicated to changing the narrative around Africa- something, Christine tells me, she admires.

“With the young people on the continent and in the diaspora, there’s a real self-determination, single-mindedness and creativity that’s matched by skill. They’re not concerned with what the rest of the world thinks, they do things in their own way and the rest of the world has to catch up, and I find that really refreshing”, she tells me.

She adds that there’s always an element of giving back, and that young designers like Christele understand “the power of creativity to change lives and to affect social justice”. Spotlighting talent like Thebe Magugu, Imane Ayissi and IAMISIGO the second floor of the exhibition is all about the voices from this generation helping the continent to face forward, and look to the future, doing so through design, storytelling and community outreach.

While the exhibition spans across decades that were times of difficulty for the continent, it focuses on being a conscious celebration of African creativity. As Dr Christine says, “it’s in those everyday tensions, that you’re able to create, think of a pearl being birthed from an oyster- that’s the creativity that comes from the diaspora”.

She adds that her hope is that the exhibition encourages people from the diaspora to “power our own creative spirits, and to stand tall in who we are ” just like those who’ve gone before us.

The exhibition is running at the V&A until Spring 2023.

To celebrate the exhibition, join us for GUAP’s takeover of the V&A this Friday, a night of music, fashion, dance, connecting with other creatives inspired by their African heritage.