Words are powerful things. Names create ideas about places and people. They provide us with direction when it comes to the unfamiliar, the unknown. At the same time, they simplify the inherent complexity and variety that make up ‘somewhere’, ‘someone’, that is too far away to see for ourselves, which requires more time for us to engage and understand then a quick glance of an image or text can provide.
Take this poster that I recently observed on a noticeboard in a cafe at the London College of Fashion, for example. Both the image and the text provide me with information that suggests the business of fashion is recognised in the geographical location known as Africa. Very quickly, the power of semiotics is such that I walk away thinking I have understood that there exists something singular called ‘African fashion’ and its aesthetic references rely heavily upon bright colours, abstract prints and draped fabrics.
Yet, as many academics and journalists have pointed out, Africa is a continent, the home of over fifty nations, each with their own histories, cultures and societies. Similarly, the nature of dress and the business of fashion is experienced in a range of contexts that emphasise the importance of urban, local and national identities. Therefore, to reduce these complex networks and styles to one single word and aesthetic, in this case ‘African fashion’, is always problematic.
However, as recently as 2009, the scholar Kristyne Loughran, expressed concern about the lack of attention received by designers, stylists and journalists from African countries as producers of fashion both at a local and international level. All too frequently, their work was understood as ‘other’ and therefore only referred to in the context of ‘inspiration’ for European, British and American fashion production. (1)
Fashion Cities Africa, the current exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, offers a welcome antidote to the stereotype of African fashion as one huge place whose only role on the international stage is that of bottomless aesthetic references. Instead, by focusing upon specific cities that represent the four compass points of Africa as a continent, the exhibition offers the visitor a view of multiple fashion industries that seek primarily to create, produce and engage people with the subject at an urban and national level. In other words, Fashion Cities Africa puts the city and its people first, making it the centre, rather than the periphery, of agency, innovation and international success in the world of fashion and dress.
The exhibition is therefore arranged into four main sections, each representing the fashion world of a key city. These are Johannesburg in South Africa, Casablanca in Morocco, Nairobi in Kenya and Lagos in Nigeria. Those who live there, working in the business of fashion whether as designers, retailers, bloggers, stylists or journalists, present designs and styles emerging from each city. The displays focus upon how these people see the international fashion world as it relates to their own national and urban fashion world. Not the other way around.
Curated jointly by Helen Mears, the Museum’s Keeper of World Art and Martin Pel, the Museum’s Curator of Fashion & Textiles, the exhibition presents artifacts and contemporary objects with a mix of ethnographic detail and catwalk spectacle. Victoria Rodrigues, a digital ambassador for Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, attended a talk given by both curators on their approach to the displays and noted how Pel wanted to focus on it being a fashion show while Mears was focused upon the representation of place and people.
As a result, displays include mannequins in dynamic poses alongside a mix of film, sound and images while labels provide more detailed information about the objects and people. Each city is introduced by a large infographic presented on a column that aims to be both informative and visually appealing.
The displays are definitely exciting, presenting the living fashion worlds of these four cities and countries both today and in the recent past. I liked how well established designers such as Deola Sagoe, an eponymous fashion brand in Nigeria, could be viewed alongside more contemporary work by collectives such as The Sartists, based in Johannesburg.
While Mears ethnographic interests are less well represented within the city displays – the arrangement of labels sometimes meant it was difficult to work out which went with what – these come into their own with two additional sections. One looks at the way in which ‘African fashion’ has historically been reduced to the aesthetic of wax printed cloth and the other highlights the importance of secondhand clothing as inspiration for fashion designers, stylists and bloggers.
Both issues, I was already familiar with, having read articles by Janice Cheddie on the design history of wax printed cloth as it related to the work of Yinka Shonibare and the research done by Karen Tranberg Hansen on the distribution and consumption of secondhand clothes, known as the salaula trade, in Zambia. However, in Kenya, it is known as the mitumba trade and in the exhibition this is presented by an interactive display encouraging visitors to try out ‘thrift’ styling, with advice from Nairobi stylists 2manysiblings. It was great to see these debates and experiences highlighted within the exhibition, and I was impressed with the gallery assistant’s knowledge on these topics as well.
I would definitely recommend a visit to see Fashion Cities Africa. It is an exciting opportunity to see fashion from African cities in the context of African style as defined by South Africans, Nigerians, Kenyans and Moroccans. Also, it is the start of several events that mark a bigger project for the museum to update and present its existing collection of textiles from Africa. Fashioning Africa will include a symposium in November and an exhibition on fashion from many African countries since the 1960s and their emerging independence from European colonial rule. Watch this space.
(1) Kristyne Loughran, ‘The Idea of Africa in European High Fashion: Global Dialogues’, Fashion Theory, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp243-272