Not very long ago Grace of Good Mom Bad Mom (aren’t we all?) wrote to ask if I had been to see the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition in Brighton, and asked for a review. As Brighton is a little way from London I asked my dear friend Lucy (who lives there) if she would go and see it, and do a guest post for us. And she kindly agreed. Over to you Lucy.
Fashion Cities Africa is a small exhibition shown in Brighton Museum, set within the Royal Pavilion grounds. Heralded as ‘”the first major UK exhibition dedicated to contemporary African fashion”, it was always going to be difficult for a relatively small display to live up to its billing.
The exhibition covers fashion design and culture in Casablanca in Morocco, Lagos in Nigeria, Nairobi in Kenya, and Johannesburg in South Africa. The geographical range shows the diversity of a vast continent, but it was less clear what unites these locations and the fashion that they each produce. There was a theme of contrasting the incivility of modern African cities, with the gloss of fashion, and an implication that this juxtaposition sets the continent’s fashion scenes apart from those in the West. The designers in some of these cities arguably have to work harder and be more creative than their western contemporaries, without the same infrastructure in place to give them a headstart.
The exhibits range in style from a minority of pieces which may immediately be identifiable as African, to a larger array of clothing which is less obviously related to its origins. Thula Sindi sums up what the exhibition shows us about many of the African designers included when he tells us “I am interested in something that’s contemporary, that has a global appeal; with the African touch, but that’s not a cliché”. Maria McCloy is one featured designer whose designs incorporate traditional African dress as a political statement to redress years where “anything African and traditional is either not seen as sexy and sophisticated, or relegated to special traditional occasions”.
The most interesting aspects of the exhibition for me where were my own assumptions were tested. There was a fascinating spotlight on how the aid efforts of the 1980s that followed campaign such as Live Aid, have mutated into a fashion scene of their own. The Nairobi-based 2ManySiblings designers are examples of a thriving recycled fashion scene which explicitly plays on the ideas of charity and waste, by upcycling the large amounts of clothing in circulation that has been donated by the benevolent first world.
Another revelation was that ‘wax prints’ (also known as ‘fancy prints’ or ‘ankara’), the brightly coloured cloths that provide the backdrop to the exhibition’s branding, and form a lot of what I think of when I envisage African fashion, are a subject of some controversy. |These prints actually originate from European manufacturers and were first sold in Indonesia before being exported to West Africa. I am a big fan of these unashamedly brash fabrics, and was initially disappointed that the exhibition was centred on far more subtle designs. Where the wax prints do appear, they serve to gently question my preconceptions, informing me of an ongoing debate about cultural appropriation, authenticity and condescension.
Elsewhere there are comments on multiculturalism and diversity in the modern Africa, such as the work of the Sartists who politicize fashion by referencing colonial-era dress in their designs, and in garments incorporating techniques from different cultures, such as Said Mahrouf’s Moroccan embroidery on Indian silk with complex ‘western’ draping techniques.
As I said at the outset, this is not a large exhibition, and Some of the items of clothing displayed were indistinguishable from simple western fashion. I would have liked to have seen more of the native textiles that many of the designers referred to in the exhibit labels. However, in explaining his objection to wax prints, Sunny Dolat, a stylist from Kenya finds that they “parallel the ‘Africa is a country’ narrative. Despite the diversity of African fashion, it is garments that use wax print that get the most publicity”. For me, this statement summarises the success of this exhibition, which taught me more of what African fashion has to offer than is usually shown to British audiences.