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Issue 237

‘Africa Fashion’ Is a Celebration of Syncretism

At the Brooklyn Museum, New York, more than 300 items from 1950 to present day capture the global impact of artists from the continent

BY Mebrak Tareke in Exhibition Reviews | 31 AUG 23

Papa Oppong’s Takari Tee (2021) is a boisterously frilly, handcrafted, sequined, pastel smock with a tongue-in-cheek ‘Vote for Corruption’ slogan. Unfettered by colonial or traditional constructs around gender, identity or taste, the designer moves seamlessly between tech from New York and craft from Ghana, adding his own spin to haute couture. Takari Tee is indicative of the syncretic ways in which young West African designers are drawing inspiration from various eras, techniques and places to create fashion with a global twist.

Papa Oppong, Takari Tee, 2021, acrylic wool blend, smock, tulle, sequins. Courtesy: the artist

Oppong is just one of many such designers featured in the Brooklyn Museum’s wide-ranging ‘Africa Fashion’ exhibition. Co-curators Ernestine White-Mifetu and Annissa Malvoisin have selected more than 300 items – from textiles, jewellery, music and photography to video, sculpture, books and magazines, drawn both from the museum’s collection and further afield – to create a vibrant dreamscape on the ground-floor galleries. The first survey of its kind in North America, with seemingly more room to breathe than in its previous iteration at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the show captures the global impact of fashion from the African continent between 1950 and the present day. At the entrance, a timeline charts the independence of various nations between 1847 and 2011; the respective flags of the continent’s 54 countries appear opposite this timeline with a description of each. Yet, despite featuring works by more than 40 designers from 20 African countries across eight sections – including ‘Vanguard’, ‘Cutting Edge’ and ‘Global Africa’ – this ambitious exhibition still feels surprisingly digestible.

Hassan Hajjaj, Draganov, 2021, photograph, frame, 97 × 142 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Through music, photography, video and installation, the show paints a deeply affecting image of how garments, hairdos, accessories and props can shape fashion and culture. Godfried Donkor’s film The Currency of Ntoma (2012), for instance, documents a conversation between the artist and his mother. Wearing a shiny patterned outfit with a firmly creased, green lace head wrap, she speaks about the significance of ntoma (cloth) in her native Ghana and how its patterns and words convey the beliefs and desires of those who wear it.

As I walked in and out of different sections, I could hear the faint sound of jingly music in the air, conjuring a visceral sense of moving through the busy streets of Lagos or Johannesburg among throngs of people dressed in these exquisite outfits. Eventually, I came across the source of the sound: Hassan Hajjaj’s colourful, multi-screen video My Rockstars II (2012). In this immersive installation, nine muses sit on found objects – crates emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo in Arabic, for instance – dressed in a vivid mash-up of looks, ranging from two-piece Ankara print suits to a colourful cape with sunglasses and matching babouche slippers. Meanwhile, the only standing figure, a belly dancer, sways her hips to music in a shiny sequined outfit and a dark face veil. Drawing on a range of sonic and visual media to bring fashion to life, My Rockstars II also mixes traditional and contemporary garments to speak to the aesthetics of a fast-changing nation and continent.

Africa fashion installation view
'Africa Fashion', exhibition view, 2023. Courtesy: Brooklyn Museum; photograph: Danny Perez

Subdivided into various sections – including ‘Minimalist’, ‘Artisanal’ and ‘Afrotopia’ – that snake through roomy corridors to the grand circular hall, ‘Cutting Edge’ is a somewhat dizzying experience. While certain pairings – Moshions’ minimalist, baby-blue dashiki two piece and Imane Ayissi’s tasselled fuchsia ensemble, for instance – complemented one another beautifully, the decision to compartmentalize objects into obscure categories felt, at times, confusing and constricting: some subsections could have fallen under the umbrella of ‘Global Africa’ or even bled into one another and still held sway.

‘Africa Fashion’, thankfully, does not dwell on the Western appropriation of African aesthetics, which has become a popular topic in recent years. Instead, svelte Black mannequins in the ‘Vanguard’ section wear elegantly tailored three-piece suits cut from Malian fabrics by Chris Seydou, caftans by Moroccan designer Naima Bennis or matching iro (wrappers), buba (blouses) and gele (head wraps) by Nigeria’s Shade Thomas-Fahm. These garments were made by designers looking to reclaim their power and identity during the post-independence era of the mid-to-late 20th century. Back then, as witnessed in some of the old family photographs on display here, Africans of my parents’ generation were refashioning their looks in the 1960s. For instance, J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere’s series ‘Hairstyles’ (1968–2014) captures a distinctly Nigerian take on elaborately twisted braids. Given the joy, vitality and pride evidenced in the show, talking about colonial theft would have felt trite.

Trevor Stuurman, Mama Panther, 2017, giclée on Ilford crystal gloss. Courtesy: the artist

At the launch party for ‘Africa Fashion’, Chicago-based writer and critic Gabriel Charles Tyler noted how the show’s immersive installations of colourful textiles were evocative of Blackness, particularly of his grandmother’s era. ‘There’s a schism between Africa and African Americans,’ he told me, but the works on view conveyed ‘what we’ve carried from the continent’. I felt the same way about Nigerian-American designer Lola Faturoti’s Obama Commemorative Cloth Dress (2012) in the ‘Politics and Poetics’ section: a light orange and blue Kente cloth-like silk tunic featuring a portrait of the former US politician with the words ‘God Bless President Obama’ in Yoruba. This design, which is festive and joyful, celebrates the Kenyan origins of America’s first Black president in a wave pattern that exudes hope and renewal.

The show’s message is clear: fashion is thriving in Africa. A concession of ALARA, a luxury Lagos concept store founded by Reni Folawiyo, occupies a sizable corner of the museum, selling items by local and continental designers. Green and black ‘Love Africa’ cotton hoodies by surf brand Mami Wata and a long-sleeved pink silky shirt dress with a pop art-style image of a mother and child by Thebe Magugu are among the more than 100 brands for sale. In the much smaller ‘Global Africa’ section, Ibrahim Kamara, the Sierra Leone-born editor-in-chief of Dazed and creative director of the Off-White label, captures soft monotone portraits of a slim model set against a deep red background (Grace, 2022). In Off-White’s branding and garments, we can also see how – in tandem with the late designer Virgil Abloh – Kamara forged a new visual language around style and youth culture, which pulls from both streetwear and high fashion on its own terms.

'Africa Fashion', exhibition view, 2023. Courtesy: Brooklyn Museum; photograph: Danny Perez

The diaspora of northeast Africa, which continues to spawn a pool of talented creatives such as Abdel El Tayeb, who doesn’t appear in the show, feels somewhat underrepresented in the exhibition. His brand, El Tayeb Nation, pairs maximalist craft with modern design to construct a fantasy world in which his rich French-Sudanese heritage co-exists. Nonetheless, the show accomplishes what it sets out to do: showcase the global impact of African fashion today. It also debunks some age-old myths that have diminished the meaning, function, range and potential of the continent’s material culture and creative talent. Africa and its diaspora’s countless reservoirs of makers, doers and thinkers continue to forge new worlds of possibility by unravelling how history, politics and culture can shape a people’s power, dignity, glamour and identity.

Africa Fashion’ is on view at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, until 22 October

Main image: 'Africa Fashion', installation view, 2023. Courtesy: Brooklyn Museum; photograph: Danny Perez

Mebrak Tareke is the founder of TiMS Creative, a global consultancy on the future of storytelling. She has written for Arnet News, Hyperallergic and The Brooklyn Rail on art, politics and culture in the African diaspora.