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‘Africa Fashion’ Exhibit Lands at Brooklyn Museum With New Designers and Previously Unseen Textiles

The exhibit, which originated last summer at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, offers a blockbuster survey of African fashion, art and culture.

A mannequin stands with head tilted, a knee jutting from the deep bias chiffon and woven fabric hemline of Papa Oppong’s Takari T, a T-shirt worn as a dress from the Ghanaian-born designer’s celebrated 2021 Yopoo collection, which evokes a Ghanaian woman’s life from birth to marriage to death. A “Ghana Must Go” bag — the ubiquitous blue, white and red reusable bags that have come to symbolize the forced migration of millions of Ghanaians from Nigeria — sits on the floor next to the mannequin.

It’s one of two looks from Oppong included in the Brooklyn Museum’s iteration of “Africa Fashion,” the blockbuster exhibition that opened last summer at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and which runs Friday through Oct. 22 in New York.

“I can’t believe this is my work,” muses Oppong, as he raises his hands to his cheeks. “It doesn’t seem real. Coming from Ghana, I dreamed of creating work that could be this accessible. So this,” he says, spinning around to take in the work of fellow designers on display in a large central gallery, “is truly a dream come true.”

Like many of the additional designers included in the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, Oppong’s pieces evoke the heritage but also the political and socioeconomic realities of the African diaspora; from political satire and adherence to traditional weaving, hand-dyeing and beading techniques to collaborations with other African artists, from illustrators to weavers to photographers and musicians.

Organized thematically, the exhibition features garments, textiles, photography, books, music and catwalk footage from more than 40 designers and artists from 20 of Africa’s 54 countries, including pioneering 20th-century designers Kofi Ansah (Ghana), Naima Bennis (Morocco), Shade Thomas-Fahm (Nigeria), Chris Seydou (Mali), and Alphadi (Niger) in the “Vanguard” section. “The Cultural Renaissance” section explores the independence era, from the 1950s through the 1990s, a period of dramatic political, social and cultural upheaval reflected in the Pan-African fashion and art scene. “Politics and Poetics of Cloth” surveys the rise of Indigenous cloth as a political act; textiles from the museum’s Arts of Africa collection complement the V&A’s wax prints, commemorative cloth, àdìrẹ, kente cloth and bògòlanfini. “Capturing Change” chronicles the independence years through artists such as Seydou Keïta (Mali) and Malick Sidibé (Mali), from the museum’s collection, as well as fashion photography by James Barnor (Ghana). “Cutting Edge” is organized around concepts including “Afrotopia,” “Artisanal,” “Co-creation,” “Provocation,” “Minimalist,” and “Mixologist” and showcases a new generation of fashion designers and creatives, including South Africa–based designer Thebe Magugu, winner of the 2019 LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize. “Through the Photographer’s Lens” examines the power of contemporary photography with a series of images of intricate African hairstyles from Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, and work from New York native Kwame Brathwaite, the father of the 1970s “Black is Beautiful” movement who died last April. The exhibition concludes with “Global Africa,” which explores how the digital world accelerated the expansion of Africa’s influence in the fashion industry.

A look at the Africa Fashion exhibit at Brooklyn Museum on June 20, 2023 in Brooklyn, New York.Brooklyn Museum's Africa Fashion Exhibit
Photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s images of African hairstyles are among more than 50 additional items from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection. LEXIE MORELAND/WWD

Additional new contemporary pieces also include Brother Vellies designer Aurora James’ Mother Nature gown with a raffia skirt and basket bodice, which the Ghanaian-Canadian designer wore to the 2019 Met Gala; a basket bag from Sudanese-American designer Eilaf Osman; and a shirt and skirt ensemble from Studio One Eighty Nine that features a pineapple husk belt and dried raffia straw hat.

“Haute couture, notions of the handmade and luxury, slow fashion, using dyes or materials that are non-invasive to the environment, this conversation around sustainability has always been part of the African continent,” says Ernestine White-Mifetu, the Brooklyn Museum’s Sills Foundation Curator of African Art, who adapted the exhibition with Annissa Malvoisin, the museum’s postdoctoral fellow in the Arts of Africa.

“And the contemporary designers from the continent have continued those traditions while taking the making and design of African textiles to a new level that’s extremely exciting,” continues White-Mifetu. “And this is an opportunity for audiences in North America to get to know what that looks like.”

The exhibit includes more than 50 items from the museum’s collection, including Egyptian jewelry from B.C.E. through 1st century C.E. and 19th and 20th century jewelry from Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso. Many of the items have not preciously been on view. (The museum’s African galleries are currently undergoing a major renovation with a reinstallation slated for 2025.)

“African regions and culture and art isn’t stuck in a specific time period,” says Malvoisin. “The African fashion scene has always been vibrant, even 3,000 years ago. It was really important for us to include our collection because our collection highlights the cultural continuity and technological and manufacturing production that has continued for thousands of years and which are still being used today by the designers featured in the show.”

The contributions of African-born designers is already obvious in the fashion industry, but the exhibit is arguably the first comprehensive recognition of that legacy.

“We do fashion shows a lot [at the Brooklyn Museum], but to focus on African fashion in an expansive way, and to bring something like this to North America and in New York, which is one of the fashion capitals of the world, is really important. These shows are quite commonplace for European and North American designers,” says Malvoisin, invoking the Brooklyn Museum’s recent retrospectives of Christian Dior and Thierry Mugler. “This is placing African fashion designers on the same level as all of these other luxury fashion houses and designers. I feel like it’s just the beginning. Perhaps this will also lay the foundation and groundwork for something like that happening for an African fashion designer.”

Standing in the exhibit’s large central hall, Oppong — dressed head-to-toe in black Balenciaga, right down to his kitten-heeled shoe socks — takes in the designs from his contemporaries. “I know so many people in here,” he says, raising an arm toward a mannequin draped in Christie Brown’s She is King gold and black gown.

“I did art direction at Christie Brown for a year,” he says. “I love Kenneth Ize, Imane Ayissi. This hall is just magical.”

Source : WWD

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