On View Now: ‘Africa Fashion’ at the Brooklyn Museum

As much as I anticipated the Africa Fashion exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, I was skeptical. How could any one show address the sartorial history of an entire continent?

Ambitious in scope but limited in timeframe, Africa Fashion debuted as a 2022 exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Its present incarnation in Brooklyn, organized by Ernestine White-Mifetu (Sills Foundation Curator of African Art) and Annissa Malvoisin (Bard Graduate Center/Brooklyn Museum Postdoctoral Fellow in the Arts of Africa), draws from the mid-twentieth century, a time when many African nations achieved independence, through to the present. The exhibition showcases not just clothing but also accessories, photography and print media from twenty nations, along with selections from the Brooklyn Museum’s own collection.

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An installation view of ‘Africa Fashion’. BK Museum

The curators do what they can to situate visitors with a detailed timeline upon entering, but past and present intermingle in the galleries. Traditional textiles and garments like Kente cloth and Àdirę are on view alongside their contemporary re-imaginings, and the fluid, non-linear installation invites contemplation around a range of themes: colonialism, cultural heritage, resistance, spirituality, craftsmanship and family among them. Fashion is contextualized with music, magazines and graphics to highlight that the creative energy and innovation seen in the clothes were part of bigger, often experimental, boldly expressive creative communities.

Africa Fashion adopts a refreshingly inclusive definition of ‘fashion’ that considers all manner of adornment including hair and jewelry, some of which are the work of known and celebrated designers, like Nigeria’s Shade Thomas-Fahm, who was renowned in her time (but still likely unknown to most Americans). We also see the work of tailors and seamstresses whose names have been lost to history but whose expertly crafted pieces are a testament to their skill.

Michel ‘Papami’ Kameni; Cameroon; Unnamed women from a collection of nine studio portraits 1966-75. Photo: Sonya Abrego

Photos by acclaimed artists and photographers like Hassan Hajjaj and Malick Sidibé show the fits in action, in real and imagined spaces, while other imagery—like the studio portraits by Cameroonian photographer Michel “Papami” Kameni from the mid to late 1960s—depict regular people in their self-fashioned finery and offer intimate views into a range of style and interpretation.

Hassan Hajjaj, Draganov, 2021. © Hassan Hajjaj (Photo: Courtesy of Draganov andthe artist)

Personal narratives are also a means of connecting, and the museum reached out to members of the African diasporic community in Brooklyn to share family connections to African fashions and textiles. These shared archival images enrich the show and are part of an ongoing dialogue on social media. Taken together, there’s a careful balance between avant-garde runway looks that are part of the global fashion economy, and the personally and culturally specific.

Trevor Stuurman, Tongoro Beauty 3, 2022. © Trevor Stuurman (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Including the Lagos-based concept store ÁLARA in the exhibition drives home the status of contemporary African design in the global marketplace. I think we’ve collectively moved past the critique of “commercialization” and the museum gift shop—designed objects are meant to be used and enjoyed—and much of this work is new to the U.S. as well. ÁLARA offers items from makers included in the exhibition, like the stunning cowrie jewelry by Lafalaise Dion (Côte d’Ivoire).

There’s a lot to learn in Africa Fashion—an exhibition that is perhaps overdue. It’s a welcome departure from the conventional “western” fashion canon and something we’ll hopefully see more of in the future.

Africa Fashion is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through October 22.

On View Now: ‘Africa Fashion’ at the Brooklyn Museum