15 November 2016

Review of Fashion Cities Africa exhibition and Creating African Fashion Histories Conference

Fashion Cities Africa exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by James Pike

Over a hundred people attended the Creating African Fashion Histories conference at a Brighton Museum & Art Gallery venue on 4 November where fourteen speakers summarised their recent work on particular periods and places in African fashion with a strong accent on the contemporary. For example, Jody Benjamin from the University of California talked about 18th and 19th century cloth trades and costume trends from surviving prints and a few rare pieces, Christopher Richards of Brooklyn College focused on 1960s Ghana, and Juliet Gilbert from the University of Birmingham gave us the insights from her recent PhD on young seamstresses producing clothes for ‘the classy girl’ in Kalabar, Nigeria. Erica de Greef has worked in the field of fashion for many years in South Africa and has recently been examining de-colonisation possibilities in the combined South African fashion collections of the Cape Town museums now grouped together as IZIKO. She investigated men’s button decorated trousers as a particular example. Angela Jansen, a visiting researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has combed Paris, and Casablanca for sources on 20th century Moroccan fashion history and shared her online findings of fabulous photographs from the 1970s post the more traditional work by Jean Besancenot. The final panel included the transformative fashion entrepreneur Avis Charles, a key organiser of African Fashion International in Johannesburg, the journalist Helen Jennings, and Moroccan scene experts Yoseph Ouechen and Mouna Belgrini.

Fashion Cities Africa exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by James Pike
The day ended with an opportunity to view the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition which celebrates the current scene with contributions from designers from four cities: Nairobi, Casablanca, Lagos and Johannesburg.  This exhibition is on until 8 January 2017. The designers from each city are introduced by a fashion expert ‘curator’, and information on the city and the fashion scene is provided on four sided pillars and by short films. There is also a handling corner with long swathes of fabric to touch and other interactives. The range of styles was impressive and mesmerising. The exhibition booklet is also photo rich and info-snappy, and intended to have a wider circulation than the exhibition itself which is likely to go on to the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.

Fashion Cities Africa exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by James Pike

The international fares for many of the speakers were supported by the Sussex Africa Centre at the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton, both of which are key partners in the project. Moving on from the V&A’s Black Style exhibition co-curated by Carol Tulloch in 2004, Africa Remix at the South Bank Centre in 2005, and the ‘We Face Forward’ African art and music season in Manchester in 2012, this exhibition covers modern African fashion in a lot more detail and the structure of co-curation is broader and more reflective of the industry it portrays. Several UK museums have small collections of post-independence African fashion amongst their holdings but this exhibition and the conference (which will result in a publication) is a stunning new bench mark.

It’s whetted my appetite for seeing South Africa – Art of a Nation at the British Museum, on until 26 February 2017

4 November 2016

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