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Africa Fashion at the National Gallery of Victoria tells the story of African fashion through political history.

Africa Fashion at the National Gallery of Victoria tells the story of African fashion through political history.
Africa Fashion at the National Gallery of Victoria tells the story of African fashion through political history.

 


Africa has long been neglected by contemporary fashion. But in the National Gallery of Victoria's new Africa Fashion exhibition, senior curator Christine Checinska wants to showcase “an abundance rather than a lack” of African creativity.

“It’s about showing the world that we have always been cosmopolitan, that we have always been creative, that we have always created works of art and that we have always had an impact on a global scale,” says- She.

Curator in blue dress and coat standing in front of mannequins displaying colorful ready-to-wear creations by African designers.

“It’s about being ourselves, away from the white gaze,” says Dr Christine Checinska, curator of African fashion at the NGV.(Supplied: NGV/Eugene Hyland)

NGV Africa Fashion is a collection of 200 works by over 50 designers, spanning over 20 countries and regions across the African continent, from the mid-20th century to today.

Combining editorials, sketches, photographs, ready-to-wear, textiles, film and music, the exhibition is not only a visual delight, it also tells the political history of African fashion.

Here are five important pieces to discover (and perhaps inspire other African creations in your wardrobe).

Queerness and fashion go hand in hand

The 360-degree Afrotopia room is full of ready-to-wear accessories, suits, dresses and suit-dress hybrids, addressing a political issue in Africa.

An iridescent suit by South African designer Neo Serati Mofammere represents the unisex brand: chaotic, fun, bold, exciting, youthful and socio-politically optimistic.

“Imagine a world where you could wear a short shirt, see-through tops and dress African men in pink,” says Mofammere.

Pink, blue and silver iridescent peplum costume mounted on mannequin with bell bottom pants

Nao Serati is a fashion brand based in Johannesburg, South Africa, that explores the margins of gender, art and sexuality.(Supplied: NGV)

The colors of this peplum suit are mixed to celebrate gender fluidity, representing the invisibility of non-binary people in Africa.

“[It’s a] reference to the meeting between man and woman. It’s about being proud of who you are,” says Dr. Checinska.

Wear it as a political act

The Politics and Poetics Room of the Drapery tells the story of African leaders protesting colonial rule with textiles.

Five pieces of commemorative fabric were hung, one with Nelson Mandela's face twice on a green background.

Memorial cloth has historically been used as a symbol of political resistance in Africa. The Nelson Mandela print was mass-produced and worn with pride at rallies in South Africa in the 1990s.(Provided: GNV Lillie Thompson)

The Nelson Mandela ANC commemorative fabric is a 1990s screen-printed cotton produced for the African National Congress, an anti-apartheid political party in South Africa.

It was presented at a fundraising rally organized by the ANC in London as people fought for Nelson Mandela's freedom.

A smiling black model wears traditional red African clothing covering her entire body, sandals and green glasses.

There are portraits throughout the exhibition of notable members of the African diaspora community in Australia. Francis Acquah AM has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to mental health care and the community.(Provided: GNV/Suleiman Thomas)

This style of commemorative cloth is common in Africa, often featuring a border slogan, a portrait of the political figure, and a flag.

Nelson Mandela's fabric reads “A better life for all; Working together for jobs, peace and freedom”.

“In many African countries, making and wearing traditional textiles upon independence became a strategic political act,” says Dr. Checinska.

Capturing change

James Barnor is Ghana's first fashion photographer and a pioneer in the fight against racial prejudice in 20th century photography.

His photography is playful, cosmopolitan and filled with black pride.

Exhibition wall with three brightly colored photographs of black women, with a camera in a clear case in the center.

Installation view of Capturing Change in African Fashion on display from 31 May to 6 October 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne.(Provided: GNV Lillie Thompson)

Barnor opened the first color processing laboratory in Ghana in 1969, but with an important difference. He did not use the Shirley chart, a widely used reference chart for calibrating skin color, shadows, and light during the printing process. Because the photo was of a white woman, Kodak employee Shirley Page, photos of darker-skinned people were poorly rendered and sometimes unrecognizable.

“He refused to use the Kodak Shirley card,” Dr. Checinska said.

“He focused instead on trying to truly represent the richness, elegance and variety of black skin tones.”

Modern and timeless

Think African textiles mixed with gender fluidity, and you have the Lagos Space Program design project.

Its founder, Adeju Thompson, uses Nigerian practices and textiles in his work, including Adir, a fabric produced by Yoruba women in southwest Nigeria using dyeing techniques.

Thompson worked with a community of local dyers and reintroduced this old tradition into modern practice in the Mask piece from this collection, created by David Gardner.

A mannequin with an attached mask with indigo mesh as a base, concentrated beads in the center, sticks as eyelashes.

Lagos Space Program is a non-binary, sustainable design project that uses traditional African dyeing techniques and textiles in the context of queer storytelling.(Provided: GNV Lillie Thompson)

With big lips, long eyelashes and adorned with beads, it's an ode to the strangeness of traditional Nigerian masquerade.

As Dr Checinska explains: “Female characters can be played by men, male characters can be played by women and so there is always an inherent fluidity between the sexes.”

Bringing Africa closer to the West

Designer Chris Seydou's elegant ball gowns challenge Western perceptions of what can be considered luxury fashion.

Seydou learned her trade from her mother who was a seamstress in Kati, a town in Mali and moved to Paris to pursue her career in fashion.

Black and white image of an African model wearing a matching skirt and shirt with an African pattern, beads and a white headband

Designer Chris Seydou pioneered the transformation of African textiles into contemporary designs. He is known for working the traditional Malian textile bogolan, also known as mud cloth.(Nabil Zorkot)

Despite his change in location, Seydou continued to incorporate traditional Malinese bglanfini or bogolan (mud cloth) into his work.

Dr. Checinska describes Seydou's work as “showing the enduring elegance of African women through her evening wear.”

A ball gown with a gold, shimmering open back and black puffy skirt.  And a pink shirt draped over a black pencil skirt.

Chris Seydou is widely referred to as the “Father of African Fashion”. After leaving Mali to settle in Paris to pursue design, he founded an organization called Fédération Africaine de Prêt-à-Porter (African Federation of Ready-to-Wear Designers).(Provided: GNV Lillie Thompson)

NGV Africa Fashion is on display until October 6, 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne.

Sources

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2/ https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-06-22/africa-fashion-national-gallery-victoria/103928014

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