If There Is One Exhibit You Go to This Summer, Make It This One

Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

The highly anticipated “Africa Fashion” exhibit is now at the Brooklyn Museum, examining the continent’s significant contributions to fashion and textiles from the mid-20th century to the present day, through the lenses of popular culture, art, and politics. The exhibit, open through October 22, shows the continent’s long-standing involvement to haute couture, sustainability, and technology, all of which have been deeply embedded into the creative practices of African artists.

The layout is organized thematically by moments in African history that helped to define the continent creatively, including the Independence era (1950s–1990s), a catalyst for Africa’s cultural renaissance. The exhibition is supplemented by immersive displays of film footage, runway shows, vintage magazines and books, music, and more, in collaboration with more than 40 designers and artists across 20 African countries, some of them for the first time in North America.

Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

As you enter the “Vanguard” portion of the exhibit, on display are skillfully crafted floor-length capes, robes, and gowns by the continent’s first generation of premiers — designers who specialize in crafting made-to-measure clothes and couture — including Naïma Bennis of Morocco, Kofi Ansah of Ghana, Chris Seydou of Mali, Shade Thomas-Fahm of Nigeria, and Alphadi of Niger. Shown is a diversity of textiles from across Africa, including the Kuba raffia cloth and the Nigerian Akwete cloth. Kente cloth designs and commemorative pieces feature portraits of African political figures such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama printed onto textiles, highlighting the notion of dress as a political act. The exhibit also highlights Africa’s new guard of designers, like Thebe Magugu, Adebayo Oke-Lawal, and jewelry designs by Lafalaise Dion that explore the legacy of the popular cowrie shell.

The timing of the exhibit is of significance. The exhibit marks 100 years since the Brooklyn Museum became the first arts institution to showcase African art to North American audiences. “It’s coming at such a time where the world is experiencing the global impact of Africa and its diaspora through culture,” says co-curator Annissa Malvoisin, postdoctoral fellow at the Bard Graduate Center and the Brooklyn Museum in the Arts of Africa. “Fashion’s a super-accessible point of entry, which we really wanted to highlight.”

Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

“We want folks to learn something new about the continent and also understand that the African continent’s influence on the rest of the world has been that way for centuries,” says co-curator Ernestine White-Mifetu, Sils Foundation curator of African art.

The exhibit raises an essential point about the global interconnectivity shared between Europe and Asia through materials. It underscores how things we associate with fashion in the West, like haute couture, have always been deeply embedded into the creative practice of African artists.

To complete the experience, the museum even teamed up with ALÁRA, a Lagos-based lifestyle-concept store, to sell souvenirs, clothes, books, and other unique takeaways to reflect the exhibition. A must-see this summer.

If There Is One Exhibit You Go To, Make It This One