Innovative exhibition puts African cities on the fashion map

AiW Guest: Harriet Hughes

Fashion Cities Africa, the first major UK exhibition dedicated to presenting contemporary African Fashion design, opened at Brighton museum in April 2016. The aim of the exhibition is to present the fashion cultures of four African cities – Johannesburg, Casablanca, Lagos, Nairobi – and perhaps less explicitly to challenge the colonial notion that fashion exists only in the ‘West’. The categorisation of African clothing as ‘dress’ (timeless, unchanging) in opposition to ‘western’ clothing as fashion (innovative) served as a system of control during the colonial project and these taxonomies continue to endure and be particularly challenging for museums, which largely hold collections made between 1870 and 1950. This exhibition succeeds in destabilising these ideologies.

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‘Lagos’ exhibit, Fashion Cities Africa. Cpyright Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. Photograph by James Pike

The exhibition gives strong weighting to high-end fashion or couture, as the curators were keen to highlight the luxury market in Africa in order to challenge stereotypes of African fashion. However, the exhibition does trace the wider players in fashion networks beyond high-end designers, such as stylists or photographers, who are also integral to the industry. The importance of street style is alluded to through the inclusion of selected garments from Moroccan stylist Mouna Belgrini, and street photographer and fashion blogger Joseph Ouechen, who have created their own ‘looks’. Filmed interviews with Mouna and Joseph are included as part of the display. From South Africa, there are three tennis outfits created by creative collective ‘the Sartists’ (Andile Buka, Kabelo Kungwane and Wanda Lephoto). The group describe their work as art documentation. The tennis outfits on display are seen being worn by the group in an adjacent photograph, showing them performatively reclaiming activities which, under apartheid, were segregated, and which black people were marginalised from.

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‘The Sartists’ collective, Fashion Cities Africa. Copyright Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. Photograph by James Pike

The significance of the market for ‘mitumba’ (second hand clothes) in Nairobi is also presented, as well as an area displaying an exuberantly colourful wall of large hung textiles which can be handled, such as adire and aso oke from Nigeria, Basotho blankets from Lesotho, and wax print from Ghana. The display evokes the scene in markets throughout Africa where stalls laden with un-tailored fabrics sit side by side.

High-end fashion is represented by the inclusion of bespoke garments such as an exquisitely embroidered dress by Moroccan designer Zhor Raïs, and a dress by Lagosian designer Folake Coker (label Tiffany Amber), incorporating a coral adorned body with billowing skirt. The garments are on open display so it is possible to gain a sense of their performativity and spectacle, which is so often dulled by glass barriers in museum displays.

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Detail of haute couture garment by Zhor Raïs. Copyright Royal Pavilion & Museums, Bright & Hove. Photograph by James Pike

Collaboration between the Sussex University and Brighton Museum

The exhibition project has sought to engage both with practitioners within the industry and local communities through outreach and engagement programmes. My own PhD research, which contributed to the exhibition, is a collaborative project jointly funded by Brighton Museum and the Sussex Africa Centre at the University of Sussex. Furthermore, in addition to the main exhibition, a Heritage Lottery funded collecting programme called Fashioning Africa aims to establish an African textile and fashion collection representing the period 1960-2000.

The collaborative nature of the PhD and the link with the museum has been integral for establishing contacts in the field. In my first week in Lagos, the museum link meant that I was hosted, along with Martin Pel (curator of fashion at Brighton Museum), by the British Council. We were met by Jennifer Onchi, Project Manager at the British Council, who introduced us to major players in the fashion scene – for instance Reni Folawiyo, the director of stunning concept store Alara, and Yegwe Ukpo, director of Stranger, another concept store. Yegwe sees the space as a hub for supporting up and coming, progressive designers, and hosts film nights and talks. The store also acts as a café, co-working space and library. Yegwe introduced me to several other designers such as Adeju Thompson and Adebayo Oke-Lawal (behind the brand Orange Culture) who are interested in using androgynous shapes and cuts. There is a creative scene in Lagos where filmmakers, designers and artists coalesce, and Stranger acts as a hub for this. Being introduced to players in this scene was important for beginning fieldwork with this group. As a result, parts of a film and images I made at Stranger feature in the museum exhibition. This serves to provide the wider context and to present fashion cultures as dynamic and individual to specific sites, rather than as a mirror of the western fashion model.

Many designers in Lagos are becoming interested in indigenous made fabrics, and in using local techniques such as adire, batik, and aso oke (woven fabrics worn at weddings). The knowledge of indigenous textile practices gained during my fieldwork in Lagos has meant that I can engage more meaningfully with Nigerian diaspora communities in the UK, some of whom are involved with the Fashioning Africa project. I have honed some of my research questions towards investigating the way in which local textile practices are being re-imagined in high fashion for a global market.

Fashion Cities Africa is on display at Brighton museum until 8th January 2017. Moving forward, and following the associated workshop of the Creating African Fashion Histories conference held in November at the museum, the possibility of an African Fashion subject specialist network is also being explored.

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hhphoto-%282%29Harriet Hughes is a doctoral researcher for the collaborative Fashion Cities Africa doctoral award, between the Sussex Africa Centre, University of Sussex, and Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. Harriet’s research explores the trans-local fashion cultures of Lagos and the London diaspora, the making of identities through fashion, and urban space. Harriet is interested in the materiality of fashion, Yoruban textiles, and the postcolonial museum.

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