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In an epic V&A exhibit of fashion from Africa, the Sartorial is Political

Kwame Nkrumah, standing before Ghanaian citizens to declare their independence from the British Empire chose to forgo the custom Savile Row suits that he used to wear in public. Kwame Nkrumah instead wore the West African kente cloth, which added sartorial elegance and style to his speech.

Nkrumah’s midcentury fashion statement is a fitting preamble for an extraordinary new exhibit at the Victoria and Albert. This museum was once regarded as a bastion of African achievements by the British. Africa Fashion showcases stunning garments by 45 African designers, from Shade Thomas-Fahm and Chris Seydou. But it’s much more than a display of their skills. African garments are more than mere spectacle. While clothing is a means of communication in all areas, Africa’s garments are notable for their depth and history of misunderstanding by outsiders.

ANC Nelson Mandela commemorative cloth, South Africa, 1991. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum in London

VICTORIA and ALBERT MUSEUM LONDON

These meanings are indicative of the subtlety and communicative power found in African clothing – from Johannesburg and Bamako to Ghana – and Kwame Narumah was an communicator. He wore a pattern called Asa on the night he declared Ghanaian Independence. It meant “I have done what I can.” A pattern known as Mmeeda was the one he used six years prior, when his party had won an election. Both the Asante patterns Nkrumah selected were royal. This was because kente was traditionally worn only by Asante chiefs. The future president of Ghana was aware that Savile Row tailoring was too vague when appearances were most important.

Roslyn A.Walker, curator of the Africa Fashion catalog, points out that kente is only one of the “hundreds if it not thousands” of textiles on Africa’s second-most populous continent. Some of these textiles are easily readable by anyone in North America or Europe, at least in the general sense. In Africa, commemorative cloth is a common practice. It’s printed commercially to mark events like the release of Nelson Mandela and Barak Obama’s trip to Kenya. The cotton fabric is usually screen-printed with photos and flags, then fringed with text to reinforce its message.

Chris Seydou designed this website. (c)Nabil Zoorkot

NABIL ZORKOT

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Some textile designs are so secretive that only the wearer can know their true meaning. Bogolanfini is also known as mud cloth, because it is decorated with iron-rich mud. Bogolanfini dates back to at least ten years and is associated with the Bamana, Mali. It was worn by women during passage rites, providing protection. Although the hand-drawn designs look geometric, they are actually made up of symbols that represent animals, places and mythological figures. Although this vocabulary is well-known within the community the meaning embedded in the combination is just as personal as a nightmarish dream.

This would be hard to believe if you didn’t see Oscar de la Renta’s 2008 Spring/Summer collection. It featured bogolanfini-inspired prints on trendy dresses and skirts. Basmana cosmology would be hard to find in the mud-cloth patterns on Chinese upholstery. The similarities with traditional textiles would not be a problem for someone from Mali. There is nothing being communicated.

The curators of Africa Fashion are sensitive to the dynamics of cultural appropriation. In her impassioned prologue to the catalogue, the playwright Bonnie Greer calls appropriation an act of erasure, in the same vein as enslavement and colonization. “They are the principal grand attempt at re-remaking and forgetting,” she writes.

Even though appropriation is widely condemned, very little effort has been made in order to define it and distinguish it from positive cultural interchange. Because it disregards meaning and deprives of meaningfulness, the trivialization of bogolanfini is a prime example of erasure. Cultural illiteracy can be insulting and even an attack.

No one would argue that every African designer approaches the heritage with the same diligence as a scholar. Adwini as a doesn’t always mean “I have tried my best”. It is important to remember that the present garments made in Africa by designers like Virgil Abloh are in dialogue with the past.

If they are genuine, even if they don’t have the same ancestry or nationality, people can still engage in these conversations. Cultural exchange is not the same as erasure. Africa Fashion opens up new possibilities for conversation.

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