Africa Style: With Freedom Came Fashion Flair

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Many years ago, I worked as a salesperson at Hugo Boss in the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. I sold the range of things the store carried: luggage, accessories, underwear, clothing. But what I most relished selling was men’s suits, because a good suit is often transformative. A man would come into the store looking forgettable and then, after donning a well-cut two-button, single-breasted navy suit with a peak lapel, he would look accomplished, adept. Walking into the new “Africa Fashion” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, I felt that I was witnessing something wondrous, something more surprising than just an individual’s restyling. I was transported to the historical epoch when almost the entire continent was shedding its colonialist rule and the associated attire and stepping onto the world stage transformed.

Marking this wholesale change at the very outset is a wall featuring a timeline of text and documentary photography that details the consequential moments of Africa’s 20th-century liberation struggles. Video monitors offer film footage of key ceremonies, such as the 1957 formation of the Republic of Ghana. On an adjacent wall are the flags of all 54 countries in Africa, their insignia and heraldry explained. The exhibition seems quite intentionally based in the history of independence movements; Christine Checinska, the curator who led the team that organized the original exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London affirmed this, saying that for her it was crucial for viewers to understand that the clothing has “a political dimension.”

In the exhibition catalog Checinska writes that Tunisia and Morocco liberated themselves from the control of France in 1956 and then a year later Ghana freed itself from Britain. Then, in 1960, 17 African countries shook off colonial rule, to embed that time in the historical record as the “Year of Africa.” “The radical social and political reordering that took place sparked a cultural renaissance throughout the continent,” Checinska writes. “Fashion, music and the visual arts drew on formerly marginalized traditions, creating innovative forms that looked toward future self-rule.”

I think it must be acknowledged that self-governance has not always produced astute political leadership, or policies that benefited the majority of citizens, yet some countries once hobbled by colonial rule have learned to stand on their own.

This revival and re-emergence of cultural practices and forms indigenous to native Africans takes on an expanded role in the Brooklyn version of “Africa Fashion,” according to its organizers Ernestine White-Mifetu, the museum’s curator of Africa art, and Annissa Malvoisin, a postdoctoral fellow here. It now includes 300 objects — of which about 130 are garments, textiles and jewelry, and more than 50 works from the museum’s collections. The curators of this show have added more documentary footage of the four large festivals on the continent in the ’60s and ’70s: the First World Festival of Black Arts (FESMAN) in Dakar in 1966; Zaire 74 in Kinshasa, 1974; the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria (PANAF) in 1969; and the second World Black and African Festival of the Arts (FESTAC) in 1977 in Lagos.

Here, too, is a makeshift library with classic books examining that history and its legacy. There were framed and mural-size photos of FESTAC activities by Marilyn Nance, author of “Last Day in Lagos,” who by chance was visiting when I walked in. I was looking at a suite of four images, which included Stevie Wonder performing in a bright white suit with bell bottom trousers, in stark contrast to women in elaborately wrapped dresses of Kente cloth and men in tribal outfits that include decorative leg bands. Nance, a Brooklyn native, told me that about 200 Black Americans from New York, including her, traveled to Lagos, knowing it was going to be a hugely important event.

I could hear one of the other ways in which this iteration differs from the V & A show. Music followed me as I moved from gallery to gallery. Malvoisin explained that they carefully chose a playlist — accessible via a QR code — that echoes the hot songs for each epoch represented in the gallery space: Chaabi, Arab Pop, Hip-Hop, Afrobeat, Highlife, Jazz, Kora, and more genres. (Only a small selection is heard in the show, so use the link.) There is a theme of exuberance that threads through the music which matches the clothing and accessories on display.

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