Africa Now!

When people think of Africa from a cultural perspective, they may consider its lively cities, its breathtaking topography, its dense and complex internal political history, its diverse food landscape, its writers and artists or its fashion industry. However, what one may not fully appreciate is that these components have only contributed to universal thought as of the mid-20th century, marking Africa as a relatively new frontier for progressive thinking, education reform, fresh ideas and philosophies, writing, music recognition, design, fine art and fashion.

Covering the period of energetic creativity from the 1950’s to the 21st century, the Brooklyn Museum has curated a masterful exhibition, weaving together these disparate elements to paint a portrait of a continent on the verge of world influence.

A still from a video produced in 1966, documenting the first Wold Festival of Black Arts which took place in Dakar, Senegal.

Africa Fashion is so much more than a collection of garments showcasing fashion designers and the field of fashion design in Africa. The show deftly educates the attendee with a comprehensive historical context as an assist to understand how Africa has evolved and where it is going.

Examples of mid-century indigo resist-dyed cotton fabrics. Wrapped "Adire" ensemble , 1960-64; Ibadan, Nigeria.

Beginning with the struggles for emancipation from colonial forces, each country is recognized with a brief history of their declared independence dates and the flag that represents them. From there the exhibition showcases prominent music and musicians, important authors and their books, boundary breaking painters and photographers and, finally, the world of fashion and its designers.

Fabric motifs can convey anything from familial groupings or marital status to a love of learning. Designed as early as the 1920’s, the “ABC” pattern signifies that the wearer values education or symbolizes their own education. Resin resist-printed cotton dress fabric, 1948.
Atta Kwami's painting "Another Time" is inspired by the complexity of the strip-weave patterns of kente cloth from the Ewe in Ghana. Acrylic on linen, 2011.
Grand boubou, pagne, top and head tie ensemble of embroidered organza, 1966. Made by a local tailor in Dakar, Senega, this popular style of the time was worn to the opening of the second International Congress of Africanists in 1967.

The sheer scope of this show is impressive and demands an attentive eye. There is so much to glean from the various installations and the presentation is inspiring as well as educational. I came away with a much deeper understanding of the rich tapestry that is Africa and how all the interwoven elements worked together to bring the continent to the fore.

And, most of all, for those that love fashion, the exhibition does not disappoint. From Egyptian jewelry antiquities to an ensemble co-designed by Rosario Dawson, there is a vast array of garments and looks, all beautifully creative and showing how each designer honors their individual culture through their designs and execution.

Fashions by Rwandan Moses Turahirwa. Integrating ceremonial dress into contemporary garments, these two ensembles are both honorific and stylish. On left, "Intwari" cardigan, top, trousers and belt from the "Inkingi" Spring/Summer 2020 collection. On right, trousers and top (with detachable pleated swag) from the "Intsinzi" Spring/Summer 2018 collection.
On left, a 2020 ensemble from Lagos Space Programme by Nigerian Adeju Thompson, a fashion project exploring traditions of Yoruba culture. On right, two ensembles by Nigerian Nkwo Onwuka. Jacket, skirt, bra, gele and shoes from the “Who Knew” Spring/Summer 2019 collection. Dress from the “Be Us, Be Them” Spring/Summer 2020 collection.
Kenyan designer Katungulu Mwendwa’s dramatically architectural “Aluel” dress from her “Dinka Translation” 2020 collection. The paper pattern and toile illustrate the innovative combination of angular details and curvilinear forms which create the eye-catching finished garment.
Three ensembles by Nigerian designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal for his brand Orange Culture. On left, shirt, trousers and leather bag from the “Shadow Man” Spring/Summer 2020 collection. In center, “Here Me” jumper and “Enu” skirt from the “S.E.N.S.E.S” Autumn/Winter 2016 collection. On right, shirt and shorts from the “Flower Boy” Autumn/Winter 2022 collection.

Africa Fashion is not just a show; it’s history come to life in vivid detail and with all the colors and textures that make Africa what it is (and in some ways always was).

Dress, crinoline and mask by Moroccan slow-fashion designer Artsi Ifrah. The ensemble is a dialogue between cultures, combining symbols and culture codes that inspire him. Built as an oversized trench coat reminiscent of the British staple, it transfers to an oversized burka reminiscent of traditional Muslim dress. The deliberate transparency is meant to induce not only seeing inside but through. Organza, cotton embroidery, sequins, plastic fish bones, satin ribbon, 2022.