At a time when the United Kingdom is questioning its colonial past, the Victoria & Albert Museum honors the textile know-how of the African continent. Here, we discover an exhibition where textiles and clothing often convey a political narrative.

Rio de Janeiro, 1992: On the sidelines of the Earth Summit, for three weeks, a sculptor patiently covers a monumental tree trunk with incisions. The designs are Adinkra symbols which illustrate pieces of Ghanaian wisdom. On the last day, he takes a chainsaw and ruins his own work. This gesture is a way of reminding us that it takes thousands of years to develop culture and languages, but that it only takes a few seconds to destroy everything. The sculptor is El Anatsui. He once said that “Fabric is to the African what monuments are to the Westerner”.

Since July 2, 2022 and until April 16, 2023, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London has been celebrating the richness of African fashion through the largest exhibition ever devoted to the topic in the United Kingdom. Over the past decade or so, the UK has been reconsidering its colonial past and Africa Fashion opens with a chronological, even political journey. Through materials and techniques, we discover the era of independence, the years of liberation, the great political, social and cultural transformations of the continent. For example, in 1957, just after announcing Ghana’s independence, President Kwame Nkrumah abandoned his European costume to wear a traditional kenté loincloth, a multicolored fabric with very pronounced patterns. The word kenté refers in particular to the silk fabric worn by the Asante and Ewe populations since at least the 17th century, mainly in the region of present-day Ghana.

The so precious kuba

In the exhibition, we discover part of the V&A’s fabric collection, representing the many innovations, evolutions and continuations of Africa’s long textile tradition.

We learn, for example, that aṣọ-òkè, woven by men, is divided into categories that, depending on the color, signify the status, age, or gender of the wearer: beige is associated with morality, woven with undyed natural silk, usually in combination with white cotton. Striped, dark red or magenta in cotton or silk suggests strength, bravery and protection from danger. Striped cotton or dark indigo and white checks conveys wealth, maturity and the high status of the wearer. Today, you can see this highlighted by Nigerian fashion designer Shade Thomas-Fahm, who’s a strong advocate of Nigerian textiles.

We discover kuba, made of hand-woven raffia palm fibers, often embroidered, dyed, appliquéd or otherwise decorated with distinctive geometric patterns after the weaving process. So precious, kuba was historically used as a form of currency within societies that are now found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bògòlanfini, an abstractly patterned fabric produced by the Banama in West Africa from vegetable dye and mud, was honored by Chris Seydou, one of the pioneers of contemporary African fashion, who died in 1994. Bògòlanfini became one of Seydou’s signatures, as he created his own fabric by disregarding the historical significance of the traditional patterns.

Indigo dye and Indonesian batik

The ankara fabric, with its bold colors and designs, originally produced in the Netherlands, was developed in West Africa in the late 19th century by Dutch companies for the Indonesian market. But Indonesia, attached to its traditional wax batik, disdained this resin printed imitation. However, ankara successfully reached the African market by adapting to local tastes, so much so that factories in Great Britain and the Netherlands started to produce the fabric for West African customers. Gradually, African competitors created their own, rival companies. In the midst of independence, the fabrics they developed included political symbols and slogans, reinforcing individual expression and national pride. Today, contemporary fashion designers such as Christie Brown and Lisa Folawiyo continue to highlight ankara in their work, reinventing it through innovative sewing techniques.

How can we not also mention àdìrẹ, an indigo-dyed fabric traditionally produced by Yoruba women in southwest Nigeria? The cotton backing is folded, sewn, or knotted before being dyed. The hidden areas, which resist dyeing, create the fabric’s distinctive blue and white patterns. Indigo dyeing has been practiced throughout West Africa for centuries and today, àdìrẹ is popularized by fashion brands such as Maki Oh, Lagos Space Program and Orange Culture.

On both levels of the exhibition, the creations of iconic designers from the mid-20th century, including Nigerians Alphadi and Shade Thomas-Fahm and Malian Chris Seydou, are featured alongside contemporary designers such as Nigerian Bubu Ogisi, whose brand Iamisigo honors fabrics and techniques from the continent. The minimalist aesthetics of Kenya-based Katush and Rwanda’s Moshions show that while the most popular African fabrics are the most colorful, the most meaningful are also the meekest.