The general museum-going public may have little idea of how vibrant and contemporary Africa really is. Thanks to exhibitions such “Kabas and Couture: Contemporary Ghanaian Fashion,” viewers can see firsthand that African fashion systems are dynamic, changing, and thoroughly of-the-moment (Fig. 1).
Guest curated by Christopher Richards, University of Florida alumnus, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Creative Arts of Africa in Johannesburg, and most recently Assistant Professor of Art History at Brooklyn College, the exhibition is based on his dissertation—the culture of fashion in Accra, Ghana from 1953–2013 (Richards 2014); Susan Cooksey, Curator of African Art at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, served as organizing curator. Although Richards gently nods to historical precedents, including garments and textiles that serve as inspiration, his focus is largely on the recent haute couture fashion industry centered in Accra.
“Kabas and Couture” makes its focal point what many recent exhibitions include only as supporting evidence. In the last five years, at least two dozen exhibitions have focused on African textiles and dress, and many have displayed contemporary haute couture as an example of formally trained designers' use of African textiles. This exhibition instead takes couture designs as its theme, explaining only briefly the textiles used to construct each garment. The exhibition is also among the first to focus specifically on a fashion scene in one African country, moving away from continentwide or Western-centric approaches to fashion. This concentrated approach is appealing for experts and novices alike, for an exhibition devoted to one fashion scene sets the stage for others to follow as scholars increasingly turn their attention to historical and contemporary African fashion (Rovine 2015, Hansen and Madison 2013, Gott and Loughran 2010).
Balancing historical and contemporary, men's and women's, everyday and haute couture fashion is a challenge for any scholar who seeks to contribute to this growing field. In an exhibition, the difficulty of striking this balance often leads to presumed dichotomies. “Kabas and Couture” is heavily weighted in favor of couture designs of the last six years, relegating everyday fashions to the periphery of the gallery, and women's garments also greatly outnumber men's.
The rotunda gallery presents eight women's haute couture and ready-to-wear garments from 2009–2014 by a generation of formally trained Ghanaian fashion designers born in the 1970s and 1980s (Fig. 2). The designers combine wax print, kente, lace, leather, satin, and tulle with other fabrics and embellishments to create their signature looks. Two twentieth-century men's garments—wrapped kente and a batakari tunic (Fig. 3)—adorn mannequins at the outskirts of the exhibition to provide historical precedents. The central two garments highlighted in front of the lime-green statement wall act as the fulcrum for the exhibition: in displaying two late 1960s women's garments from the Chez Julie clothing line by Juliana Norteye, Richards establishes her as the first formally trained, post-independence Ghanaian fashion designer. He credits her with two important firsts in Ghana: the first designer to create tailored kente fashions (Fig. 4) and the first to transform the practice of wrapping cloth into tailored, ready-to-wear garments. The historical importance of Norteye's contributions is underlined by the inclusion of enlarged archival photographs of models wearing these Chez Julie garments in the late 1960s, but the divorced presentation of garments in front of the statement wall and imagery at the back right wall of the rotunda limits the impact of this pairing.
Chez Julie and the included designs set the stage for the younger generation of formally trained fashion designers, who now work in a flourishing fashion industry, made evident through the film by FashionistaGH. The 34-minute video montage, projected on the reverse of the statement wall, splices together footage from various fashion events in Accra between 2011 and 2014. From behind-the-scenes at runway shows to photo shoots, popup stalls and boutiques, the fashion world extends beyond designer clothing to include stylists, models, photographers, and of course, consumers. The film ably brings garments to life amid the glitz and glamour of the exclusive fashion world.
Whether to counter, parallel, or balance the elite Ghanaian fashion industry, the exhibition incorporates another more egalitarian fashion sphere: the realm of the kaba. Worn by the majority of Ghanaian women, the kaba is an ensemble comprising a custom-made blouse, skirt, and wrapper or shawl. In a small gallery off the front right of the rotunda, Richards presents a recreated fabric stall and tailor's studio (Fig. 5). Similar to those across Africa, “Auntie Emily's Fabrics & Fashion” displays a sample kente kaba on a dress form and an array of printed fabrics in front of a workbench and sewing machine, which give the impression that Auntie Emily has just stepped out of her studio. Calendars and fashion posters present an assortment of cut and style options to inspire would-be customers commissioning their own tailor-made garments. The inclusion of painted signs and women's two-dimensional busts, which double as clothes hangers for kaba ensembles, invoked market stalls, but no discussion of buying cloth, haggling over price and quality, commissioning garments, measuring, constructing, and tailoring kaba—which all build relationships between customers and tailors—was included. In addition to a site of commerce, tailors' studios are often a site of trading news and gossip and a place for people to gather informally. These experiences are common to shopping in Africa but foreign to Western practices of buying off-the-rack with little genuine interaction between patron and proprietor. While these differences could be inferred from the immersive experience of the recreated tailor's shop, I wonder if the majority of viewers understood the two quite distinct fashion realms presented in the exhibition and how these realms do (or do not) overlap.
The accompanying 14-page catalogue, free of charge, provides a more detailed account of the five labels included in the exhibition: Chez Julie by Juliana Norteye, Pistis by Kabutey Dzietror and Sumaiya Mohammed (Fig. 6), Christie Brown by Aisha Ayensu, Ajepomaaa Design Gallery by Ajepomaa Mensah, and BM by Brigitte Merki. It also includes studio photographs of the ten designer garments, though omits the two clutch purses by Aya Morrison (Fig. 7) and three bib necklaces by Christie Brown on view in the gallery. Additionally, Richards briefly chronicles two kaba fashions in the latter part of his essay: the “Jaguar” of the 1950s and the resurgence of kaba designs during the 1990s thanks to First Lady Nana Konadu Ageyman Rawlings. These two vignettes, drawn from periodicals and personal interviews, go beyond generalizations of kaba variations and indicate the wealth of research yet to be undertaken to chronicle changing fashions; both could have been more prominently included in the exhibition's display.
Four kaba ensembles were available for viewers to try on, complete with a mirror to admire and a social media appeal to share the experience, #kabasandcouture (Fig. 8). Gallery guides geared towards younger viewers introduce the kaba garment and wax-print designs, while wall text and archival imagery further explain the history and significance of ensemble and cloth. These choices presented some challenges for viewers, such as the tension between the interactive (try me on) and the restrictive (please do not touch). The odd shape of the gallery also divorced the kabas and wax prints from their supporting wall text, and the quality of reproduced archival photographs was disappointing. The exhibition's design, including font, color, and accent walls, could have been more cohesive throughout, and while the stanchions surrounding the mannequins were crucial to keep visitors from touching the couture garments, the shadows cast over object labels made for difficult reading.
Exhibitions in general are most effective when they provide transformative experiences for their viewers. This exhibition is at its best when the garments—both kabas and couture—elicited animated conversation, imaginings, and interaction of visitors. The exhibition presents a thoroughly contemporary face to Africa and offers a focus on one country's fashion scene, suggesting a level of specificity and establishment that deny over-generalizations about the continent of Africa. From the first impact to lasting impressions, Richards chose to present couture garments as creative achievements over elucidating the tensions between kabas and couture in contemporary Ghana (Fig. 9). By taking fashion as its focus, “Kabas and Couture” signals a shift toward increasing research on fashion as subject of study and exhibition fodder, for fashion can equally be the bearer of historical and cultural importance while also serving as seductive visual objects.