“AFRICAN-PRINT FASHION NOW!
A STORY OF TASTE, GLOBALIZATION, AND STYLE”
CURATED BY SUZANNE GOTT, WITH KRISTYNE LOUGHRAN, BETSY D. QUICK, AND LESLIE W. RABINE
FOWLER MUSEUM AT UCLA
MARCH 26–JULY 30, 2017
MEMPHIS BROOKS MUSEUM OF ART
MUSEUM OF ARTS AND DESIGN
JUNE 7–SEPTEMBER 2, 2018
Developed by the Fowler Museum at UCLA, “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” introduces visitors to a dynamic and diverse African dress tradition and the increasingly interconnected fashion worlds that it inhabits: “popular” African-print styles created by local seamstresses and tailors across the continent; international runway fashions designed by Africa's newest generation of couturiers; and boundary-breaking, transnational, and youth styles favored in Africa's urban centers. All feature the colorful, boldly designed, manufactured cotton textiles that have come to be known as “African-print cloth.”
The exhibition explores the global stories of these textiles (Fig. 1)—the early history of the print cloth trade with West and Central Africa, the expansion of its production following independence movements, and the increasing popularity of Asianmade print cloths. Diverse popular styles from Ghana (Fig. 2), Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon, and Senegal are featured, as well as groundbreaking runway fashions by some of Africa's most talented couturiers—Ituen Basi, Gilles Touré (Fig. 3), Lanre da Silva Ajayi, Titi Ademola, Lisa Folawiyo, Dent de Man, Adama Paris, Patricia Waota, Ikiré Jones, and Afua Dabanka. Black-and-white photographic portraits display print fashions during the 1960s and 1970s, and works by contemporary photographers and artists incorporate African print to convey evocative messages about heritage, hybridity, displacement, and aspiration. Throughout the exhibition, African-print fashions are considered as creative responses to key historical moments and ever-changing stylistic preferences.
This is the first major museum exhibition to focus on fashions from the continent and diaspora that feature African-print cloth. It draws on the Fowler's collections, private loans, and the remarkable archives of the Dutch company Vlisco. The extensive Vlisco holdings include nineteenth- and early twentieth-centu ry cloths produced in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and post-independence Africa, as well as exhaustive historical records. Given the Fowler's stellar collections and its long and distinguished history of developing major international projects centering on textiles and other arts of Africa, this project fits squarely within the Museum's programmatic priorities. It is curated by Suzanne Gott with Kristyne Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine. “African-Print Fashion Now!” debuts at the Fowler Museum in spring 2017 and will travel to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in 2018.1
A major publication accompanies the exhibition, with a foreword by John Picton, afterword by Victoria L. Rovine, and contributions by the editors and twelve additional scholars from Africa, Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. With the goal of significantly enhancing existing scholarship on African textiles and fashion, the volume focuses exclusively on African-print fashion, its many dimensions and transformations. The authors bring original insights to the field by consciously and systematically mapping the diversity and exchanges among different African cultures. The first section focuses on the nineteenth-century origins and ongoing evolution of African-print textiles. It also highlights the transformation of Javanese batiks into a distinctive textile form shaped by West and Central Africa's diverse and discerning consumers. The second section addresses popular and designer African-print fashions, their intersections, and changing contemporary styles. In the final section, essays explore new developments in African-print marketing, the role of the Internet, and the relationship between other forms of contemporary art and African-print fashion.
AFRICAN-PRINT CLOTH: THE FOUNDATION OF AFRICAN-PRINT FASHION
African prints are a special category of manufactured cotton textiles. Their origins are traceable to the painted and block-printed cottons produced in India for the Indian Ocean trade as early as the late fourth century CE. By the eleventh century, these prints had inspired the development of handcrafted wax-resist batiks in Java. These in turn caught the eye of Dutch manufacturers who produced early nineteenth-century imitations, ultimately leading to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European development of so-called African prints for the West and Central African markets (Fig. 4).2 This development, as John Picton has insightfully observed, was “contingent upon a local agency with a far greater determining role than has hitherto been realized. … An African patronage [that] determined almost from the very outset what it wanted to see in these cloths” (1995:25, 29).
To succeed in Africa's lucrative but competitive textile trade, European producers of African-print cloth had to satisfy the preferences and changing tastes of African consumers while at the same time accommodating cultural diversity within West and Central Africa. Early Dutch, British, and Swiss manufacturers relied upon a variety of resources to develop designs and color ways suited to different regional markets. In addition to drawing inspiration from Indonesian batiks and Indian calicoes, their designers copied local African textiles, depicted culturally meaningful objects and symbols, and produced prints commemorating historical events and political leaders. European textile companies also actively sought guidance from African cloth traders who used their cultural expertise and commercial acumen to assess and influence the popularity of new African-print designs (Nielsen 1979; Steiner 1985; Picton 1995).
Decades of production specifically geared to local tastes and fashion trends had the effect of instilling a strong sense of ownership among African consumers. In fact, in some places, cloth was collected, and often saved, to such an extent that it became a significant repository of women's wealth. Africa's appropriation of print cloth as its own became especially evident during the mid-twentieth-century era of African independence, when local African-print ensemble styles gained new significance as expressions of national and Pan-African pride and identity (Beauchamp 1957; Picton 2001). Many newly independent West and Central African nations established their own African-print factories in partnership with established textile firms from Britain, Holland, Switzerland, Japan, China, and India (Fig. 5).3 Later, the West and Central African examples also served as inspiration for other nations seeking a form of national dress, such as Kenya and Zambia (Rabine 1997:149–51; Hansen 2000:82–83). In post-apartheid South Africa, West African print styles were among the new “visions of fashionableness” adopted to express an African identity and a connection to the continent as a whole (Klopper 2000:216–20).
Since the late 1980s and 1990s, however, African-print manufacturers in Africa and Europe have struggled to survive in the face of increasing challenges. These include a significant reduction in the purchasing power of most African consumers as a result of IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and SAP trade liberalization policies that have left African-print companies unprotected from a new flood of inexpensive Asian imports (Fig. 6). The even greater affordability of African prints made in Asia that arrive at duty-free ports and are smuggled across neighboring borders has seriously undercut the market for established African and European producers (Sylvanus 2008, 2013a; Axelsson 2012; Prag 2013). Despite the controversy over these Asian imports, it should be noted that their accessible price has breathed new life into local African-print fashion systems.
In assessing the place of African prints in African fashion, regional differences in value and significance have to be considered. In Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, and Togo, for example, African prints are at the center of local fashion systems (Gott 1994, 2009; Bickford 1995; Sylvanus 2013b). In other regions and countries, however, although African prints are worn, they are not the most sought-after textiles for fashion. In Senegal and Mali, hand-dyed cotton damask (basin) holds more value, while in Nigeria “African lace” (industrial embroidery produced for Africa) is more prestigious (Gardi 2000; Rabine 2002; Plankensteiner and Adediran 2010). In the twenty-first century, there are also expanding views as to what constitutes an “African print.” In Nigeria, for example, the new “African Inspired” Da Viva prints popular with West and Central African youth—which often feature smaller, uniform patterns unlike traditional African prints—may be classified as ankara, the same term used for African-print cloth.
POPULAR AFRICAN-PRINT FASHION
Following its introduction to West and Central African consumers, African-print cloth was initially adopted for use in regional styles. The most widespread of these combined local one- or two-piece wrappers with a European-inspired tailored blouse—a hybrid ensemble evident on the Gold Coast a century prior to the late nineteenth-century introduction of African-print cloth.4 In Ghana this ubiquitous style is known as kaba and slit, in Côte d'Ivoire as trois pagnes, in Senegal as pagne/marinière, and in Nigeria as iro and buba. In addition, two African-print dress styles developed: Cameroon's kaba ngondo and Sierra Leone's kaba sloht (see Gott 2005; Bickford 1995; Rabine 2002:29–33; Grabski 2009; and Wass and Broderick 1979).
Within Africa's local, yet globally engaged, “popular” fashion systems, stylish dress is a feature of daily life and one of the most widely practiced expressive forms. To understand these local fashion systems, however, particularly in regard to African print, a radical shift is needed in thinking about how fashionable dress comes into being and what drives changing style trends. African-print fashion, in particular, is rarely purchased off-the-rack. Unlike many parts of the highly industrialized world where new styles are produced as ready-to-wear—conventionally developed through a complex and often lengthy chain of design, production, and distribution—the creation of African-print fashion in Africa is an ever-changing, grassroots phenomenon.
New African-print styles are most often created locally in an interactive commissioning process between seamstresses and tailors and their fashion-conscious clientele (Gott 1994; Grabski 2009). Clients select and purchase cloth from market vendors or shops, and then commission a made-to-order style from a preferred seamstress or tailor. Styles reflect current trends, seamstress/tailor innovations, and the tastes of the wearer.
In the opening decades of the twenty-first century, runway fashions by African designers have inspired local seamstresses and tailors to create their own versions of designer styles. The proliferation of African-print dress styles influenced by recent trends in global youth styles and international runway fashions represents the incorporation of a new “designer” approach in these popular fashion systems. This is reflected in the similarities between the African-print runway styles in fashion magazines highlighting collections by African designers and the African-print dress styles in the “fashion calendars” produced for local seamstresses and tailors in countries such as Ghana and Nigeria. These new hybrid forms attest to the interrelatedness of popular and runway fashion worlds across West and Central Africa.
PORTRAITS IN PRINT
A fashion system is more than chic clothing, more even than well-dressed people displaying their sartorial know-how. In his authoritative book The Fashion System, Roland Barthes writes that it includes not only “real clothing” but also “symbolic clothing” and “imaginary clothing.” “Symbolic clothing” consists of written descriptions of dress; “imaginary clothing” consists of images—be they photographs, drawings, or paintings—of the clothed body (Barthes 1967:13–17). A mini-gallery in “African Print Fashion Now!” presents images by four portraitists from Africa's “golden age of black-and-white photography” (Wendl 2001:81). Although many viewers are familiar with Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibe, the gallery introduces four photographers from the same period who are equally worthy of attention: Francis K. Honny (1914–1998), Elmina, Ghana; Jacques Touselle (b. 1935), Studio Jacques, Mbouda, western Cameroon; Omar Ly (1943–2016), Studio Thioffy, Podor, northern Senegal; and Mory Bamba (b. 1949) Sikasso region, southeastern Mali.
In the 1960s and 1970s, studios like those belonging to Honny, Ly (Fig. 7), and Touselle abounded in cities across Africa. Enthused by portraiture, people in rural villages invited traveling photographers, like Bamba, to their communities. To sit for a portrait, people wore their best new clothes, while a “buzz of activity … accompanied a sitting” (Sow Fall 1999:63). Africans from different regions, from cities and rural villages, and of different religions engaged with the transcontinental exchanges of African print to transform themselves into their local ideal of the fashionable self.
In one photograph by Mory Bamba from around 1978, a chic foursome dispels stereotypes of African village life (Fig. 8). The two women wear fitted, flounced, intricately tailored African-print dresses over handwoven wrappers. They also wear the elaborate jewelry long associated with rural Peulh (Fulani) peoples. One young woman blends her modish dress and her tradition-based wrapper and jewelry with cool John Lennon-style sunglasses. Her male companion has wound a magnificent turban of African print. In creative hybrids of Peulh fashion and custom, these subjects sweep away the Eurocentric opposition between fashion and so-called ethnic dress.
AFRICAN-PRINT FASHION ON THE RUNWAY
Contemporary African designers from the continent, as well as those living in the diaspora, employ diverse and innovative approaches to the African-print sartorial aesthetic and have stunned international audiences with their stately gowns, architectural cuts, and sinuous silhouettes. Their exuberant fashions are characterized by the consistent interplay between striking graphics and explosive color. Their oeuvres also embody attitudes toward fashion that are based on local conventions and at the same time represent a determined engagement with global trends and novelty. These influences in no way cancel one another out; instead, they build upon long-established connections among African, Asian, European, and Atlantic worlds to produce new and remarkable results. The designers and their works are powerful conduits of African style, participating in both formal and informal twenty-first-century fashion networks.
Top designers working in Africa today, such as Ituen Basi (Fig. 9), Titi Ademola, and Gilles Touré, generate fashion shows that all share the fast-paced and polished performances expected from such events wherever they may take place. The presentations are choreographed, tight, and exciting. In turn, their clients choose their labels, not only in the hope of being up-to-date and fashionable but also to partake in the aura created around the brand—whether it is sophisticated, daring, or edgy. Today's designers sell to their clients from their ateliers, as well as in boutiques in malls. Many have also fashioned media-rich online platforms on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which disseminate and publicize their creations globally. Those African designers who have established their primary places of work outside of Africa aim at a high-end clientele and/or a younger one.
Despite these successes, African designers at home and abroad face many challenges. Ituen Basi, who was interviewed in 2013 for Vogue's Fashion Dubai Experience event, spoke about the global success of Nigerian fashion designers while adding that, “production is tough, very difficult … because we have issues with the infrastructure.”5 Even with the battles designers face, their growing success and visibility are encouraging and reflect their determination.
African-print designs have gone through many cycles of rebirth in response to political, economic, cultural, and aesthetic trends. Designs fade in and out of popularity, shift from small to big, and transition from abstract and geometric to representational. It is perhaps their transformative potential that makes them particularly fascinating to the design world. By using prints in their collections, African fashion designers have played a major role in giving these textiles importance at a different level in the twenty-first century. Their stunning African-print fashions reveal the continued importance of print cloth as a symbol of identity capable of bringing to the wearer a sense of belonging, shared history, and community.
AFRICAN PRINTS IN CONTEMPORARY ART
Going beyond a concern for authenticity, many young designers and artists in “African Print Fashion Now!” explore the historical ambiguities and cultural hybridity of African print. For example, Dakar artist Docta uses pieces of African print in his graffiti writing. He consciously refers to African print as ambiguous, “this textile that we use in Africa even though it's not made in Africa.” In the same interview, however, he says that African print “reflects … the Africa of old, … this Africa I dream of, the Africa of values and virtues that my ancestors had—sharing, respect for the other, dignity, sociality, justice, the spirit of tolerance …. We base ourselves on our history in order to go forward, to have a better Africa.”5 African print comes to Docta and his fellow urban artists from China; it also comes to him imbued with all the meanings and emotions his parents and grandparents have bestowed upon it.
As this mix of foreign origin, Chinese manufacture, and cherished African inheritance, African print perfectly represents what Kinshasan artist Eddie Ilunga Kamuanga calls “hybridism.” “Through my painting,” he explains, “I ask about the influence of cultural diversity and globalization on our society.”7 He does not use the actual cloth in his art. Instead, he obtains cloth from Kinshasa's main market in order to paint the resplendent, deeply saturated draperies that clothe his images of Mangbetu peoples in anguished poses (Fig. 10). With remarkable precision, Kamuanga at once meticulously copies and utterly transforms classic African prints. Also concerned with both heritage and hybridity, Nigerian-American artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby combines layers of cloth, images of cloth, and photo-transfers of cloth in her domestic scenes. For her exhibited autobiographical work, Nyado: The Thing Around Her Neck (2011; Fig. 11), Akunyili adapts and wears her own dress by Lisa Folawiyo, a Nigerian designer whose work also appears in the exhibition (Fig. 12).
Docta, Kamuanga, and Akunyili Crosby use African print to carry a cherished and threatened past into an uncertain present. The prints most strikingly embody a thirst for the past when the artists experiment with contemporary forms of graffiti, collage, or photo transfer. Kamuanga couples the painted cloth with markings from ancient and modern languages, which he calls a “visual Esperanto inspired by our transcultural reality.”8
In Hassan Hajjaj's mixed-media Rock Star series, print cloth also expresses hybridity and temporality. This artist pays homage to his upbringing in Morocco, to memories of street photography, and at the same time to his present transnational lifestyle. Hajjaj says his association with print cloth arises mostly from his time in London, “where he found it a “caricature of Africa.” Some of his Rock Stars dress in their own style, and others wear fashions he has designed. “I don't want them to be fashion pictures, but I want them to have fashion in them.” Speaking of the portraits, now some four hundred or so, he desires them to stand as “documents of a time, and a person … of the past, now, and the future.”9
DECENTERING AND EXPANDING FASHION
From made-to-order tailoring to images of fashionable villagers, “African-Print Fashion Now!” transcends Eurocentric understandings of fashion systems. It also helps to redirect the way designers, consumers, and scholars locate global fashion. The conventional map of fashion revolves around Paris, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, and New York as the globally recognized centers of fashion design and dissemination. African-print fashion incorporates these cities into a more expansive mapping that includes locales such as Lagos, Abidjan, Accra, and Dakar, as well as smaller African cities and towns where creativity flourishes. Popular and runway fashion in all of these spaces cross-fertilize each other, often bypassing the conventional “world fashion cities” (Gilbert 2006). In contrast to the dominant fashion system of Paris/London/New York, designers of African-print fashion manage to create dynamic businesses in struggling neocolonial economies. These designers are all the more admirable for innovating even while lacking formal institutions, material resources, financial backing, or reliable infrastructure.
WALKING THROUGH THE EXHIBITION
The exhibition is organized into five distinct sections and presents some sixty tailored fashions, one hundred archival and contemporary cloths, twenty framed photographs, a number of runway videos, and seven works by contemporary artists. Interpretive text documents a brief history of African-print cloth, discusses the fashion systems in which local seamstresses and tailors work, and illuminates the trajectory of international African-print fashion as well as the convergence of art and fashion.
Three iconic genres of contemporary African-print fashion open the exhibition in the “Introduction”: a “popular” style that is deeply embedded in a regions fashion history; an African fashion designer's style for the international runway; and a newly developed local style especially admired by younger African women. Commissioned for the exhibition, a three-piece complet from Cote d'Ivoire contrasts with a knee-length youth style from Ghana. An evening gown of ankara and lace by Nigerian designer Lanre da Silva Ajayi is an elegant testimony to the incredible diversity that defines the genre today.
The first section, “African-Print Fashion Begins with Cloth,” addresses the development of African-print textiles, initially inspired by Javanese batiks, and their entry into local fashions. A dense display of some sixty cloths manufactured in Europe, Africa, and Asia presents museum visitors with the vibrant medley of colors and designs found in open-air markets and cloth shops. This is accompanied by a timeline of cloth production across these regions. Archival photographs reveal the early history of the marketing and wearing of African prints, first as wrapped fashions (Fig. 13) and then in tailored ensembles.
“Made in Europe” features historical and contemporary prints by the Dutch company Vlisco and historical prints from A Brunnschweiler and Company's Greater Manchester factory and the Hohlenstein Textildruckerei of Glarus, Switzerland, while “Made in Africa” displays prints produced in West and Central African factories following independence. It also examines new approaches to production and design that emerged as competitive strategies in the face of the early twenty-first-century onslaught of cheaper Asian-manufactured African prints. “Made in Asia” includes a selection of cloths, often in classic African-print designs, that rarely reveal their true origins, instead displaying dubious trademarks and selvage identification (Fig. 14).
“What Is an African Print?” defines the term and distinguishes true “wax-print” cloth from “fancy prints” produced by more conventional roller and rotary-screen printing processes. The wax-resist technique unfolds with examples at various stages in the dyeing and printing process, as well as historical photographs documenting factory production. We use “African print” as a term to embrace a textile with many regional names: ntoma or ntama in Ghana, pagne in Togo, Benin, and Côte d'Ivoire, le wax in Senegal and Mali, ankara in Nigeria, chitenge in Zambia, and kitenge in Kenya. The kanga of East Africa (lamba hoany in Madagascar), while a fascinating print, traces its genealogy to other sources than Indonesian batik and Dutch or British trade routes.10
Early cloths, enduring “classics,” and the latest innovative designs attest to the continuing agency of African consumers and traders in shaping changing fashions and preferences in African-print design. The ever-popular genre of commemorative or “occasional” cloths honor, commemorate, and/or publicize political campaigns, life and death events, moments of solidarity, social issues, and historic occasions (Spencer 1982; Faber 2010; Bishop 2014).
Among the several commemorative cloths exhibited, one stands out for special mention because it endures as a classic of the genre. In 1957 Ghana's first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, and the nation's independence were celebrated in a cloth inscribing his portrait, the new Ghanaian flag, and the motto “Freedom and Justice” (Fig. 15). First designed by the United Africa Company's Accra office as a gift to the Nkrumah government, the cloth was then printed by Vlisco in Helmond (Faber 2010). This is one of two Nkrumah commemorative cloths in the Fowler Museum collection; the second example promotes his campaign for president in 1960. Some forty-four years later, a participant in Cape Coast's 2004 Fetu Afahye Festival wore the latter cloth as a statement of pride (Fig. 16), attesting to its value and historical relevance, and as an evocation of political memory.
As we step into section two, “Portraits in Print,” we leave the brightly colored world of actual African-print fashion and enter the more intimate, black-and-white space of memory. In addition to Mory Bamba (described earlier), this mini-gallery of mid-twentieth-century photography introduces Omar Ly to audiences in the United States. Ly memorialized a very different group of Peulh villagers along the Senegal River (Fig. 7). Here, adults wore the classic Senegalese grand boubou in print cloth made in Dakar's Sotiba factory11 These images where people pose “without drama, without oppression” (Chapuis 2009), where the hot desert wind visibly blows through a boubou, contrast sharply with the “cool” elegance of Francis K. Honny's studio portraits from coastal urban Ghana (Wendl 2001:81).
With their smooth retouched faces and their harmonious printed clothing, subjects in Honny's photographs often pose together in identical cloth—a married couple, a mother and child, two women (Fig. 17). Honny poses them so that the cloths come together, seemingly as one continuous piece. Subjects seem “to be wrapped up in one cloth. The integrity of the rhythmically repeated textile patterns has been preserved” (Wendl 2001:85). Further inland, Jacques Touselle photographs Cameroonian subjects in a range of styles from casual African print wrappers with T-shirts to three-piece dress-up outfits that swathe a woman from head to toe. In one particularly intriguing photo (circa 1977, Fig. 18), the woman proudly wears a cloth perhaps commemorating the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 1977. What is the story behind this cloth choice in a former French colony? Each photographic subject in this gallery is “an absolute particular” individual (Chapuis 2009:n.p.).
Visitors next enter the world of local, contemporary African-print fashion. Now, as in the mid-twentieth-century images, taste and style vary greatly from place to place—and section three, “Regional Styles and Fashion Preferences,” will present a remarkable diversity of print cloth styles from across the continent.
Many exhibition visitors may be surprised to learn that in West and Central Africa, patrons first shop for and select their cloth, and then work directly with a seamstress or tailor to create distinctive, individualized fashions. “Creating Fashion in Kumasi” reveals the inner workings of one urban popular fashion system and new directions in the creation of African-print fashion. Selected styles dating from 1990 to 2013 are displayed, a few on hand-painted hangers and mannequins, as well as in colorful “fashion calendars” featuring the latest styles.
The biographies and African-print styles of four Ghanaian fashion specialists are presented: Ms. Victoria Dadie is a skilled and sought-after seamstress who keeps pace with Kumasi's continually changing fashion scene. She expresses her love for striking, labor-intensive ribbon work on each of the kaba and slit ensemble styles she created for the exhibition (Fig. 19). James Adu's skillfully styled fashions are distinguished by details of cut and design. He is also active in the Ghana National Tailors and Dressmakers Association that works to strengthen the profession, with new initiatives for apprentice training and the establishment of a national examination and Master's Certificate program.
Regina Konadu's fashions capture the new African-print styles of the younger generation. The dresses she created for the exhibition feature classic lines that foreground her skill in working with African-print designs. In her fashions, Mrs. Eunice Owusu-Antwi—a member of the Faculty of Art in the Department of Industrial Art (Textiles) of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology—combines innovative design with expert construction. She worked with her colleagues to establish a Fashion Design program that held its inaugural fashion show in April 2016.
This section also presents some of the most popular and enduring African-print styles from other geographical regions: the taille basse and pagne/marinière of Senegal; the trois pagnes of Côte d'Ivoire; the iro and buba of Nigeria; and the kaba ngondo of Cameroon. Exhibition curators and others directed by the Fowler commissioned these fashions in consultation with African women in the relevant countries or in the local expatriate community in Los Angeles. Youth fashion is included, featuring shorter skirt styles, the use of less expensive Asianmade cloth, accessories of all varieties (Fig. 20), and evidence of transnational style sharing (Figs. 21–22) across social media platforms via cell phone photos.
In Côte d'Ivoire, local styles attest to the dynamic bustle of fashion creativity: stylist Nicole Amien crafts a made-to-order ruffled style from Mali using her client's phone snapshot; stylist Béatrice Manovan pulls out a spectacular one-of-a-kind prêt-à-porter ensemble from a mass of fashions in her boutique (Fig. 23); a corner seamstress displays a perky Angelina dress on the unpaved street. These and more are available to a very fashion-conscious public.
In Dakar, where young women have favored the print taille-basse since independence, seamstresses update this two-piece fitted style. The trendy box-pleated peplum is now all the rage. In Figure 24, Fatima Ly even ties the traditional headscarf in a bold, original, decidedly nontraditional hipster bandeau.
In dialogue with these local fashions, three portraits by contemporary artists reference mid-twentieth-century studio portraiture (see above) while making decidedly new contributions to African-print fashion imagery. Photographers Hassan Hajjaj (b. Morocco), Omar Victor Diop (b. Senegal), and Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou (b. 1965, Porto-Novo, Benin) present African print in clever, often moving, sometimes amusing, evocations of revered Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibe. Agbodjelou further blurs pastiche and homage in his Musclemen series, where he deploys African-print clothing and decor to defy gender stereotypes (Fig. 25). These visual counterpoints to the fashions and the photographs of the 1970s remind visitors that the complex cross-fertilization connecting art, fashion, and self-presentation flourishes into the present.
Bridging regional styles with transnational art and fashion networks, these three artists provide a transition to section 4, “New Directions.” Here the work of contemporary African fashion designers interacts with Vlisco's twenty-first-century identity as an innovative fashion brand. “On the Runway” features stars from Africa's newest generation of designers who bring the print style to the attention of the international fashion world in collections showcased at fashion weeks in Africa, Europe, and North America. Fashions are accompanied by designer biographies and video footage of their runway collections.
In Nigeria, Ituen Basi, who trained at the London College of Fashion, creates dresses and gowns with explosive color combinations, originality, and playfulness. The red gown in the exhibition, from her Independence collection, features stitched cloth strands that move and sway when walking, bringing the garment to life (see Fig. 9). Nigerian designer Lisa Folawiyo, who in 2005 became one of the first African fashion designers to use African-prints in her collections, combines African-print textiles with elegant tailoring and beaded embellishments (see Fig. 12). Gilles Touré, awarded the Ordre du Mérite Ivoirien in 2013, is renowned for his sophisticated evening gowns, mastery in the art of draping, and trademark combinations of textiles, such as the exhibition's wax-print gown with sequined tulle (see Fig. 3). Ivorian Alexis Temomanin, who launched the Dent de Man brand in London, uses African print in superbly tailored menswear ranging from Savile Row-style suiting (Fig. 26) to Indian-inspired skirted and belted jackets.
Adama Amanda Ndiaye for Adama Paris typifies the Senegalese sartorial aesthetic by cutting up African print for appliqués on a handwoven gown (Fig. 27). She has been instrumental in raising the visibility of African fashion designers through Black Fashion Week events. Ghanaian designer Titi Ademola, who trained at the London College of Fashion, returned to Accra to set up her brand, KIKI Clothing. Her “Made in Ghana” designs juxtapose vibrant colors and patterns to create elegant and easy-going designs (Fig. 28). Ghanaian Afua Dabanka created the Mo Saique shoe brand in London in 2011. Her shoe designs highlight bold colors and prints, classical lines, and beautiful decorative elements such as beads and feathers.
Many of these designers have worked on Vlisco's rebranding into fashion advertising and marketing campaigns. But in-house designers have also created memorable fashions, like a short dress with panniers evoking gowns worn by the elite in eighteenth-century France or an open-skirted dress with slim pencil pants (Fig. 29). These avant-garde ensembles, created by former Vlisco senior fashion and concept designer Inge van Lierop, promote Vlisco's brand identity in quarterly campaigns featuring live fashion shows, social media Web pages, and prominent billboards in African cities. Vlisco made this radical shift in response to the ascendancy of low-cost African prints, from Chinese factories.
Visitors will be reminded of how different generations can interpret popular print designs, as with Angelina, the Vlisco pattern of 1963. Fashionable in the 1960s for dashiki styles in the African diaspora, Angelina is once again everywhere, in markets as diverse as London and Dakar and dominating the Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest/Tumblr/blogosphere. Dresses, bags, pillow covers, cell phone covers, sandals, and espadrilles all feature this ubiquitous cloth—variously known as Addis Ababa, Miriam Makeba, and Dashiki. Angelina also appeared, for example, as a costume element and signifier of Africa on stage, in the Isango Ensemble's performance of The Magic Flute in Santa Monica, California, at the Broad Stage in 2015. Lastly, a huge hit on the Internet and now spawning a new generation of African-style prom dresses is the Angelina gown created in 2015 by New Jersey high school student Kyemah McEntyre (Fig. 30). It will be featured in the exhibition along with her new Mind of Kye Signature Dress.
The exhibition closes with works by Eddy Ilunga Kamuanga (see Fig. 10) and designer Walé Oyéjidé (b. Nigeria) (Fig. 31) working with muralist Lekan Jeyifo (b. Nigeria). In the Africa 2081 A.D. series of on-line stories, accompanied by murals, Oyéjidé and Jeyifo redress a cruel past and at the same time recount fantastic tales of promising futures in reimagined African globalized cites, including Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Lagos. Oyéjidé writes that this series “scrutinize[es] aspects of present-day African society, and attempt[s] to telegraph their ripple effects in the far-flung future.” Kamuanga, using print-cloth imagery to clothe his figures of Mangbetu people, blends a longing to preserve a threatened heritage with his enthusiasm for contemporary urban pop art. Oyéjidé, too, reflects on cloth's heavy task as a medium but presents his ankara-inspired fashions within a larger written and imagistic narrative of history, articulating anew Africa's presence in the world, and asserting a revolutionary image of Africa moving forward: “There is elegance; even in the way we carry burdens that would bury most men.”12 The many works featured throughout the exhibition demonstrate the vital role that African print has played in the expression of beauty, fashion, and heritage, while creating transcultural connections across Africa and into the larger world.
This exhibition has been funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.
For the early history of Indian cottons in the Indian Ocean trade and their influence on the development of Javanese batiks, see: Wild and Wild 2005; Christie 1998:354–57; Clarence-Smith 2009:127–33; and Prakash 2009:157. For nineteenth-century Dutch development of imitation roller-print and wax-resist batiks for Javanese consumers, followed by the late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century shift to the development of roller-print and resin-resist “wax” prints for West and Central African markets, see: Legêne and Waaldijk 2001; Kroese 1976; Picton 1995; and Ankersmit 2010.
An early illustration of this new composite style can be found in a British woman's account of her early nineteenth-century travels along the West African coast (Lee 1835: pl. facing 291, caption 366). A drawing by Mrs. Sarah Bowdich Lee (née Wallis), probably dating 1815–1817, shows a stylish “Fantee mulatto woman” attired in a European, or European-inspired, blouse and local wrapped skirt featuring the distinctive Fante àtòfò bustle. The sophistication of this woman's ensemble suggests that the development of this hybrid style began sometime prior to the nineteenth century
Interview footage, “Designers ITUEN BASI Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience 2013,” February 19, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLPmLtkwqfQ; accessed March 14, 2016.
Docta, interview, Gorée Island, Senegal, April 20, 2014.
Eddie Ilunga Kamuanga, interview with Culture Congo, http://culturecongo.com/eddy-ilunga-kamuanga/, accessed July 29, 2016.
Hassan Hajjaj, personal communication with Betsy D. Quick, May 14, 2015.
Omar Ly, personal communication with Leslie W. Rabine, April 20, 2015.
Ikirejones.com, http://ikirejones.com/fw16-after-migration-editorial/z8sa7pykpnz2ljtzhmc18f2e1x-b7ak, accessed August 6, 2016.