Victoria Rovine's African Fashion, Global Style is an exciting and elegant publication which signals the arrival of a vital new sub-field in African art history: fashion studies. Being the first book-length study on this subject, it will resituate and reenergize our discipline for years to come; not only it is about a subject so fundamentally connected into people's daily lives and dreams but also the designers and brands presented here stand out as potent new icons of African art. They might even change how we see and what we see as contemporary African art.
Fashion matters—it really does. Rovine will bring into your classroom or living room the power of some superb African artists, their popular brands, and their sometimes eye-popping high-fashion creations. To highlight a very few, consider Amaka Osakwe, creator of Maki Oh, high priestess of the hyper-feminine, and the remarkable Hamidou Seydou Harira, both from Nigeria. From the striking and distinct aesthetics of Salah Barka from Tunisia and the uniquely complex constructions by Charlotte Mbatsogo from Cameroon to the unforgettable Ben Nonterah of Accra, Ghana, and Paris-based Lamina Kouate's Xuly Bet—eh! Your classroom—perhaps even your wardrobe, your brain—will surely never be the same again.
The first chapter begins with the Ghana Boys in Africa, all together apropos considering that they were icons of mobility and modernity who introduced dramatic innovations into local embroidery traditions by incorporating figurative imagery—and that Bamako and Timbuktu were ancient centers of African cosmopolitanism. The second chapter is aptly titled “Nubia in Paris” for the immediate association it draws to the power of superficial exoticism. It returns us to the politics of textile history in the colonial period and stitches history and fashion forward by illustrating, among others, a signature work of Christine Dior Haute Couture designed by John Galliano, arresting in its precise African referents. In the following three chapters Rovine goes on to show how classically recognizable local textile forms, once themselves imported and adapted innovations, have been reinvented. In the fourth chapter, she explores “conceptual fashions” which involve more subtle evocations of Africa through techniques such as stitching, recycling, and reference. In the fifth and final chapter, she describes the history of particular brands in recent South African fashion industry—the Sun Goddess, MaXhosa, Darkie and Stone Cherrie. From the transformations that explain the isishweshwe textile traditions and the local history of the A-line, the Xhosa-inspired artistry of Themba and Vanya Mangaliso and Laduma Ngxokolo, to Nkhensani Manganyi Nkosi's Sophiatown lively chic, the material delights.
Rovine delivers an insightful review of academic discussions of African modernities and how fashion can reorder time through liberational forms. The avant-garde creativity of Carlo Gibson and Ziemek Pater and their performance collaboration with Neliswe Xaba in Strangelove—the tragic historical drama of Sara Baartman (the “Hottentot Venus”) stands out—so much so that it takes things to a whole other level. Similarly, in her discussions of other conceptual works, such as the radically unconventional activist fashion of Paris-based Sakina Ms'a seeking reconnection with Africa and Lamina Kouyate's striking subversive transformations with the Xuly Bet label, Rovine draws together signature theoretical debates about modernity and tradition while carefully and productively engaging previous scholarship.
In the last chapter, Rovine deftly explores the role that the media, magazines, and fashion shows play, concluding that Afropolitans bypass the categories of “African” and “traditional” through the power of “contamination.” Yet here, where the book's central theoretical proposition begins and ends with Kwame Anthony Appiah's use of the term “contamination,” I feel that his formulation could have been more substantially qualified. The general contemporary usage of the word “contamination” refers to infection, that is, to a foreign substance or idea sullying or poisoning a condition of purity. When Appiah (2006) uses the term “contamination” he is drawing on the original meaning as used for the work Roman comedian Publius Terentius Afer, who wrote his plays by translating and stitching together multiple Greek plays into Latin fusions (see “The Case for Contamination,” New York Times, January 1, 2006). It is an important point, as many casual readers might automatically conceive of the term in its contemporary use. In fact, for Appiah and Rovine it is a counter-ideal to purity. It is a process of endless imitation and revision, a celebration of hybridity in which no traditions are pure to begin with, especially considering how so many of the most iconic African textile traditions are themselves adapted imported inventions made local. In stretching out the emerging notion of Afropolitanism so central to this book, although Appiah's position is indeed the perfect starting and ending point, one could perhaps equally effectively use T.S. Eliot's (1921) notion of creativity and/or the concepts of bricolage, mettissage, and reassemblage.
That aside, by situating these ongoing academic debates over traditions in the context of so many arresting and novel images, this lavishly illustrated book cannot fail but to supercharge discussions on the cultural productivity of fashion. Future work could extend Rovine's analysis of such highly mediatized society and markets by taking up the relevant theoretical and methodological issues raised by Adam Arvidsson (2006) while deepening the historical analysis through considering fashion in relation to commodity culture, colonialism, and modernity (see Burke 2008). There one could also engage the all-important materials in The Handbook of Fashion Studies (Black et al. 2013, not cited by Rovine) where Sarah Fee (2013) emphatically cautions us to always keep foremost in our minds that objects do not tell stories, that meaning is always a matter of interpretation brought to the object.
Considering the essential role notes play in academic texts and the latent power of archives, future such publications should ideally provide the relevant archive data in a dedicated web site, as is so effectively done these days in ethnomusicology (see Zilberg 2016). For instance, if videos of the fashion shows were provided, readers would be able to get some sense of the visceral experience of the frisson of the ramp, the music, and the all-important performance art component. Rovine does effectively describe such creatively choreographed experience in places but leaves me wanting more. Consider the vital discussion on the Maki Oh 2012 video in the opening paragraph and the first four notes in that first chapter. The link for the two notes on the Makhi Oh Collection, metropolitan African seduction, and the Lagos Reds, is defunct. The discussion and quotes regarding Amake Osawe's inspiration in Matisse is not to be found in the link provided at note 4. The video itself cannot be found on the Internet. Even the website for the Sun Goddess brand no longer exists. Fortunately the new Fashionomics Initiative with the B2B Haute Fashion Africa website launched by the African Development Bank in 2015 provides some useful archival data and Xuly Bet has a significant web-based archival presence.
Minor criticisms aside, then, particularly for instance in the jarring juxtaposition between the blurred quality of many of the author's photographs (particularly the cover image) and the professional fashion photographs, this fascinating academic study provides a ramp to an expanded future in which the concept of fashion will perhaps be increasingly identified as a driver of past traditions. Seamlessly bringing together the historical study of diverse fusions of the “popular,” “elite,” and “traditional” arts into the center of a vivid new African art history, it is relatively easy to read, entertaining yet serious. It will make a lively and compelling addition to any introductory survey or graduate class in fashion studies or African art, history, and culture. A blast of fresh air for the discipline, Rovine's book is a game changer. Her work on how African fashion tells stories will be sure to inspire debate and further research.