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A spotlight on Britain’s colonial history through art

Written by Diahanne Rhiney

It was great to be out to celebrate the first ever dedicated ‘Africa Fashion’ exhibition looking at the sartorial history of the entire continent that opened in London at the iconic Victoria & Albert Museum. 

And especially after Covid, meeting and socialising in person felt so good.  As I expected – the VIP evening didn’t disappoint. From the first sight of a snaking line of guests that wrapped themselves around the building in anticipation of the event to the banter of excitement and merriment amongst the crowd, this was indeed a ‘special’ occasion.

The showcase of designers mixing the past with the present together with the continent’s diverse cultures and heritage brought together the personal stories of Africa’s unique talent through curated photographs, textiles, music, visual arts, and catwalk footage to the centre stage of a global framework.  It was gratifying to see the depth and volume of guests from the world of fashion, law, food and so much more including Fashion Designer Oswald Boateng, Chef/Presenter Andi Oliver, TV/radio Presenter Miquita Oliver, Campaigner Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Lawyer/business woman Margaret Casley-Hayford, and Actor Charles Venn to name a few.

The V&A presented a thought-provoking evening to demonstrate that the call to action for diversity and inclusion is ongoing and proof that educational institutes and any other empowering bodies can and should play a significant role in promoting these initiatives to the world. From start to finish, the authenticity and richness of the African fabrics that graced the bodies of everyday people to prominent dignitaries and celebrities; the creativity of all the designers, stylists, and photographers; the inspiration behind the exhibition portrayed individual commitment to celebrating diversity; and the impressive choice of bespoke African inspired canapes and cocktails by Nigerian chefs Victor Okunowo and Moses Adama, down to the musical blends by DJs Eric Soul and Coco Em flown in specially from Rwanda and Kenya that got us all shimmying to the energetic vibes of Afrobeats. 

It was a live storytelling of fashion, art, and music that has survived political change and empowerment and solidified a nation’s unique identity to the world. Mingling with celebrities and friends alike in such a positive space contributed to the ‘buzz in the room’ but occasions like these always reignites my anxiety for the younger generation.

It was a great shame there were no students from the likes of the London College of Fashion or University of Arts London who would have benefitted from the history of their forefathers whose influences have shaped the creative world scene. If we don’t prompt and take action to allow positive and diverse ‘conversations’ and ‘collaborations’ to pattern our lives today, then the future generations will sadly miss out on exploring the dynamic and varied diversity in plain sight.

I started off with coining it a ‘special event’ but in all honesty what made it special?  A combination of content, timing, media support, sponsorships – whatever it was, these factors should be standardised, not preserved as part of a ‘vital’ one-off calendar event.  The African designers took  ownership of their unique narrative and authentic storytelling through their own eyes and made an important impact on the creative scene. As the stories revealed, our world has evolved through a cosmopolitan lens which is clearly visible for all to see and embrace.

Let’s hope this event is a testimony of the great things to come by celebrating, championing, and appreciating the diversity and ingenuity of persons or colour, through their art, music, dance, literature etc. – owning it is honouring ourselves and acknowledging our unique talents.

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