Made in Africa
Contemporary fashions from Ghana’s most notable designers on display at Florida museum
BY PENNY DICKERSON
African fashion in its most sophisticated form is on display at the University of Florida’s Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art in a cutting-edge exhibition titled “Kabas and Couture: Contemporary Ghanaian Fashion.”
The installation offers an unprecedented look at the 50-year history and contemporary social impact of one of Africa’s most vibrant fashion industries and features the work of several internationally noted Ghanaian designers, including Juliana “Chez Julie” Kweifio-Okai. The Parisian-trained pioneer’s innovative creations paved the runways for Accra’s current generation of fashion designers.
African-Americans often resign the wearing of authentic African attire to Black History Month or cultural festivities. But for Ghanaian women, it is a form of dress that has become a symbol of national identity.
The kaba consists of an elaborately embellished, tailored blouse worn with a wrapped skirt. Not only is it a part of Ghana’s everyday fashions, it actively responds to the rapid and unexpected shifts in local and international fashion trends.
“Kabas and Couture will contextualize African fashion as a globally engaged and aesthetically dynamic practice,” said Rebecca Nagy, director of Gainesville’s Harn Museum and a noted African art scholar.
“We are pleased to display an exhibition that draws from our permanent collection of African textiles and garments to provide historical and contemporary perspectives on one of Africa’s leading fashion industries.”
Haute couture, translated from French, means high fashion. The ubiquitous term has earned its rightful place in Accra, Ghana, which holds its own fashion week likened to runway spectaculars held in New York and Paris.
In addition to Chez Julie, names like Aisha Ayensu, Christie Brown, Ajepomaa Design Gallery and others are as synonymous to African fashion as Michael Kors and Dolce and Gabana are to fans of American flair.
The exhibit features the work of emerging Accra designers like Ayensu whose accomplishments include winning the 2009 Emerging Designer of the Year award at Arise Africa Fashion Week in Johannesburg, South Africa, and recently designing a suite of garments for the dancers of Beyonce’s “Mrs. Carter Show” world tour.
Curating a concept
Susan Cooksey, the Harn’s curator of African Art, said she had to be convinced that it was a good idea to focus on fashion from one African nation.
“This is an experiment for the Harn since we’ve never done a contemporary fashion exhibition,” said Cooksey. “If that were the only focus, it would’ve seemed like an arbitrary and irrelevant approach to showing African fashion, which crosses so many borders and boundaries, conceptually, spatially and temporally.”
Christopher Richards introduced the idea to Cooksey several years ago and served as guest curator.
Richards is a University of Florida alumnus and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Creative Arts of Africa in Johannesburg, who worked intensely from Ghana and served as a liaison between Accra designers and the Harn to scale a stellar exhibit.
“The textiles and fashions displayed in this exhibition illustrate a rich discourse between Ghanaian textile traditions and brings attention to an understudied area of African artistic expression,” explained Richards. “I think the scale and scope of the exhibition are perfect, in that they give you a sense of the history of fashion but foreground new designers’ works,” he added.
Emphasis is on the time period right after independence, so the garments are viewed as a shaping and formation of national identity. The work additionally reflects the Ghanaian awareness of a noble pre-colonial past with its extraordinary artistic traditions, including kente, now a national and international symbol of Africanity.
Interactive ‘tailor shop’
Kabas and Couture is comprised of loans from private collections, works from the Harn’s extensive African art holdings, and two vintage Chez Julie garments generously gifted to the museum to perpetuate their famous family member’s legacy.
Garments are displayed on sleek mannequins and Richards created super-sized, painted hangers of women for an interactive kabas “tailor shop.” Patrons are encouraged to “try on” kabas and view what it’s like to both be in Ghana and design your own clothes.
Accra visual artist Daniel Jasper hand-painted the sign for “Auntie Emily.” Included are video and photography of Accra Fashion Week. The installation was fully funded by Dr. Madelyn M. Lockhart, former dean of the University of Florida graduate school and advocate whose work was Africa-based. Lockhart died weeks before the opening.
Thousands of visitors
According to Tami Wroath, director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Harn, more than 46,000 visitors have viewed the exhibit to date.
“Ultimately, what I sought to celebrate was African diversity, innovation and originality in a positive way,” said Richards. “Hopefully, it will encourage people to develop an awareness, sensitivity, and appreciation of other cultures.”