Christine Checinska: “There Are Many Ways To Be African And Fashionable”

Christine Checinska, curator of the upcoming “Africa Fashion” exhibition set for June 2022 at London’s V&A Museum introduces her curatorial angle and some highlights to look forward to.

by Enrica Picarelli - Published on 20/05/2021
Alphadi Catwalk, c.1992. COURTESY Victoria & Albert Museum

As both scholar and designer, Christine Checinska has worked in fashion for decades. Through the years, she has developed a substantial body of work on the relationship between race, culture, and cloth, focusing on British and British-diasporan contexts. She is currently Curator of African and African Diaspora Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, where she is curating Africa Fashion,  which will engage fashion as an empowering practice and a lens to spotlight the diversity of African cultures from June of next year. She shared with us of her vision for this exciting event that will include crowdsourced materials.

Garments: Kofi Ansah ‘Indigo’ Couture. Accessories: Katie Torda Dagadu at ‘Suntrade’. Models: Emmanuel Narh ‘Taller’ Gaduga & Linda Tsirakasu. Location: La Trade Fair, Accra – Ghana. Assistant: Naana Orleans-Amissah. Photographer: Eric Don-Arthur. COURTESY Victoria and Albert Museum

Africa Fashion adds to an expanding body of museum shows dedicated to African fashion, such as “Fashion Cities Africa” (Brighton, 2016-2018), “African-Print Fashion Now!” (Charlotte, NC, 2018-2019), “Connecting Afro Futures” (Berlin, 2019), and the more recently “Black Thread” (Göteborg, 2020-2021). What sets it apart from these other initiatives? 

Africa Fashion will consciously celebrate and champion the diversity and ingenuity of the continent’s fashion scene. Our guiding principle is the foregrounding of multiple African voices and perspectives. The exhibition will celebrate the vitality and innovation of this vibrant scene, as dynamic and varied as the African continent itself. Starting with the African independence and liberation years that sparked a radical political and social reordering and a cultural renaissance across the continent, we will focus here on the vanguard of mid-century designers such as Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah and Alphadi. We are asking the public to contact us if they have garments by these designers. We will also feature photographs – studio portraits, fashion photography. We are also looking for family portraits and home movies. When it comes to contemporary fashions – ranging from contemporary couture, ready-to-wear, made-to-order and street-style, we will offer a close-up look at the new generation of ground-breaking designers, collectives, stylists and fashion photographers working in Africa today. The exhibition will present African fashions as a self-defining art form that reveals the richness and diversity of African histories and cultures.

Shade Thomas at desk 1970s. COURTESY Shade Thomas-Fahm and Victoria and Albert Museum
Design by Chris Seydou (c) Nabil Zorkot. COURTESY Victoria and Albert Museum

What motivated you to focus on the 1950-1990s period?

The African independence and liberation years sparked a radical political and social reordering and a cultural renaissance across the continent. In 1960 alone, over seventeen African countries declared independence from colonial rule. It soon became known as the Year of Africa. This era signaled a re-awakening. It heralded a new sense of pride in being Black and African. Fashion, music and the visual arts drew on formerly marginalized traditions creating innovative forms that looked towards future self-rule with an unforgettable zest for life and independence of spirit. These years introduce a story of agency, abundance and unbounded creativity, which we feel mirrors the vibrancy and energy of the African fashion scene today.

Shade’s Boutique flyer, 1971. COURTESY Shade Thomas-Fahm and Victoria and Albert Museum

You describe Africa Fashion as an exploration of “attitude, gesture and style.” Please, tell us more about it and whether you think that this definition is specific to African fashion culture

Fashion is so much more than just the garments. We see fashion as catalyst with which to highlight the richness and diversity of African cultures and histories. At an individual level, fashion is about attitude, gesture and style – a way of speaking about oneself and the way that you would like to be seen. It is an aspect of African fashion cultures, but it is also key to other fashion movements as well.

The V&A website has a specific call for family portraits and home movies from the liberation years, why the choice to include vernacular testimonies – what do they add to the conversation? 

Everyday fashions are important to us. Within the exhibition the family portraits and home movies from the liberation years shift our focus to the wearers. Fashion can be a form of everyday activism or soft power. This is what we witness in the domestic section. We see Africa Fashion as a people’s exhibition. The open call is a great way to collaborate with our audiences. We want to hear their stories of self-fashioning and self-representation. We are also keen to blur the hierarchical boundaries between the various fashion sectors as creativity comes in many forms.

Imane Ayissi, Catwalk Image, SpringSummer 2020 © Imane Ayissi. Photograph by Fabrice Malard. COURTESY Victoria & Albert Museum

One last question: you mentioned “street-style sartorialists” among the protagonists of the African fashion scene. How do you think their style performances reflect a specific African positioning and perspective considering some on-the-ground criticism that they instead reproduce stereotypes about the continent? 

There are many ways to be African. There are many ways to be fashionable. African fashions are undefinable – this is part of the exhibition narrative. Through Africa Fashion we aim to give a glimpse of the diversity of the scene.

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I’m a writer/researcher/translator exploring fashion, cultural sustainability and digital communication in Africa. I have published on books, journals, art magazines and been a consultant for RAI national broadcaster for the documentary African Catwalk, filmed at South Africa Fashion Week, 2019.ù