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Fashion Cities Africa: a Digital Ambassador’s view

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

Following Curator Jody East’s post last week about our Digital Ambassador’s programme for Fashion Cities Africa, Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell has written about her experience working on the project.

This post was originally published on Victoria’s own blog at but we’ve reproduced it here as part of our online archive for the exhibition. It was originally written as a two separate posts, but we have combined them here to give a sense of Victoria’s journey through the project.

Part One

A lot of work I’ve been undertaking at university has consisted of analysing museum practices, temporary exhibitions vs. permanent gallery arrangements and the various logistics of curating in general. Indeed, that’s meant a lot of reading, observing and considering how I would do things differently.

Screen grab from Victoria Rodrigues O'Donnell's Twitter post. Shows mannequin arms.Sitting from an armchair can often make you feel detached from what’s really going on in the art world (something which has arguably been changing with sites like Artsy and art:i:curate providing users/collectors with online platforms to curate artworks themselves), so it’s been a great pleasure to take part in the preparations towards the forthcoming exhibition, Fashion Cities Africa, at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

The exhibition is the first of its kind to be shown in the UK and being open from 30 April 2016 till 8 January 2017 will allow as many people as possible to catch a glimpse of what the four cities featured have to offer on a national and international level. Focusing on contemporary fashion from Casablanca, Nairobi, Lagos and Johannesburg, the displays will take visitors across the continent as they navigate through the three temporary exhibition rooms. From Moroccan couture to Kenyan street style, each compass point represented in the project has its own voice and defining characteristics. It’s with this in mind that, one of its co-curators Helen Mears, says “the exhibition aims to provide a snapshot of these cities and an introduction to some of the stories behind the style.”

Comprised entirely of loans and commissions, the displays will present a whole host of garments, accessories and images that illustrate different elements of contemporary design across Africa. This ranges from politically motivated pieces by The Sartists to Zhor Raïs’ reinvention of the caftan and the international success of Amaka Osakwe’s work.

You may be wondering where exactly I fit into all this? As a digital ambassador for the project, I’ve been sharing images and behind-the-scenes access across social media to help promote it. Being invited to see the installation process, meet the members of staff who’ve been involved in years worth of planning and inspect pieces up close has been fascinating.

View of entrance of Fashion Cities Africa exhibition.


Part Two

Screen grab of Instagram post showing African textilesAs if it wasn’t already great being given the opportunity to assist in the exhibition’s promotion, my university tutors coincidentally organised a visit to Brighton Museum for a class. I do love it when worlds happen to collide, and although they are more similar than not, it was so very convenient in helping me extract information about exhibition planning for both my own studies alongside social media.

The Museum’s Keeper of World Art, Helen Mears, has co-curated the exhibition with Martin Pel, Curator of Fashion & Textiles. Below are some thoughts and comments (collated into particular themes) I took away following a talk with the pair.

National vs. International

I established in my last blog post, that the exhibition focuses on contemporary fashion design from four major cities across the African continent: Casablanca, Nairobi, Lagos and Johannesburg. The curating has been done in a way to avoid sweeping statements / generalisations about each city. In order to achieve this with greater authority, Martin and Helen have used individual voices at the heart of each city’s display.

Specialists were brought in early on, including ‘fashion agents’ – bloggers, stylists, journalists etc., to collect and analyse particular examples of ‘New African Fashion’. Having written a book with this exact title, Helen Jennings has been working in conjunction with journalist and author Hannah Azieb Pool and Martin and Helen, to visit each city and help identify whose designs were worth exhibiting.

A key feature of the exhibition is how it seeks to present African designers who are interested in thinking globally. Having national presence as well as international visibility places them in the same league as those working in heavyweights of London, Paris, Milan or New York. One of the issues of wanting to express this vocality and strong sense of identity is negotiating their wishes with the logistics of curating. Creating a narrative, justifying the length of a loan and agreeing on its presentation with the designer proved just as difficult as deciding where to position lighting.


Consideration of audiences was a key factor from the project’s inception – particularly engaging with African diaspora communities. Will as many visitors travel to Brighton to see the UK’s first major exhibition about African fashion as they would if it were being shown in London? I certainly think they should, as the capital’s art scene is not reflective of what can be found in other cities and towns across the country.

The museum’s collection already had a significant amount of eminent African textiles, forming a clear link with the exhibition. From couture to street style, the pieces on show can connect with anyone and everyone. Not only is it on display till January 2017, but a huge events programme has been organised to engage with visitors and locals alike. Nairobi-based pair, 2ManySiblings, was a definite highlight for those aged 14-25. Their playful and vibrant style is certain to have an influence on those who feel disheartened with their wardrobes and/or Instagram feeds.

Curating African Fashion Histories:

A collecting panel was in force right from the very beginning, so that decision making could be discussed and shared out before any acquisitions were made – especially as their wider project Fashioning Africa, intends on expanding the museum’s collection of African fashion to one that will cover 1960-2000. This will allow the museum to address the evolution of particular styles in relation to the independence of many African countries during the 1960s and Britain’s colonial past with them.

Considering how to source different material objects that could reflect trends in hair, beauty, clothing and accessories was no easy task and being wary of lumping every sartorial item under Pan-Africanism has constantly been at the forefront of their objectives. Particularly when stereotypes of African dress feature head wraps and wax prints, which are aspects of fashion that many current designers don’t use in their work. Awareness of cultural politics and representation does mean that a lot of the displays undoubtedly reflect on much bigger issues. An international conference, Creating African Fashion Histories, will take place in November to “discuss current and past narratives in African fashion”.

Whilst Helen approaches the pieces with a more ethnographic concern, Martin emphasises how they are also presenting a fashion show, which should have just as much entertainment quality as catwalk displays – after all, people are coming to see objects which must be visually enticing. By having the mannequins arranged upon staging, the exhibit not only embodies the dynamism of a real-life fashion show, but it allows visitors to look up at the garments and notice various little details.

Mannequins on display in Fashion Cities Africa exhibiton.

Alongside staging, other formats of display have been employed, such as huge columns with information about the cities on each of the four sides, blown-up images to complement the clothing, a screen showing a film (an element that has been paralleled on social media) and a corner which calls to question the debate over wax print.

Music from all four cities has been compiled into a playlist by local music producers, Guy Morley of No-Nation and Ebou Touray of African Night Fever. While this manages to engage with a host of partners (several club nights across Brighton play contemporary African music), it also enriches the experience and shows how multifaceted each city’s cultural scene is.

Being a Digital Ambassador is a brilliant opportunity for young people to get involved with exhibition planning and promotion, and also to learn more about the objects on show and their significance.

Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell, Digital Ambassador for Fashion Cities Africa exhibition