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Helen: An incredibly busy few months

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It’s been an incredibly busy few months for those of us working on the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition project and our Heritage Lottery Fund Collecting Cultures project.

Through meetings with our consultants – including Helen Jennings and Hannah Pool – we’ve been able to progress our thinking about the exhibition content and the way in which it will be interpreted. We’ve even been able to agree on mannequins (Stockmans covered in black – as a tone not a colour – jersey)! We’ve also been regularly meeting with graphic designer Lulu Kitololo who’s working on the show’s visual identity.Vitra Design Museum

I squeezed in a personal trip to Weil am Rhein, near Basel, to see the exhibition Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design, an encyclopaedic show which incorporated work by artists, designers and makers from across the continent and from the African diaspora. On show at the slick design museum, Vitra Design Museum (then the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao 30 October 30 2015 – 21 February 2016), it was interesting to see how its curators were dealing with some of the same issues as us although I felt glad our lens are tightened a little through the cities focus. I also recently attended the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House, London. Over three years the fair has grown from modest beginnings with just a few largely UK-based galleries showing work by relatively familiar names to becoming a huge international concern presenting work by an increasingly broad range of artists. This year some of the South African galleries, like Afronova, were especially helpful. There seems to be an established commercial interest in archival photography in South Africa not yet seen elsewhere on the continent except perhaps in Mali where the legacy of studio photographers par excellence Malike Sidibé and Seydou Keïta lives on.

Our collecting panel has met twice and members have some incredibly exciting ideas for developing a collecting strategy. We’ve talked a bit about what kind of relationship the ‘new’ collection might have with our historic holdings of African textiles. The panel hope to provide a comment on the old but to also take the collection in new strategic directions. Although it’s early days the level of energy and debate is incredible and it was exciting to recently discuss the project with European museum colleagues at a workshop on ‘co-collecting’ organised as part of the SWICH (‘Sharing a World of Inclusion, Creativity and Heritage: Ethnography, Museums of World Culture and New Citizenship in Europe’) initiative, a four-year collaborative project between ten 10 museums across Europe funded by the EU’s Creative Europe funding programme.

For the next few weeks the focus will be on completing loans negotiations and starting to write exhibition text. The press release went out yesterday so there’s now no going back!

Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art / Member of the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition team