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A London museum spotlights African fashion — and grapples with its colonial legacy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

London's Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the world's leading showcases of the decorative arts and design - was also named after two individuals, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, closely associated with Britain's age of empire. Willem Marx reports that a new exhibit on African fashion seeks to address that legacy.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: We're standing in the bustling heart of the British capital's museum district. Just yards away is London's Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. But we're standing outside a handsome red brick and stone building commissioned by a monarch and her husband, Victoria and Albert, who for many epitomize the era of empire. Yet for the first time ever, this museum is hosting an exhibition focused on fashion from a continent, Africa, that suffered hugely under colonialism during that exact same period.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

CHRISTINE CHECINSKA: So you kind of enter into this lovely peachy area with...

MARX: Christine Checinska is the lead curator for this exhibition called simply "Africa Fashion." And as we walk into a softly lit two-story roundhouse in the heart of the museum, she points to black-and-white photographs, artwork and textiles selected to tell the story of the continent's couture over the past several decades.

CHECINSKA: This is the historical floor. But we do...

MARX: The displays, which include videos and rows of eye-catching outfits, seek to capture the artistic flourishing that the end of the colonial era encouraged in Africa, one that Checinska says has too often been ignored.

CHECINSKA: It's a moment where, as African-heritage people - we gained our independence back. The world was looking at us, and boy, did we give them something to look at.

MARX: The Victoria and Albert Museum, or V&A, has long been known for its focus on the history of art and design. Checinska, a former fashion designer turned scholar, is its first-ever senior curator of African and African diaspora fashion. She says the museum has worked hard to acknowledge its own legacy.

CHECINSKA: We do address our colonial history. We name it. We name the fact that that is why our collections perhaps have gaps in. And now is the time to start to address those gaps and to work collaboratively with experts in many different fields across the African continent, in my case, to fill the gaps and to tell new stories.

MARX: And amid the history, there are contemporary designs on display, including those of Imane Ayissi, the first designer from sub-Saharan Africa to have showcased work in cities like Paris as part of the exclusive haute couture calendar. From his Paris studio, the Cameroonian explained the importance of the Victoria and Albert exhibit as a tool for highlighting the variety of African artistry.

IMANE AYISSI: (Speaking French).

MARX: "It's important we're showing this," he says. "It will educate a lot of people - people who don't know Africa well, who will discover both what's already been achieved and what's currently being worked on in Africa." Also featured in this exhibit is Artsi Ifrach, a ballet dancer turned designer based in Morocco who says the focus should be on reframing the continent's future creative output.

ARTSI IFRACH: We have to be very sensitive about and allow Africa fashion and designer from Africa to grow in a way that we not have to call it any more Africa fashion, but international fashion that comes from Africa.

MARX: Ifrach often works with traditional textiles and says items that may live in museums elsewhere can in modern Africa exist as everyday products.

IFRACH: When you are in Africa, you can actually see it on the street. And there is still people who does this artisanal work that you can see in museums. But in Africa, it's actually available for people to buy and have them in their own house.

MARX: Africa's creative forces - not just in fashion, but art and music, too - are today increasingly celebrated worldwide. With its willingness to acknowledge colonial missteps, the Victoria and Albert has sought to place that success in context.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLCK LOFI'S "THE NOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx