If there was anywhere in the world you were meant to be yesterday, Friday the 24th June 2010, it was at the V&A museum, getting more than a taste of ambrosial African splendour.
Afropolitans opened the floodgates to the diluvial magic of African photography, fashion, style and identity in celebration of the ongoing exhibition Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography. The evening took a retrospective glance at visualists who showcased the resonant optimism and sense of freedom of post-independence African nations from 1960s and forward to Afropolitans, a new generation of taste makers whose sensibilities are rooted in their African identities.
The moment I walked into the V&A museum, I was greeted by an insanely long queue of could be-fashionistas, keen on working with textile designer Emamoke Ukeleghe to create their own one-off scarves using simple screen-printing techniques. I jetted for the information desk, grabbed myself an agenda and a map and proceeded to make my way through multiple galleries, past flawless static marble figures towards the the Raphael Gallery, where MsAfropolitan was about to present the Rise of Afropolitan Fashion.
‘Hopefully there won’t be a queue there,’ I appealed.
Ten minutes later I was standing in the queue still waiting to behold beautifully dressed women. After a handful of smiles and nods reciprocated to a number of familiar faces walking by and joining the queue, I was finally in! The Raphael Gallery was an enormous hall with a central arch on the opposite wall facing the entrance. Below the arch stood models clad in outfits by top African designers such as Duro Olowu, Tiffany Amber, Jewel by Lisa, KemKem Studio and Eki Orleans, specially styled for the evening. To the right of the arch was the singular Kora instrumentalist Kebba Susso, who serenaded the room as the models began their strut along the breadth of the hall, to the fascination of the U-shaped crowd that had gathered.
I was situated at the left side of that U-shaped crowd with my camera phone high in the air. I may have watched almost the entire show through the display of that soaring phone, taking pictures of the models and shooting videos. The outfits were zingy, multicoloured, patterned, Ankara and looked exceptionally extravagant. Once the last model had done her bid, they all did one more walk and the crowd went nuts, complete with raucous applaud and flashing camera lights.
Oh yeah … and Shingai Shoniwa from the Noisettes was kicking it in the front row, not too far from the action. The girls beside me struggled to keep one eye on her and the other on the models the whole show. True story.
And then there was the African Portrait Photography Studio workshop next. Here you could have had the opportunity to have your portrait taken by Sal Idriss in a monochrome, Malick Sidibe-inspired West African portrait studio. And sitters were allowed to take take away a souvenir print! Now, you’re hitting yourself aren’t you? Thinking, ‘I really should have been at Afropolitans last night.’
Stop self-harming, drop me a line and I’ll hook you up correct.
Moving swiftly on and out to the John Madejski Garden where South African house music star Spoek Mathambo, who describes himself as ‘part of a new wave of energy in Africa,’ unleashed his debut UK performance. The Afro-futurist sound of the young rapper and DJ reverberated that garden like the end was actually nigh. Despite the slight drizzle, the mini crowd that surrounded the sheltered stage wasn’t deterred a smidgen. I admit, I got down as well, albeit taking evidence, once again, with the right hand.
After a couple songs, I snapped back inside to check out what else was stirring up. In the Grand Entrance there was DJ Vamanos – of Ghetto Bassquake and Secousse Sound System – stirring up yet another crowd, bumping to his contemporary African house and electro rhythms, which included kuduro, balani, coupe decale, souks, kawaito, Pretoria house, Soweto funk, and funana shangaan electro.
At this point, more and more people started filling in the space of the Grand Entrance as they flocked in from every corner of the museum’s galleries – where various events had been occurring simultaneously and were now drawing to a close. More heads were bobbing and bopping to the beat of the DJ while, close by, parcels of people relaxed in the comfort of a North African-style salon – an installation by Hassan Hajjaj, a Moroccan photographer and designer – where they enjoyed special cocktails from the Benugo bar.
I morphed into reporter-mode and began approaching people, asking for a word or two about their experience of the night. Most were impressed by the organisation and turn-out of the event and one ultra-perfectionist told me she wasn’t too impressed by the ‘curation of the fashion show.’ I can’t say I’m absolutely sure of what she meant but I know this – she had a pleasant look on her face, so something Afropolitan must have pleased her.
And who wouldn’t be pleased to be there, in the prestigious V&A museum, surrounded by all those beautiful people dressed in their Friday best, simply enjoying the creativity Africa has to offer today? To me, it was like being home again. If I closed my eyes, I could have easily imagined the familiar whiff of boli and epa in the air … or was that puff-puff? Either way, I was ready to spend the night, until the clock hit 10:00 and we were all escorted out, not before I had taken a few pictures and and exchanged a few cards, mind you.
Among the events I couldn’t see due to shortage of time, was Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody, an installation created by South African-born, US-based design team of Heidi Chisholm and Sharon Lombard, where visitors were invited to come up with witty proverbs – the wittiest entries of which were awarded goodies at the end of the night. Also, there were brilliant screenings and talks predominantly on Africana that I was unfortunately unable to attend. Luckily however, I had already been to see the South African photography exhibition, which was the pièce de résistance of the evening, and is ongoing till the 17th of July.
All in all, it was a truly amazing evening and if it were not just a one-off event I would probably have stalked it for another week. It gave a glimpse into the young, creative minds of African pulp, making a consonant buzz about town in array of wonderful aesthetic pursuits.
*Sigh* It sure is FAB to be African right now.