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Luxury from Africa – A brief history

Luxury's rich journey from Africa to the Global North
Model wearing white dress by Adama Paris

As discussed in the previous steps, luxury assigns considerable emphasis on exclusivity and superiority, from the quality and craftsmanship of tangible products to rarefied experiences of leisure. It is also ‘things which have power over us’; ‘by offering a range of pleasures’ [1]. It is therefore possible to explore luxury as a site of power both historically and in economic value [2].

The very definitions or considerations of what constitutes luxury is often positioned outside of Africa, but what you will find in history, is an extensive wealth of luxury exchange across this huge continent long before the arrival of its colonisers. With established trade routes and advanced enjoyment of the abundance of its countries, Africa has always been the seat of the most desirable luxury and a knowledge of how to enjoy it. Without Africa, the global luxury market would look nothing like it does today.

The popularised term “Africa Rising” signals, to some, a new phenomenon, but for Africa it is taking back its ownership of a deep rooted past and rich heritage. The extraction of its resources that affords the global north its luxury lifestyles have not stopped, but, Africa is telling its own stories and reclaiming its power. The continent was always an important source of luxury, Arab traders were crossing the Sahara in search of gold from the Ancient Kingdom of Ghana as early as the 9th century, [3].

More importantly, luxury has long been part of the cultural, moral and physical landscapes of the African continent itself, enjoyed and shared by its people for centuries. From silk textiles, luxurious hides, bespoke jewellery and adornment, monumental architecture, and a long history of cuisine and edible delicacies, Africa and its people have a rich history of sumptuous materiality and living luxury. So the next time a glossy ‘Western media’ magazine carries headlines such as “The Nigerians have Arrived”, it is worth noting that what is being observed is a modern interpretation of centuries old customs and practices of a culture of luxury that has always been part of the African identity.

The global ‘propertisation’ of luxury as Euro-American is due to the exercise of political-economic power acquired through colonial expansion, oppression; and violent extraction of resources. It is this power that has enabled the African experience of luxury to be framed as imitative and derivative, rather than a generations old custom.

Before skipping to the next step, please share with your peers a bit about yourself and your experience of luxury down below.

References:

  1. Featherstone, Mike (2014), ‘Luxury, Consumer Culture and Sumptuary Dynamics’, Luxury 1:1, pp. 47–69. DOI:10.2752/205118174X14066464962436.
  2. Böhme, Germot (2003), ‘Contribution to the Critique of the Aesthetic Economy’, Thesis Eleven 73:1, pp. 71–82. DOI: 10.1177/0725513603073001005.
  3. Hilson, Gavin (2002), ‘Harvesting mineral riches: 1000 years of gold mining in Ghana’, Resources Policy 28:1, pp. 13–26. DOI: 10.1016/S0301-4207(03)00002-3.
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Africa to the World: Analysing the Global Appeal for African Luxury Fashion

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