Friday, 20 September 2013

African Textiles Today

by Chris Spring
The history of indigenous African art has been misdirected by Western aesthetic preferences, which give an undue pride of place to figural or abstract sculpture (a pre-eminently patriarchal art) and less visibility to the role of textiles, decorative arts and performance arts (pre-eminently matriarchal arts) in the construction of indigenous identity.
Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie

There is no question that humans came out of Africa. Naturally, human culture came out of Africa too, but we Westerners tend to ignore this fact. The West, above all, values literature, painting and sculpture, while Africans are more concerned with oral tradition and the subject of this book: cloth.

Cloth in Africa is much more than “just” a material for clothing. Cloth served as a currency until minted coins replaced it in the last century. Protective gowns or shirts may be decorated with Quran inscriptions, or have numerous charms sewn into them, or both. The kanga, which often bears subtle (or not so subtle) slogans in Kiswahili, is a powerful communication instrument. Cloth is also a means of declaring the social status:

Sometimes the only true measure of a man’s status in life is revealed after his death, as is still the case among the Kuba people of the Kasai region of the southern Congo Basin, where the fine cloth which a chief or high-ranking official has accumulated throughout his life is shown to a wider public for the first time at his funeral.
Last but not least, textiles serve as historical documents. In short: if you want to understand anything at all about African culture, you’d better have a serious look at the African textiles.

On more than one occasion, the author points out that the indigenous-ness of any tradition is not a particularly helpful concept. I like the story told in Chapter 3: in the 19th century, the Dutch embarked on producing the printed cloth imitating Javanese batiks. The textile proved to be not too popular in Indonesia but appealed to Ghanaian soldiers employed by the Dutch. Then a Scotsman sets up a company in Glasgow and pirates the Dutch, um, imitations. In the post-colonial times, textile factories were established in West African countries, but now the production is threatened by cheap Chinese copies of... the “West African” designs!

The author, Chris Spring, is a curator at the British Museum; the book is published by The British Museum Press. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the beautiful textiles illustrated in the book are from the British Museum collection. African Textiles Today also includes shots of artistic installations, for example Nike v Adidas by Hassan Hajjaj and Space Walk by Yinka Shonibare, as well as documentary and street photography. The last chapter shows textiles through the eyes of African photographers such as Seydou Keïta, Oumar Ly, Malick Sidibé and Jacques Touselle.

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