Skirt (Ntshak), Kuba Cloth, Zaire, 20th C Textile Museum
African textiles are the major form of expression that Africans use to define themselves. They have used cloth not only for personal adornment but also as a powerful medium of communication for many centuries. Their importance has often been overshadowed by traditional sculpture and masks but in this day and age, we see how African textiles have become the most significant medium by which contemporary African artists are illuminating the connections and continuities between past and recent modes of African artistic expression.
Chief Nana Akyanfuo
Akowuah Dateh II
Kumase, Ghana, 1970
African textiles are also a means for us to acquire insight into the social, religious, political and economic complexities of many African communities whose sophisticated cultures we may otherwise remain ignorant about.
Textile Blanket, Chieftan, Fulani people
Mali or Ghana, 19th century, cotton
Besides that, African textiles are just so glorious to behold! They speak to me of ancient kingdoms and civilizations where a man was revered and respected, judged by the voluminous splendour of his cloth. Kente fabric woven in strips in silk for the Asante Empire and its’ Royal Court; skirts woven from raffia wrapped around Kuba King’s resplendent menservants and indigo blue tunics that are embroidered with elaborate design and intricate pattern by the Fulani tribe who live in the Niger delta and add a dignitary air to the wearer.
Very few ancient textiles have survived the adverse climactic conditions of Africa. Although numerous linen fragments have been collected from Egypt pre-Christ, the picture for sub-Saharan Africa is less apparent and the earliest textile found in Niger dates to the second half of the 8th C AD.
Following this, the Igbo Ukwu cloth fragments have been dated to the 9th C and in the 11th C AD pieces found in burial caves in the Tellem cliffs in Mali have been attributed to the ancestors of the Dogon. Single-heddled vertical and horizontal ground looms were observed in production by the Portuguese when they arrived in Africa in the 15th C and Kuba cloths were discovered in Zaire in the 16th C.
African textiles have had and still have an exceptional significance as a means of communication, information and mutual association within particular communities. There is spiritual and historical significance in not only the choice of colours, dyes and type of threads used, but also in the decorative element, the symbols used and the figural compositions which are directly related to historical proverbs and events. They represent a form of story telling often taking the place of the written word and convey messages of importance for an individual, family, or larger social unit.
African textiles are often used for social and political comment, for commemorative purposes marking special occasions like political or tribal events, weddings, funerals, burials, naming ceremonies. Historically, their usage was controlled by chiefs and regional leaders and they were distributed with favour.
As personal adornment they are wrapped as skirts round waists and hips and thrown over the shoulder or made into tunics and robes. African textiles are not always worn but sometimes used as backdrops against which public ceremonies were held.
African textiles are also used quite simply as items of warmth or cover but centuries of tradition and a culture of crafting beautiful items imbues some African communities with an air of elegance and vibrancy in their clothing attire that one does not experience in the Western world which chooses conformity above individual expression.
Painted bark cloth
Cloth production methods include woven, dyed, appliquéd, embroidered and printed techniques. Printing and dying and hand painting occurred on all types of woven cloth and also on leather (hide) and bark.
Fibres traditionally used for weaving are predominantly cotton but also include wool, silk, raffia, bark and bast fibres like flax and jute which produce linen cloth.
It is very seldom that a textile piece is produced by just one process and when one considers that everything is hand executed in mostly rural circumstances, one has to admire the commitment and skill involved in making the piece. African textiles are highly collectable artworks and will continue to gain in value as traditions disappear and the authentic items become unavailable.
The following have been identified as some of the more well-known tribal African textiles and they can be studied in further detail on separate pages.
Apron skirt, hide, ostrich shell
Orlando Museum of art
Textile Tunic (Bororo), 20th C
Metropolitan museum, African textiles
African clothing can be a symbol of status, creativity and allegiance to tribal roots.
Traditionally, there are men's robes, some produced as symbols of prestige or even protection in battle, women's robes, wrap around cloths worn as skirts by men and women, body wrap blankets acting as coats or ceremonial tokens, loin cloths, aprons and any manner of headdress and adornment.
A few examples...
Prestige gown, Cameroon, cotton, wool
Metropolitan museum, 19th-20th C
Thembu women dress, South Africa
Potato printed fabric, Zambane printers
Contemporary Bogolan cloth
Michigan State university
Born Senegal, lives in Dakar and works with designers all over the world who recognize how successfully she incorporates ancestral Mandjaque techniques with innovative and original interpretations of this craft creating truly modern woven fabrics for furnishings and furniture.
She mixes cotton with raphia or silk and also uses plastics to produce strong fabrics for upholstery. Her geometrical patterns she has borrowed from the Kuba but has made more contemporary by graphic repetition and bright colours.
Atmek and Eco Yarns
This is a very modern co-operative, the merger of master Kente weavers and the suppliers of Tencel yarn to Ghana. The fabrics are upholstery weight, a combination of silk, tencel and cotton.
The following artists are all inspired by references of past weaving, embroidery and appliqué traditions while reflecting the present day situation in modern African societies.
I have chosen to highlight briefly 4 of these artists, each with totally different ouvres but whose work is relevant to their textile sources and indicative of how being born in Africa and exposed to all the visual stimulus and maintaining their cultural identity, has deeply affected their sensibilities and how they approach their work conceptually. Please examine them in more depth in the Contemporary Art section.
El Anatsui, Between heaven and
earth, aluminium and copper wire,
2006 Metropolitan Museum
El Anatsui, best known for monumental wall sculptures made from discarded bottle tops and metal strips, is recognized as one of the most original and compelling artists of his generation. His draped cloths transform discarded materials into objects of striking beauty and originality, their cascading form glittering and undulating; impacting upon one's sensibilities. Viewing them is an uplifting and rewarding experience.
The intricate, narrow-banded compositions of Anatsui's first pieces were recognizable variations of kente cloth, the emblematic fabric of Ghana. The massive and monumental pieces that followed in later years reflect the traditional large cloths which are highly sculptural in their own way, being draped across the bodies of stately kings and men.
His recreation of humble metal fragments to construct powerful, beautiful works of art is nothing short of mystical and transcendent.
The Scramble for Africa, 2003
Black gold, 2006 nmafa.si.edu
Yinka Shonibare, the slightly infamous London-based Nigerian artist has extraordinary talent and has exhibited in most of the major art institutions across the planet. His work is pre-occupied with the legacy of European post-Colonial impact on Africa and he uses fabric to reflect this in many forms of artistic media including large-scale installations and sculptural tableaux which he used for social and aesthetic comment.
'Dutch wax' fabrics came to symbolize the relations and interdependencies between two worlds. Shonibare commented in London, 1996 "In my own practice, I have used the fabrics as a metaphor for challenging various notions of authenticity both in art and identity."
Paul's work is characterised by an investigation of pattern, form and symmetry and shows a concern with process and material, often using unconventional substances and fibres. Using stories written about childhood impressions as templates through which to view the work, he tracks how memory, sensory phenomena and abiding fascination of his interests serves to inform his exploration of his designs.
The Veil, single-sided thread art
The Fly Whisk, single-sided thread art
Mary Ann Orr's double-sided thread art pieces are highly original and are unique in their method of construction where the front and back have two different reflections of the same image, doubling the rich visual experience. These luminous, joyous fabric 'sculptures' are to be viewed from both sides; walking around them encourages the observer to participate in the journey that the artist herself has taken.
Orr draws deeply upon San spirituality. She states, "San cosmology allows me to enrich the message of transformation and places this within a very African context". Her own profoundly personal and spiritual journey is manifested in her double-sided tapestries where the threads are drawn from front to back like the soul's journey from the before to the after-life.
Her use of materials that are found and rejected on rubbish heaps and charity bins is central to her desire to transform at all levels. The fact that she is working with fabrics and clothing items often hauled out of a bin also has a succinct comment on the charity-driven situation in the Third World. Orr takes these garments, cuts them up into tiny squares and re-invents them, transforming them from apparent 'nothingness' into 'somethingness'.
They are then sold back to the First World as collectable art pieces.
Walking the night, front
Walking the night, back
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