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.
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.
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.
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.
Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye was born in Kogi state, Nigeria in 1951 to a cultured family of musicians and skilled artisans. Her grandmother was particularly influential in nurturing Nike's interest in textiles and the art of dyeing, printing and weaving, specifically indigo and adire.
She spent a lot of her life in Osogbo, a major centre for art and culture where she embraced everything to do with Nigerian culture. She has formed 4 art centres and a large gallery. Now days, she lectures and speaks around the world and is as global a figure as they come, accepting and receiving many awards for her contribution to the arts.
She loves to wear her textile art and cuts a dramatic and colourful figure with noticeable headdresses and jewelry adornment. Her own work is semi-abstract and semi-representational - full of underlying line drawing defining figures and compositions by areas of repetitive pattern, colour and geometric shapes.
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 ouvre's.
Their 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.
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.
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 Edmund'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.
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.