09 July 2011

African Textiles at the MFA

Examples of kente cloth, from Ghana.

Global Patterns: Textiles and Dress in Africa is on view through January 8, 2012; learn more here: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/global-patterns

Wedding outfit of extraordinary beadwork.
Note the ornamented broom, symbol of housewives everywhere.

Wedding ensemble, rear view with beaded train.

As I walked through this exhibit, I developed a heightened sensibility towards the garb and accessories adorning my fellow visitors, who included a tall young man, extensively tattooed, wearing "ventilated" shorts, a souvenir T-shirt and toting a messenger bag, as well as adolescent girls in crocs footwear, flowery t-shirts and, inevitably, women dressed like me, in sensible sandals, crop pants and jewelry or scarves, to distract from the wrinkles.

Left, photo of tribal leader, from 1959.
Right, detail of beaded crown, mid-20th century.

As Boston Globe critic Sebastian Smee notes in his excellent review, this exhibit, for once, places African artifacts in a context - in addition to the textiles, there are sculptures and images, including postcards and photos, of people dressed in comparable items.

See Smee's piece here: http://articles.boston.com/2011-05-06/ae/29517367_1_textiles-african-objects-african-countries

We Westerners seem conflicted by the signals we receive as we view the costume of others around us and in the media - on the one hand we "shouldn't judge a book by its cover," nevertheless "clothes make the man." In Sub-Saharan Africa, the region from which these artifacts originate, there seems to be less confusion about the role of wardrobe and identity. As this exhibit demonstrates, in these cultures a highly refined approach to attire deliberately telegraphs characteristics such as level of affluence, personal aspirations, and even marital status, in a very direct way.

Wrapper, mid-20th century, imported for the African market.
A woman who wore this fabric valued education and learning.

Wrapper, early 21st century, celebrates the opening of a
bottling plant in Mozambique, in 2004.

Apparel fabric announces that the wearer is up to date,
and cognizant of technology.
(Apologies for the blurry photo.)

While we tend to view colonialism as purely exploitative, this exhibit also makes clear that Western imagery could be creatively co-opted by African artists, resulting in designs that became part of a textile tradition which managed to survive into the post-colonial era.

Resist-dyed fabric with design based on
Silver Jubilee
images of British monarchs.

Left, raffia skirt, Republic of Congo, 2oth century.
Upper right, Bonwit Teller ad for African-inspired frocks.
Bottom right, wide trim produced in France,
copying the indigenous cloth.

In addition, Westerners learned from African artists, particularly in the 1920's when artists such as Picasso and Braque were admiring African masks and other art, often brought back to Europe by Belgian colonists.

Beaded crown with bird finial.The human face, with cowrie-shell eyes, symbolizes that the leader is all-seeing.