MANCHESTER, N.H. – A bride of the Amazigh people, in Egypt’s Siwa Oasis in the Sahara Desert, must prepare not one impressive dress, but several outfits, because her wedding takes place over seven days.
On the third day, when she welcomes her parents and family to her new home, she dons an embroidered tunic and trousers. An example can be seen in “Africa Interweave: Textile Diasporas,” an academically ambitious, visually flashy show now up at the Currier Museum of Art. It’s a spectacular ensemble, white silk with cascading red geometric-patterned embroidery down the front, denoting fertility and abundance.
“Africa Interweave,” organized by the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, samples the flabbergasting variety of textiles produced in Africa, and begins to parse the ever-evolving nature of those cloths, as the river of trade coursing around the globe brings in new materials, technologies, and styles.
Africa Interweave: Textile Diasporas
Indigo is a potent example. Originating in India, the plant dye traveled through the Middle East to the Mediterranean, seeping into Northern Africa between the seventh and 12th centuries. By the 16th century, Portuguese traders were shipping European indigo to West Africa. Since then, textile artists have seen the rise of synthetic indigo and patterned their cloths using candle wax and cassava starch resists. These days, there’s a renewed interest in natural indigo.
While curator Susan Cooksey takes pains to delineate some of the many societies within Africa and how they utilize fabric in different ways, it’s evident that across that continent, textiles hold tremendous meaning. In her catalog essay, Cooksey quotes contemporary artist El Anatsui, a Ghanaian: “cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners.” (Sadly, a piece of Anatsui’s included in the original exhibition didn’t make it to the Currier.)
Weavers and needle workers festoon and imbue textiles used for rituals and commemorations with symbols and good wishes. Here in the United States, a wedding ring might be freighted with comparable intent, but our clothes and curtains rarely take on the talismanic quality evident in many of the works here.
In every society, power gets broadcast. Look at the Ebonko masquerade ensemble designed by Nigerian Ekpenyong Bassey Nsa, the most exuberantly flamboyant piece in this show. Made of spangled gold polyester (imported — these outfits used to be made of damask, which has nothing of the gaudy sparkle), it’s bedecked with furry red and yellow cuffs and a broad, patterned collar, called a mane, that would dazzle even Queen Elizabeth I, known for her outrageously huge and lacy collars. This one, probably twice the circumference of the wearer’s hips, hangs beneath a conical mask and hat topped off with pompoms.
The Ebonko masquerade is worn to celebrate the installation of a chief of the Ekpe people of southeastern Nigeria and west Cameroon, a socially prominent group that doesn’t hesitate to parade its clout with this ceremonial garb.
Much of Africa was under European colonial rule beginning in the 19th century. It declined in the 1950s and ended completely in the 1970s. Kweku Kakanu, a mid-20th-century artist known for his flags, here co-opts a power symbol of Great Britain, which ruled what is now Ghana — the griffin, a mythical hybrid beast common in British heraldry. Such flags are used by the Fante people in dances before battle, or during rituals.
Kakanu’s orange cotton flag flaunts a daunting black griffin, winged, with a ferocious, hooked beak, preying upon small animals. The Union Jack sits in the corner above. Art historian Courtnay Micots, in her catalog essay about the artist, says the Fante associate the griffin with a proverb: “Will you fly or will you vanish? Either way you can’t escape us.” Slyly appropriating their colonizer’s symbol of strength, they claimed their own power.
Flags and costumes are really just the pretty fringe at the edges of this exhibition. The bulk of the show spotlights woven cloth: shawls, skirts, blankets, and wraps. A regal kente cloth, designed by Samuel Cophie to commemorate President Clinton’s 1998 state visit to Ghana, buzzes with green, gold, and brown geometric patterns.
In Central Africa, the Kuba people are known for their raffia textiles, woven by men and embroidered by women. Families work on these together; you can see varying levels of expertise in a single garment. At funerals, the deceased are dressed in such raffia clothing, so that in the land of the dead, family members will recognize them.
But raffia is used for many occasions. A woman’s raffia dance overskirt by the Kuba from the Democratic Republic of Congo, on view here, jives with patterns of interleaving bars, V-shapes, and diamonds, and swivels impressively along the borders.
Back at the fringe of the Sahara, another bride — this one south of the desert, a Fulani woman in Mali— receives a magnificent wedding blanket, called an arkilla kereka, in her trousseau. Woven with delicate geometric patterns in black, red, yellow, and white and fringed with yarn, works such as this are increasingly rare, and markers of prestige. The weaver moves to the bride’s village for two months to make it. Halfway through, a bull is slaughtered; when it’s complete, a festival is held.
These textiles document the significance of ritual across the cultures of Africa. Such elaborate expressions of honor, preparation, and transition thread through the inner lives and societal traditions of a people to tell them who they are. For such sacred celebrations, men and women clothe themselves in meaning that is alive and changing, yet anchored in belief. That’s what’s on display in “Africa Interweave,” and it’s something to behold.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.