Wednesday, 23 April 2014

New light on an Ewe chief


In her pioneering book West African Weaving (Duckworth Press, 1975) Venice Lamb published the photograph above (source: Wilmarth family private collection) depicting an Ewe chief with  his court retainers.  She suggested that it showed an Adangbe chief and goes on to describe the features of the cloth that he is wearing as distinctive of what she calls “an earlier type of Adangbe design” , although it is unclear if she has any source for the geographic identification or is basing it only on what she perceived to be the origin of the cloth. She also regarded the picture as dating from the nineteenth century.  This photograph is interesting as there are relatively few early photographs of Ewe chiefs, perhaps because they lacked the elaborate large scale ceremonials and court paraphernalia of the Asante as well as being of lesser political significance in the Gold Coast colony.


For some years I have had a postcard that clearly shows the same man, wearing the same cloth (and the same rather odd crown.) With the photographer identified as “Cliché G.O.” the card is captioned “Palimé (Togo) – Le Chef du village de Kpandu”.  Palimé (Kpalimé) is a town in Togo quite close to the Ghana border, while Kpandu is on the Ghana side on, now on the shore of Lake Volta. Both fall within the more northern cluster of Ewe weaving groups near the town of Hohoe  (that Lamb rather confusingly identifies as the Central Ewe) rather than the more southerly Adangbe or the coastal Anlo.  Whilst there is no guarantee that the caption information is correct (misleading captions on postcards from this period are quite widespread) we can at least note that before the 1914-18 war Togo was a German colony and postcards before that date are captioned in German rather than French.

Malika Kraamer, in her unpublished Phd thesis on Ewe weaving (Colourful changes: two hundred years of design and social history in the hand-woven textiles of the Ewe speaking regions of Ghana and Togo (1800-2000), SOAS, 2005 –now online here) discusses the corpus of early photographs showing Ewe textiles (most drawn from the archives of the Basel and Bremen missions and mainly online here). Among the images that she found with the Bremen Mission is a third photograph of the same chief, again in the same attire. She notes that the same unidentified chief was shown by Lamb and perhaps influenced by her suggests it is a late C19th or early C20th image (at that point it seems she did not have access to the postcard view.)

A couple of weeks ago I was able to buy a group of three photographs from a French source whose grandfather was a trader in Togo in the early part of the twentieth century. One of these photographs, shown below, is a print of the same image as that in the Bremen archive.


Our chief wears his now familiar cloth and crown, but unlike the Bremen copy this print has two captions and, on the reverse, the photographer’s stamp. The first caption, apparently contemporaneous with the print, reads “Fia Dagadu III, Kpandu”, while the second, written in ink, reads “le seigneur de Kpandou, 1929.” On the reverse is the photographer’s stamp “Louis A. Mensah, Photographer.”

In addition to finally identifying this distinguished looking chief, for me these images raise a number of interesting questions about Ewe textile production and use. Why is the same cloth worn in all three photographs ? Is it the only one that he had or his favourite among several ? Might there be other, earlier or later, photographs of him wearing a different cloth ?

What can we say about the cloth itself ? Malika Kraamer identifies the style as atisue based on the short weft faced block structure. As she discussed, both the naming and the design evolution of Ewe textiles were extremely fluid and complex. This type of cloth, in which almost square weft-faced blocks alternate with similarly sized warp-faced sections decorated with supplementary weft float motifs, was certainly among the more elaborate and highly prized types woven in the first half of the twentieth century. A fine example that is on our gallery at the moment is shown below.


Is Venice Lamb correct in attributing this style of cloth primarily to the Adangbe weavers (Kraamer calls the same group Agotime after the main weaving village in the area) ? I would suggest that at present the necessary field research that might perhaps allow us to clearly attribute many of the huge variety of Ewe cloths to specific locales has yet to be carried out, although based on Kraamer’s work some preliminary suggestions for some styles might be possible How did geographical variation interact with individual innovation, workshop styles etcetera ? We simply don’t know.  We do know however that cloths are highly mobile artefacts, with prized pieces being traded over a wide area. Did master weavers whose work was in demand also move to supply wealthy patrons ?

And what about the odd crown ? Both colonial authorities and European traders imported items of royal regalia and prestige goods that they gave or sold to local rulers they wished to influence. The tiger patterned rug in the third photograph clearly falls into this group and I would suggest the crown does also.

Click on the photos to enlarge. Click here to view our current selection of Ewe textiles.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Cloth of the month: an unusual Ewe chief’s robe


E787 - Exceptional Ewe chief’s cloth in superb, complete, condition. This unique cloth provides a textbook exemplar of the way in which an Ewe master weaver can constrain his use of colours and patterns to only a small subset of their available repertoire and then explore and improvise on the possibilities offered to create a new and distinctive design. Red and then yellow predominate on a dark green background. Weft faced blocks alternate with a double zigzag supplementary weft float pattern.


This pattern is subtly modified in a few places or substituted in others by a wider single zigzag in varying colours, note for example in the central strip of the detail below. The colours of the weft faced blocks are varied and occasional pattern changes introduced within them.


The result is not only a unique pattern but an exploration of similarity and difference to beautiful effect.

Dates from circa 1930-50. Condition: Excellent, complete, no patches or stains. Size: 119 ins x 80, 329cm x 205, PRICE: Email us for price

Click on the photos to enlarge. For our current updated selection of Ewe cloths click here.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

“African Rulers Here”


Press photo titled “African Rulers Here” 27.9. 1948

Caption: “A party of African rulers, here for the African Conference opening on Wednesday at Lancaster house, arrived at Euston this evening. (L- R) Essuma Jahene and Sir Tsibu Daku.”

Friday, 28 March 2014

“Costume for a King”–An important Sierra Leone or Liberian robe at the Pitt-Rivers Museum.


A couple of years back a research project at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, revealed that a previously undocumented West African robe in their collection was in fact among the founding objects assembled by General Pitt-Rivers in the 1870s, and more remarkably, that the same robe appeared in an article in the Illustrated London News on 28 November 1846.


The robe was among a group of objects collected by a Captain Henry Denham during a naval survey of the West African coast in 1845-6. It belongs among the extremely small number of chiefs’ robes of the type that Bernhard Gardi in his book Le Boubou – C’est Chic (Basel, 2000) ‘boubou Manding’ from Sierra Leone and Liberia.



For full details of this robe in the Pitt-Rivers collection click here and for a notice about the research here.

Friday, 14 March 2014

A footnote on “Sierra Leone Country Cloths” –the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, 1924.


Country cloths were the main feature of the Sierra Leone pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924, as the above image (vintage postcard, author’s collection, click to enlarge) shows. The exhibition was also marked by the publication of the booklet Sierra Leone Country Cloths by Dr. M.C.F . Easmon, the earliest and rarest publication devoted to an aspect West African textiles. There is apparently an earlier version that was published in Freetown in 1914 but I have not been able to track that down.


Above is my much prized copy, and below one of the small number of photographs within. This little book is still pretty much the best source on the topic and contributed much information to the later book by the Lambs – Sierra Leone Weaving Venice and Alastair Lamb (Roxford, 1984.)


From the booklet Sierra Leone Country Cloths by Dr. M.C.F . Easmon.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Sierra Leone Textiles–a selection on Pinterest.


Over the past week I have been adding photographs to a new section on my Pinterest page featuring a curated selection of cloths and robes from Sierra Leone and Liberia.   Early textiles from this region of West Africa are extremely scarce and the images I have been able to locate probably represent around 50% or more of all surviving examples of the more elaborate and distinctive types.


Most, but not all, of the cloths shown will have been woven on variants of the distinctive tripod loom shown above (in a postcard from circa 1900-1910 by the photographer W.S. Johnson).  Rather than being worn as wrappers like the more simple blue, white and brown warp striped cloths also woven, most of these large cloths would have been prestige possessions of chiefs and important families and used as hangings and backdrops for events such as chieftaincy ceremonies, young women’s ‘coming of age’ events etcetera.


Above is a rare image from neighbouring Guinea circa 1900-1910 showing the use of a prestige cloth as the backdrop to a chief’s portrait photograph.

For more images of Sierra Leone weavers see my earlier post here and more recent photographs that I took of a tripod loom weaver near Freetown may be seen here. For more about Sierra Leone culture more generally please visit the website of the excellent Sierra Leone Heritage project.

See the full selection of cloths here.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

“Mbuna”: collecting textiles in Mali– excerpt from a memoir by Rachel Hoffman.

Mbuna Chief and textile

The chief of Mbuna with an arkilla munnga hanging, 1980s, Mali. Photo ©Rachel Hoffman.

Rachel Hoffman, formerly of the Fowler Museum, UCLA, is currently working on a memoir “Toubab” of her years in Mali, where she played a key role in assembling a major collection of textiles for the National Museum in Bamako. In a chapter “Mbuna” published recently in the online magazine Rachel describes a tense incident on the edge of the Sahara – from page 78 here.

Weaver's Warp

“Weaver’s warp” © Rachel Hoffman.

Rachel kindly provided the following context and biography as well as the photos that accompany this post.

“During the late 1980s, the UCLA Fowler Museum joined in collaboration with the Musee National du Mali to collect weavings and associated technologies, oral histories, photographs and film of and from Mali's Inland Delta region of the Niger River. Because of the severe droughts that had plagued the Sahel for 25 years prior, the enormously rich heritage of textile production was undergoing, at best, a vast transformation, and, at worst, a disappearance. The museum directors thought that preserving examples of as many genres as possible was important.

The Fowler Museum paid for the project and - my great fortune - sent me as liaison. Mali's National Museum provided an anthropologist, a linguist, a photographer/videographer, expertise and a pickup truck. Our team collected two or more of everything we found. The better collection, along with unique pieces, remained in Bamako in the National Museum. The second collection went to the Fowler.”

Indigo strips from Tereli, Mali

“Indigo strips from Tereli, Mali” ©Rachel Hoffman

The project's initial season went well enough that another was planned. And another. Ultimately, our team of four people worked five field seasons together in five separate parts of Mali. We collected thousands of textiles, loom pieces, photos, histories, proverbs, and more for both museums as an archive for future generations. Our second season was among Dogon people. Some of the photos posted here are from that trip. Others come from my own doctoral research following the textiles project, where I spent an additional eight months with Dogon sculptors, weavers, and smiths.”

Woman indigo dyer

“Woman indigo dyer, Mali” ©Rachel Hoffman.

To my knowledge this project represents the only systematic survey of  textile traditions in a West African country to date and as such it will be of great importance to future scholars. Some of the textiles collected can be seen in Bernhard Gardi’s catalogue Textiles du Mali (National Museum of Mali, Bamako, 2003) and we might hope to see the Fowler Museum’s portion at least online before too long.