Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Details: reverse face of a Yoruba agbada embroidery



Two views of the reverse face of the embroidered spiral on the back of an early Yoruba agbada men’s robe at our shop. Most robes of this period are lined in the neck and pocket area with imported pale blue trade cloth, but in this example indigo dyed strip weave asooke is used to rather pleasing effect.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

New Exhibition–“At Home in Africa” at Cleveland State University


The Galleries at CSU


Design, Beauty and Pleasing Irregularity in Domestic Settings
Thursday, August 28 – Saturday, October 4, 2014

At Home in Africa is an exhibition that features the inspirational and creative design, pattern and form found in a wide variety of traditional handcrafted objects from African homes of the past 130 years, covering over 70 ethnic groups from 30 countries.

The 300-plus objects bring the variety of life in African homes to the forefront, spotlighting the handcrafted beauty apparent in everyday objects. The designs of these objects feature amazing diversity in technique and creativity. An appreciation of the daily rhythms of life are paired with an intent to provide inspiration to designers of all types—graphic, fashion, interior, jewelry—and an up-close example of the reason so many African works are such a part of global design influence.”

A catalogue is, or will be published. There is an attractive website here and a very useful Pinterest page here.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

“Lightning Strikes”–a unique embroidered Yoruba cloth.


Amongst the Yoruba and other Nigerian peoples embroidery was not a domestic pastime but a  professional skill exercised by full or part-time male craftsmen, most if not all of whom were Muslim. Perhaps as a result the technique was applied only in specific contexts, notably in the decoration of male ceremonial robes and trousers. Recognised patterns were handed on from one generation to the next,often in Koranic schools, and although designs could be modified over time and n0vel variations introduced, these took place within an established repertoire and context. This repertoire was based to a large extent on Islamic inspired motifs shared, with local variants, across a wide area of West Africa.

In addition to its intrinsic beauty, the cloth we are looking at today is notable as an exceptional example of Yoruba embroidery in an unexpected context and in an otherwise unfamiliar style. As this is the only known example to date we cannot know whether it represents a unique and idiosyncratic innovation or whether its use was once more widespread.


The cloth ( click on the photo to enlarge) is a woman’s ceremonial wrapper cloth, woven by a woman weaver using a vertical single heddle loom, in two panels joined horizontally at the centre. It is woven  from quite fine hand spun indigo dyed cotton and pink, probably cochineal dyed, silk from the trans-Saharan caravan trade. Comparison with related cloths in museum collections, and the use of silk, allow it to be dated to around the end of the nineteenth century or the early years of the twentieth. Quite unusually for this type of cloth the use of a repeated pattern of stripes in the weft, partially but not entirely hidden by the predominance of the warp, allows for a subtle check effect in the paler blue areas. The use of silk, along with the sophistication of the weaving and the fineness of the thread, tell us that this was a prestige piece commissioned at considerable expense, for the use of a high status patron.


The embroidery using the same pink silk as the ground cloth, along with three shades of indigo dyed cotton, is in the form of repeated clusters of zigzags of various lengths. The layout of embroidery contrasts in colour with the background and the placement seems most focussed on the area of the cloth that would be visible in use. The similarity in the colours chosen, in particular the rather unusual shade of pink, suggests the embroidery was done quite soon after the cloth was woven.

Why might a wealthy Yoruba woman at the turn of the nineteenth century choose to have zigzags woven on her expensive wrapper cloth ? We can only speculate based on the association of zigzag designs in other contexts in Yoruba visual culture.


The sculpture above [source IMO DARA on Pinterest], called an arugba Sango, is a bowl supported by a cluster of figures, dominated by a female devotee. It would have formed part of the cult paraphernalia of the Yoruba  orisa (deity), Shango,  god of thunder and lightning, and have contained the collection of Neolithic stone axe heads that were believed to be the physical embodiment of thunderbolts. The zigzag designs painted on both the bowl and the female figure depict the power of Shango in its manifestation as thunder and lightning.

Female devotees played a prominent role in the cult of Shango and I would suggest that the reiteration of the motif on our cloth is most likely an indicator that it was owned and worn by a high status woman who was an important follower of the Yoruba thunder deity.

The cloth is now in a UK private collection. To view some of our current stock of Nigerian women’s weave textiles click here.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Ewe kente covers latest “World of Interiors”


One of two rare Ewe cloths we sold many years back to antiques dealer Peter Hinwood that feature prominently in this months World of Interiors…

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A fine Arkilla Kerka from Mali


After a special request by Bernhard Gardi for some wool cloths on the blog after he complained “always kente kente kente”, today we look at a notably fine wool and cotton wedding hanging from Mali, of the type called arkilla kerka.

In his catalogue Woven Beauty: The Art of West African Textiles (Basel, 2009 – incidentally the best book published on African Textiles) Gardi notes:

“The kerka is the ‘mother of all arkilla.’ They are no longer produced today. A kerka consists of six patterned strips, occasionally a seventh strip, striped black and white and called sigaretti (from the French ‘cigarette’), is added and used for hanging up the blanket. The white sections and the warp are made of cotton, the rest is wool. Black is never applied, only dark indigo blue. A kerka blanket of the highest quality requires between 25,000 and 30,000 metres of hand-spun yarn.”


This example was collected in Bamako by an English family in the 1950s and is now in the Musée di Quai Branly, Paris. It is an old well used piece with exceptionally fine weaving. Gardi commented “There are very nice noppi nawliraaBe motives, 'ears of the co-wive'. Looks very much as woven from a weaver who was equally weaving arkilla jenngo blankets. That means, that kerka does not come from the Guimballa area (East of Lake Debo) but from Niafunke or further North-West.”



Click on the photos to enlarge.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

African Textiles in Close Up #3: an iconic Ewe cloth.


One of the highlights of my visit to the British Museum’s textile store at Blyth House a few months back was the opportunity to handle and examine one of the most important and well known of the Ewe kente cloths in the museum collection. This cotton and silk Ewe cloth [British Museum number Af1934,0307.165 ] is the most elaborate of a group apparently assembled at the Ewe coastal town of Keta [then called Quittah by European sources] in the later decades of the nineteenth century by the Anglo-German merchant Charles Beving and donated to the museum in 1934.


It was published, among other places, on the cover of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition catalogue The Essential Art of African Textiles (Alisa LaGamma and Christine Giuntini, 2009.)  Taking the cloth as a whole we can note the irregular, so-called “offbeat” arrangement of pattern blocks that seems to be a feature of the layout some early Ewe and Asante kente cloths that would be abandoned in the twentieth century in favour of more ordered design arrangements (however we should also note that other nineteenth century kente already observe these ordered layouts so there was no simple direction of change.)  Here though my interest is not with the overall layout but with the pattern blocks, in which three weft-faced bands frame two warp faced sections , decorated in most cases with supplementary weft float motifs.


These float motifs are simple geometric patterns rather than the more elaborate figurative designs found on some Ewe kente. In this post we show twenty of these pattern blocks in which a master weavers explores the variations made possible within quite simple technical parameters. Note the use of plied thread of two colours (yellow and red) in some weft-faced stripes below.


In the pattern below the weaver also uses weft stripes in the warp faced areas (as opposed to weft-faced stripes.)


















Friday, 1 August 2014

New Exhibition: “Yards of Style, African-Print Cloths of Ghana” at the Fowler Museum, UCLA


Fowler in Focus: Yards of Style, African-Print Cloths of Ghana
Aug 24–Dec 14, 2014
”The larger markets in West Africa offer everything from foodstuffs to scrap metal to used clothing—and they also boast hundreds and hundreds of stalls filled with printed cloth. With some vendors selling just a few cloths and others featuring enormous stacks of six- and twelve-yard panels, these markets offer something for everyone. Ubiquitous throughout urban and rural Africa as garments and head wraps, African-print cloths are also popping up on fashion show runways and in retail fashion catalogs in the United States and Europe.

African market vendors may carry cloths made in Holland, Ghana and other West African nations, as well as China, assuring a wide choice of prices and styles that will cater to their diverse customer base. The vibrant visual imagery on the textiles is equally varied, from everyday items like car keys, neckties, clothespins, electric fans, and cell phones, to chiefly swords and royal regalia, to the likenesses of world leaders and sports celebrities (Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and Muhammad Ali, to name just a few!). As such, these double-sided, factory-produced cloths communicate messages about individual and community values, reveal perspectives on taste and fashion, and offer telling insights into the global economy.

This exhibition is curated by Betsy D. Quick, Director of Education and Curatorial Affairs, Fowler Museum at UCLA, with Suzanne Gott, Art History and Visual Culture, Department of Critical Studies, University of British Columbia, Okanagan.”