Sunday, 22 January 2012

Six Yards Guaranteed Dutch Design–Vlisco exhibition at Museum voor moderne kunst, Arnhem


from 29.01 till 06.05

“As early as 1846, the Vlisco company, based in Helmond, served the West African market with Dutch Wax textiles. From 29 January through 6 May, 2012, the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem will present Six Yards Guaranteed Dutch Design, an exhibition about how Vlisco’s Dutch textiles became a part of various West African cultures and found their way into international fashion, the visual arts, and photography. The exhibition Six Yards is a tribute to Vlisco textiles: over a hundred years old, born in Indonesia, designed in the Netherlands, loved in Africa, and desired in the West. These colourful fabrics make their way to fashion shows in Paris, the markets in Ghana, and galleries in London and New York. The exhibition Six Yards focuses on all the relevant angles, from their presence and meaning in the work of artist Yinka Shonibare, to the stories in the oral tradition that have come from the fabrics.

Art, design, and fashion

The exhibition has been put together by the Suze May Sho artists’ collective, whose work focuses on the areas where art, design, and fashion meet. Through these disciplines, the collective makes a voyage of discovery through the world of Vlisco fabrics, the designs, and their often surprising significance. The exhibition explores the history of the textiles and their stories, touches on Dutch (post-)colonial history, takes a look at the differences and similarities between Western and non-Western cultures, and sheds light on how visual artists, like Viviane Sassen and Yinka Shonibare, as well as top designers around the world have been inspired by Vlisco’s textiles — right up to the Spring/Summer 2012 collection.

Artists, photographers, and fashion designers with work in the exhibition:

Yinka Shonibare, Kara Walker, Ellen Gallagher, Wangechi Mutu, Fatimah Tuggar, Viviane Sassen, Lucy Orta, Hans Eijkelboom, Seydou Keïta, Andrea Spotorno, Meschac Gaba, Bodys Isek Kingelez, Collectie Arnhem, Harvey Bouterse, Acne, Marga Weimans, Dries van Noten, PetrouMan, Querijn Maurits Ver Huell en Vlisco designers.


A substantial exhibition journal will accompany the show, in addition to the richly illustrated book Vlisco Fabrics (in English), with text by Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, published by ArtEZ Press, and a publication about Vlisco edited by José Teunissen, part of a series of monographs about Dutch fashion designers, published by d'Jonge Hond, Modelectoraat ArtEZ and ArtEZ Press.


For the duration of the exhibition the museum shop will carry Vlisco textiles that can be purchased in lengths of six yards.”



Thanks to the Africa Fashion Guide for the info.

Friday, 20 January 2012

African Textiles in Africaniste Art–an unusual case.


Marché en A.O.F. signed J.B. Vettiner, 1931. [click all images to enlarge]. From Christie’s sale The Africanists, Amsterdam 1 July 1998. Oil on canvas, preparatory work for a mural painted in the pavilion of the city of Bordeaux at the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition in Paris.

Although this is in most respects a typical colonial genre scene of no outstanding merit, it is unusual because of the detail and accuracy with which the artist has depicted the textiles worn by the participants. Moreover the textiles shown are in several instances extremely rare styles not well represented even in French museum collections. I am intrigued to find these cloths shown in this context and can’t help wondering if they have survived in an obscure French collection, perhaps in Bordeaux, to this day. The scene was clearly not drawn from life – there is no suggestion in the limited biographical information available on the artist, Jean-Baptiste Vettiner (1871-1935), that he travelled in West Africa, and the cloths shown are far too elaborate and expensive to have been worn by porters in the market. Gathering cotton was a frequent theme of colonial imagery as the postcards dating to circa 1910-20 below show.



So what can be said about these cloths ? The image below numbers the main pieces.


1. Wool kaasa blanket from Mali, of the lanndaaka type, with the central motif of the mosque, lanndal, woven by a maabo weaver. Shown  wrongly worn vertically as a kind of hooded burnous rather wrapped horizontally. The kaasa lanndaaka below is in the National Museum of Mali, Bamako – see Textiles du Mali, Bernhard Gardi, 2003.


2 and 4. Indigo dyed cotton cloths with white warp stripes at the selvedge of each strip and coloured supplementary weft float motifs are typical of the Bondoukou region on the northern part of the Ghana/ Côte D'Ivoire border, where they were woven by Dioula, and perhaps Abron or Koulango weavers. The cloth below is on our gallery.


3 and 6. These are really obscure types, related to weft faced cloths woven in West and north west parts of Côte D'Ivoire by weavers who may be Guro, Mande or Dioula, working in a number of as yet undocumented local traditions. The Musee Quai Branly in Paris has a superb collection of related pieces, although unfortunately largely without much useful collection data. Search for Côte D'Ivoire  in their textiles collection database to see more. They have the piece below as Senufo but that is unlikely as the Senufo learned weaving from the Dioula in the early decades of the C20th.


5. Also from Côte D'Ivoire this cloth is an example of a slightly better known but still rare style that we believe to be the work of Guro or Mande weavers. The example below is on our gallery now.


7. One of the more unusual types of Malian blanket, the arkilla bammbu would have been used as a prestige display hanging for a Fulani wedding and is most unlikely to have been worn at all. The detail below is from a cloth in the National Museum of Mali, Bamako – see Textiles du Mali, Bernhard Gardi, 2003.


8. This cloth has embroidered rather than woven decoration, probably the work of a Hausa embroiderer in the north of Côte D'Ivoire. I know of only one related example of this style on a man’s wrap cloth (rather than robes and trousers). Now in the Karun Thakar collection ( it was acquired in Accra and probably collected in northern Ghana.


Sunday, 1 January 2012

African Textile Resources on our website updated–part three

Below is an excerpt from the section on important textile traditions covering Asante kente cloths:

Asante Kente Cloths

Kente is the best known and most widely appreciated of all African textiles, adopted throughout the African diaspora worldwide since the 1960s as a symbol of Pan-Africanism and Afrocentric identity. At the same time it continues to play a vital living role in the culture of its creators, the Asante (Ashanti) people of Ghana in West Africa. The story of kente is closely interwoven with that of the Asante Empire and its' Royal Court based at Kumase, deep in the forest zone of southern Ghana. One of the first accounts of Asante royal silk weaving comes from the 1730s when a man sent to the court of King Opokuware by a Danish trader observed that the king "brought silk taffeta and materials of all colours. The artist unravelled them ....woollen and silk threads which they mixed with their cotton and got many colours." Silk was also imported into Asante from southern Europe via the trans-Saharan caravan trade. Many kente cloths utilised silk for a range of decorative techniques on a background of warp-striped cotton cloth, but some of the finest cloths prepared for royal and chiefly use were woven wholly from silk. Although since the early decades of the C20th natural silk has been mostly replaced with artificial "rayon" fibres, the artistry of Asante weavers has continued to produce remarkably beautiful cloths.

Prempeh 1, 1926
Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh I wearing an Oyokoman kente cloth. 1926. Vintage postcard, author's collection.

The cloths woven in the nineteenth century for the court of the Asantehene, the king of the Asante empire were probably the ultimate achievement of the West African narrow-strip weavers art. The raw material for this artistry came from Europe in the form of silk fabrics which were carefully unpicked to obtain thread which could then be re-woven into narrow-strip cloth on looms that utilised two, and in some cases even three, sets of heddles to multiply the complexity of design. The king's weavers were and still are grouped in a village called Bonwire near the Asante capital of Kumase, part of a network of villages housing other craft specialists including goldsmiths, the royal umbrella makers, stool carvers, adinkra dyers, and blacksmiths. One Asante weavers' origin myth recalls that the first weaver, Otah Kraban, brought a loom back to Bonwire after a journey to the Bondoukou region of Côte D'Ivoire. An alternative legend recalls that during the reign of Osei Tutu the first weaver learnt his skill by studying the way in which a spider spun its web. The spider, Anansi, is an important figure symbolising trickery and wisdom in Asante folklore. Away from the court cotton weaving supplied much of the everyday dress for the Asante people, in the form of striped cloths, mostly of indigo blue and white, until it was largely displaced by wax prints and other imported textiles in the present century.

gold dust kente
Silk man's kente in the "gold dust" pattern, early C20th

In many kente cloths the design effect is achieved by the alternation of regularly positioned blocks of pattern in bright coloured silk with the more muted colours of the warp-striped plain weave background. Interestingly it is the background designs, the configurations of warp stripes of varying widths, that provide the basis for most pattern names. As might be expected in a culture so interested in proverbs and verbal wordplay there is a large vocabulary of pattern names still remembered by elderly weavers. Some of these names, such as Atta Birago and Afua Kobi, refer to the individuals, in these cases two Queen Mothers, for whom the designs were first woven. Others refer to historical incidents, to household objects, to proverbs, or to certain circumstances of the cloths use.

kente weaver
Kente cloth weaver, early C20th postcard.

Most designs are produced by combining two distinct decorative techniques. The first, supplementary weft float, involves the addition of extra weft threads that do not form part of the basic structure of the cloth. Instead they float across sections of the ground weave, appearing on one face of the cloth over maybe six or eight warp then crossing through the warp to the back, floating there, then returning again to the top face. Rows of these wefts are arranged to form designs such as triangles, wedges, hour-glass shapes etc. Asante weavers distinguish loosely spaced floats, which they call "single weave", from more densely packed designs that conceal the background completely and are known as "double weave." The second effect is to create solid blocks of coloured thread across the cloth strip entirely concealing the warp. Without dwelling too much on the technicalities, this effect is achieved by the use of a technical innovation unique to the weaving of southern Ghana, namely the use of a second set of heddles that has the effect of bunching together groups of warp threads allowing them to be hidden by the weft. The design of most kente cloths involves framing areas of weft float decoration within the narrow solid bands called bankuo. The finest and most elaborate examples of this style and perhaps the most spectacular cloths ever woven in Africa, completely covered the underlying warp design with alternating sections exploiting the full range of weft float designs between very narrow bands, producing a cloth named Adwinasa, meaning "fullness of ornament."

Further Reading:
Adler,P. & Barnard,N. African Majesty (1992) - illustrates a great collection.
Clark Smith, S. "Kente Cloth Motifs" African Arts 9(1) (1975)
Lamb,V. West African Weaving (1975)
Menzel, B. Textilien aus Westafrika (1972)
Ofori-Ansah,K. Kente is more than a cloth (1993) - influential poster with interpretation of pattern meanings.
Rattray, R. Religion and Art in Ashanti (1927)
Ross,D. Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity(1998)

kente gallery
Click on the image to go to our gallery of Asante kente cloths for sale.

Back to African Textiles Introduction

African Textile Resources on our website updated – part two

An excerpt from the “African Textiles Introduction” section Types of Looms:

“Weaving, at its simplest, involves the regular interlacing of two sets of threads to create a textile. A loom is basically any kind of frame that facilitates this interlacing process. One set of threads (known as the warp) is fixed to the frame, while the second set (the weft) is manipulated in between one or more warps in an under/over fashion. Almost all looms have some means of separating alternate warps to speed up this interlacing process. Generally this involves string loops placed round every other warp, allowing the two groups to be pulled apart, creating a gap (called the shed) through which the weft is passed. This set of string loops is called a heddle. Looms where only one set of alternate warps are leashed to a heddle are called single-heddle looms. Looms where both sets are leashed to separate heddles are called double-heddle looms. In an influential book John Picton and John Mack have argued that the clearest method of classifying the many different types of loom found in Africa is to focus on this fundamental distinction in the weaving process itself, rather than looking at essentially peripheral features such as the position of the frame, the width of the cloth woven, or the gender of the weaver. See Picton & Mack "African Textiles" (1979.)

Hausa weavers
Hausa men using double heddle looms, weaving 1cm width strips to be dyed indigo for Tuareg veils, Kura, Nigeria, 2006

Hand loom weaving has been carried on in Africa since ancient times, although in most of the continent in the unfavourable climactic conditions mean that very few textiles of any antiquity have been preserved. The earliest African looms of which any knowledge survives are those recorded in the wall paintings of ancient Egyptian tombs. For sub-Saharan Africa the picture is less clear. Although some scholars have proposed a variety of external sources for the main loom types only the Arabian origin of the East African pit loom is securely established. The two other main forms of loom in wide use are the narrow-strip loom (a type of double-heddle loom) and vertically mounted single-heddle looms, both of which may well been local African inventions. The earliest known cloths associated with the double-heddle loom are the large number of textile fragments dating back to the eleventh century AD found in burial caves along the Bandiagara cliffs in the area of Mali inhabited today by the Dogon. The great Arab traveller al-Bakri described seeing what would appear to be a double-heddle narrow-strip loom in operation in the Mauretanian town of Silla in AD 1068. For the single-heddle loom there are tiny fragments excavated with the treasury of intricate brasswork dated to the ninth century AD found at Igbo Ukwu in Southeastern Nigeria.

Whatever its origins it is clear that the distribution of the skills of weaving on the narrow-strip loom, along with the tailoring and embroidery of men's robes, owes a lot to the long distance traders that criss-crossed West Africa dealing in a huge range of goods, both locally produced and imported from across the Sahara. Most of these traders were Muslims, and the demand for appropriate and prestigious Islamic attire certainly helped to promote the spread of textile technologies. In some areas the majority of weavers are themselves Muslims, although this is by no means always the case. Until very recently almost all double-heddle loom weaving was done by men, but now, particularly among the Yoruba in Nigeria, it is being taken up by large numbers of young women. Although there are innumerable variations in such features as the seating posture of the weaver, the use or other wise of a wooden frame, the shape of the heddle etc, an essentially similar loom, known as the narrow-strip treadle loom, is found across almost all of West African from Senegal to Lake Chad and the border areas of Cameroon. The key features of this loom are the use of a weighted drag-sled to tension the warp, a pair of suspended heddles operated by simple foot pedals, and the weaving of a single long, usually rather narrow strip of cloth, which is then cut up and sewn together edge to edge to create the finished fabric. The other, less widely distributed, double-heddle looms are: Middle Eastern looms used by urban Arab weavers in North Africa, the pit treadle loom used in Ethiopia and Somalia, frame looms of European colonial or missionary origin, and various hybrid tripod and tetrapod looms found in parts of Sierra Leone and Liberia

tripod loom postcard
The tripod loom, Sierra Leone, circa 1900-10. Vintage Postcard, photographer W.S Johnston, authors collection.

Next Page

Back to African Textiles Introduction

African Textile Resources on our website updated – part 0ne.

Over the holiday season I completed the redesign and updating of the resources section of my website. This now consists of six sections: a series of introductions to basic aspects of African textile production and use; pages exploring various important African textile traditions; a basic African textiles reading list; web resources and links; this blog with news of African textile related events etc.; and finally our archive of sold cloths. The front page of the resource section is here.  This post and the following two give a taste of what is there. Below is my list of suggested introductory reading from the site ….

Sub-Saharan African Textiles: A basic reading list

There are other books that are easier to find but these are the most useful and reliable.

  • Bernhard Gardi ed. - Woven Beauty: the Art of West African Textiles (Christoph Merian Verlag, 2009)
  • Colleen E. Kriger - Cloth in West African History (Alta Mira, 2006)
  • Chapurukha m. Kusimba et. al. eds. - Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar (Fowler Museum, 2004)
  • Venice Lamb - West African Weaving (Duckworth, 1975)
  • Venice Lamb & Judy Holmes - Nigerian Weaving (Shell, 1980)
  • Vanessa Drake Moraga - Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa (The Textile Museum, 2011)
  • John Picton et. al. - History, Design and Craft in West African Strip Woven Cloth (Smithsonian, 1988)
  • John Picton & John Mack - African Textiles (British Museum Press, 1989, 2nd Edition)
  • Karl-Ferdinand Schaedler - Weaving in Africa South of the Sahara (Panterra Verlag, 1987)
Back to Resources Page