Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Indigo “snake” cloths of the Igbomina Yoruba


Today I am showing a group of three rare women’s wrapper cloths from a sub-group of the Yoruba people of south western Nigeria.  The Igbomina are a cluster of ancient Yoruba kingdoms centred around small towns and villages to the south west of the city of Ilorin in what is now Kwara State. Unlike Ilorin, which was and still is one of the major centres of narrow strip aso oke cloth weaving by Yoruba men, there were rather few narrow strip weavers among the Igbomina. Instead it was known for the wider cloths woven by women on the upright single heddle loom. As recently as the 1960s almost all Igbomina Yoruba households would have included one or more women weavers, producing cloths both for use within the family and for sale in the market.


Although blue and white warp striped cloths woven from local hand spun cotton dyed with indigo were the mainstay of everyday weaving for Igbomina Yoruba women, as they were for most other Yoruba women weavers, there were also a number of more distinctive  forms produced as very localised variants within a pan-Igbomina tradition of prestige wedding cloths. These three cloths are fine examples of one such style. Called “elejo” or “owner of a snake,” the name refers to the elongated criss-cross pattern of supplementary weft float decoration which is the main design feature of the cloths, and is said locally to resemble the pattern on the back of a python.


Found only in a small group of villages called Isin near the town of Oke Onigbin (“the hill of snails”) elejo cloths were the most prestigious and complex of a series of cloths that a woman would weave in preparation for her daughter’s wedding and would present to the bride as part of her trousseau. Only in the wealthiest families  or those where the mother was a particularly skilled and dedicated weaver was the elejo wrapper produced, others made do with one or more of the simpler designs.


Woven from hand spun local cotton and dyed with indigo, these cloths varied in design, with some such as the above example combining the snake motif with others such as stylized animals and birds, the rectangular Koran board etcetera. They date from between about 1900 and 1950.


For all of them however the snake motif remained the dominant design feature, allowing us to distinguish these cloths from other styles of marriage cloth woven in neighbouring areas. In fact each locality, at least in this part of the Igbomina area, seems to have had it’s only distinctive variation on the prestige marriage cloth tradition. So far I have been able to identify only three or four of these through field collecting, while other styles I have found in markets remain to be pinned down to a specific geographical origin.

Click here to visit our gallery of Nigerian women’s textiles.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Style Africa–new exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery


“Style Africa presents visitors with the changing traditions of woven, embroidered, printed and dyed clothing and textiles from West Africa, focussing on some of the most beautiful textiles produced from the early 20th century to 2011.

Style Africa is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Young Roots programme. It is created in partnership with Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD) at Birmingham City University (BCU), the Centre of West African Studies at the University of Birmingham and the Drum Arts Centre. Through these organisations, young people were invited to collaborate with the expert curators from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to create new ways to present the significant West African textile collection from the museum, the University of Birmingham and Craftspace.

Curator of World Cultures at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Adam Jaffer comments, “Style Africa is a unique exhibition, presenting some of the region’s most beautiful and diverse traditional and contemporary West African textiles. The project has provided us with an opportunity to engage young people and Birmingham’s diverse communities, and showcase the incredible textile heritage of English-speaking West Africa, particularly Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.”

The exhibition explores the traditional and contemporary textiles and clothing which form an essential part of West African culture. Using kente cloth, adinkra cloth, adire cloth (tie and dye), aso oke, as well as wax print cloth collected in Ghana in 2011, Style Africa focuses on different textile techniques and the ways in which clothing can communicate identity and individual style. The exhibition also includes contemporary outfits designed in the UK and made using West African prints.

Style Africa is part of the London 2012 Inspire programme which recognises innovative and exceptional projects that are directly inspired by the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Style Africa is free to visit and open daily from 31 March 2012 to 2 September 2012. For more information, visit http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=1797

from Birmingham Institute of Art & Design

Friday, 9 March 2012

More on “The Fashionable Hair”–style on Africa’s west coast in the 1900s

In a post last month I looked at a series of early postcards by the African photographer Arkhurst showing images of women’s dress and hair styles on Africa’s west coast, the region stretching from Nigeria up to Sierra Leone, in the early 1900s. Since so many people enjoyed seeing them, today I have brought together another group of postcards from the same era, this time by other photographers, showing similar fashions. All photos author’s collection, click to enlarge.


“Gold Coast, Fanti Woman” – postcard circa 1900, photographer “W.S. Johnston & Sons, Art Photographers, Freetown, Sa Leone.”



The above two photos “Gold in evidence gold coast Type” and “Gold Coast Beauty” are a rare instance of two views from the same sitting. Photographer “Photoholm – Lagos” circa 1900.


“Fantee-women” published by L. Pagenstecher & Co, Sekondi. circa 1900.


“Accra” – photographer and publisher unknown. circa 1900.


“Sekondi – Fantee Woman” photographer and publisher unknown. circa 1900.


“Congo. Femme Acra” photographer and publisher unknown. circa 1900.

For a discussion of this kind of image in the wider context of the history of photography in Africa I can recommend the book Photography and Africa by Erin Haney (reaktion books, 2010.)