Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Cloth of the month: A Mende display cloth, Sierra Leone


Prestige display cloth from the Mende people of Sierra Leone, first half of C20th. The almost square format suggests that this cloth was intended as a backdrop for an event, such as a chieftaincy ceremony or a Sande/Bundu society ‘graduation.’ Hand-spun indigo dyed cotton float weave patterning on a hand spun white cotton ground. The layout of this piece, with a central supplementary weft float pattern block joined by diagonal weft float patterns to each end of the border corresponds most closely to a cloth in the British Museum’s Beving collection (Af1934,0307.182 – see Lamb & Lamb, Sierra Leone Weaving, Roxford, 1984, page 106.) The Lamb’s identify this style of cloth as a subgroup of kpokpo called kula njawi (op.cit.) However the decorative technique used to create the “step” pattern on this example is very unusual – narrow weft stripes in indigo dyed cotton alternate with single rows of supplementary weft float. Although I have seen this combination on Nigerian and Ivoirian cloths I have not previously noted it on any from Sierra Leone.


Old cloths from Sierra Leone are extremely hard to source as very many of the more elaborate examples such as this were the property of chiefs and other wealthy families whose homes were targeted during the civil war. Condition is excellent. Measurements: 83 ins x 70, 212 cm x 179.


Click on the photos to enlarge. More information on our indigo cloth gallery here.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Akan “Fetish Man” Costumes


Across much of West Africa practitioners of local medical traditions wore garments that set them apart from the realm of the everyday. Often, as here among the Akan peoples of Ghana, so-called “fetish men” wore robes and hats loaded with powerful charms and medicines. Some of these were packets containing inscriptions from the Koran obtained from Muslim scholars, while others were more locally inspired, drawing on a knowledge of leaves, powders, animal body parts etcetera. These robes protected the practitioners who spent time in the dangerous forest world of the spirits, guarded them against attack by rivals, and incidentally advertised their power to potential customers. Related garments were worn by hunters, warriors, and in certain contexts, chiefs, serving a similar protective role.  The Asante name for these charm loaded robes was “batakari” or “war shirts”. There were of course “fetish women” as well as “fetish men” and I will post some images of them in a subsequent note.


Vintage postcards, author’s collection. Top: circa 1900, publisher unknown. Below: circa 1890, Basel Mission.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Exhibition: Social fabric African textiles today–at The British Museum


Social fabric
African textiles today

Textiles of southern and
eastern Africa

14 February – 21 April 2013

“The rich fabric of African printed and factory-woven textiles reflects changing times, fashions and tastes. From eastern to southern Africa, the social and historical significance of these beautiful and diverse materials are also reflected in the identities of those who wear them.

This exhibition takes a fresh look at the history, manufacture and continuing social significance of these textiles – the designs of which depict the convergence of African tastes and patronage with strong historical and contemporary trading ties from across the globe. The cultural and social significance of these textiles have also influenced some of the region’s foremost contemporary artists and photographers – including Georgia Papageorge, Karel Nel, Peterson Kamwathi and Araminta de Clermont.

These textiles – including kanga from Kenya and Tanzania, capulana from Mozambique, and shweshwe from southern Africa – mirror changing times, fashions and tastes. They provide a detailed chronology of the social, political, religious, emotional and sexual concerns of the (mainly) women who wear them. Their patterns and inscriptions also vary according to the age of the wearer and the context in which the cloth is worn. This unspoken language may be used to suggest thoughts and feelings which cannot be spoken. They are worn in secular and sacred contexts and play a central role in all of the major rite-of-passage ceremonies in women’s and, in some cases, men’s lives.

The exhibition contributes to the small but steadily growing body of research into these relatively neglected African textile traditions.”

Photo: From the series ‘A New Beginning’
© Araminta de Clermont, Cape Town, South Africa, 2009–2010

Friday, 1 February 2013

Lecture in London on February 19th.


I will be giving a lecture “An introduction to West African Textiles” to the Oriental Rug and Textile Society here in London on 19th February. Details from their website:

“On Tuesday 19th February at 7pm Duncan Clarke will give the lecture “An Introduction to West African Textiles”
Duncan is a London based researcher and dealer in African textiles. He will bring textiles to show us.
He has published several books and articles on African textiles, including “The cloth from Bondoukou: textiles of the Ghana/Ivory Coast border” in HALI 157, 2008, “The Art of African Textiles” 2002, “African Art” 1997. He has a Ph.D on “Yoruba aso oke weaving” from SOAS.”

Venue is Swedenborg Hall, 20/21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2TH. Open to non-members at £6.