Friday, 2 October 2009

A postscript to my Sierra Leone trip

The National Museum in Freetown is, as might be anticipated in the aftermath of the recent war, in a somewhat forlorn and neglected condition.It does however have a young and enthusiastic guide and is still worth a visit. Among the more interesting of the few older artefacts on display I was surprised to see two men's caps of a rare type I had previously only seen in the on-line collections database of the British Museum. One of the things I want to do with this blog is to highlight the many treasures of African textile design that the opening up of museum stores through on-line access is making available. I will be doing a post soon on accessing the British Museum textiles as their search database is far from intuitive. In the meantime this seems an appropriate pretext to show four of these obscure hats from the British Museum collection.
All of these pieces are part of the Charles Beving collection that was assembled by the Manchester cotton merchant in the late C19th and can be dated at the latest to before his death in 1913. Unfortunately there is no specific information on the origins of the hats. I has assumed them to be from Senegal or Gambia but the presence of others ( also apparently without documentation) in Freetown does suggest perhaps a wider distribution along what used to be known as the Guinea Coast.

The description that accompanies the hats on the British Museum site refers to supplementary weft float decoration, which is the predominant decorative technique used in West African weaving. However I suspect that at least some, if not all, the decorative patterns are embroidered rather than woven. This type of patterning recalls Hispano-Moorish designs that were woven for centuries by enslaved Africans on the Portuguese-ruled islands of Cape Verde for trade on the Guinea Coast, from where they were introduced also to Mandjak weavers in Guinea Bissau. In turn these highly prized cloths seem to have played a role in inspiring a tradition of resist dyed indigo cloths, found in St. Louis in Senegal in particular, in which an imported damask was embroidered with a complex design, the cloth was dyed with indigo, then the embroidery was painstakingly removed to leave a white undyed pattern. I will discuss these resist dyed cloths in a future post. Here I show a detail from an extremely rare cloth, also from the Beving collection and therefore contemporary with the hats, on which a strip woven cloth is decorated with embroidery in the same style of "woven" patterns.

According to the collector's notes this cloth is a Maninka piece from Gambia, called a "baybayo" that was worn as a breast cover cloth by unmarried women. "Baybayo" is translated as "whose mother lives."

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