Saturday, 11 December 2010

Ancestral indigo cloths of Saint-Louis

fr215 Ceremonial shawl, Senegal, early C20th. (private collection, London). Click any photo to enlarge.

To mark the current ceremonies for the 350th anniversary of Saint-Louis, Senegal, I am looking today at one of my favourite types of West African textile, the intricate resist-dyed indigo shawls that were once a speciality of Wolof women in Saint-Louis.

Since the late C16th Portuguese settlers on the Cape Verde archipelago organised enslaved weavers from the Guinea coast to produce strip woven cotton textiles that were a vital commodity in the trading strategies of Portuguese trading posts along the West African coast. The most complex of these panos (pagne, cloths) had designs inspired by Hispano-Moorish textiles from the Iberian peninsular adapted to the narrow-strip weaving tradition of West Africa. They were the design forbearers of the Mandjak weaving tradition noted in the previous post. Most of the published literature on these textiles is in Portuguese but there is an important recent article by Carlos F. Liberato “Money, Cloth-Currency, Monopoly, and Slave Trade in the rivers of Guine and the Cape Verde Islands, 1755-77,” online here

Af1934,0307.194 Af1934,0307.194, Beving Collection, British Museum. circa 1900.
capvert Rare view of a Cape Verde panos in use, worn at a batuque dance. Detail of a vintage postcard, circa 1905, authors collection.

The Senegalese indigo dyed cloths we are looking at here seem to have developed from attempts, perhaps in the nineteenth century or even earlier, to replicate these complex and expensive woven design using a cheaper embroidery resist technique. drawing on long established traditions of more simple tie dyed cloth patterning in the Senegambia area. Imported cotton cloth, often cut up into narrow strips for patterning, or with patterns that echoed the narrow strip designs, were embroidered by hand with intricate motifs. The cloth was then dyed in indigo, and as a final stage, the embroidered motifs cut away with a razor blade or sharp knife, to leave white designs on a blue ground.

teinture2 Illustration of embroidered resist technique. Click to enlarge. From the catalogue “Teinture, expression de la tradition en Afrique noire” (Musee de l’Impression sur Etoffes de Mulhouse, 1982)
Af1934,0307.351 British Museum photo showing various stages of production. Af1934, 0307.351

The result of this laborious and painstaking work were some of the most beautiful of West African textiles.

fr216 Ceremonial shawl, Senegal, early C20th. (private collection, London.)
fr217 Ceremonial shawl, Senegal, early C20th. (author’s collection.)

Below are a series of early C20th images from vintage postcards that show the cloths in use…..

indigo01 indigo03
indigo05 indigo06
indigo07 indigo08
indigo09 indigo10
indigo12 indigo15

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