Thursday, 23 February 2012

Sierra Leone Heritage resources site online



“The digital resource is the main output of a research project entitled ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage: Digital Repatriation, Knowledge Networks and Civil Society Strengthening in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone’. The project is being funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its Beyond Text programme and is being directed by Dr Paul Basu of University College London. The project’s Informatics team is being led by Dr Martin White of the University of Sussex.

The ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project is concerned with innovating digital curatorship in relation to Sierra Leonean collections dispersed in the global museumscape. Building on research in anthropology, museum studies, informatics and beyond, the project considers how objects that have become isolated from the oral and performative contexts that originally animated them can be reanimated in digital space alongside associated images, video clips, sounds, texts and other media, and thereby be given new life. At the project’s heart is a series of collaborations between museums including the Sierra Leone National Museum, the British Museum,Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow Museums, the World Museum Liverpool, and the British Library Sound Archive. The project has also engaged in capacity building activities in the cultural sector in Sierra Leone and has commissioned the production of videos on cultural heritage themes from Sierra Leonean partner organisations including Ballanta Academy of Music, iEARN-Sierra Leone, and Talking Drum Studios.

Another key objective of the project has been to integrate web-based social networking technologies into the digital heritage resource in order to (re)connect objects in museum collections with disparate communities and to foster reciprocal knowledge exchange across boundaries. Visitors to can thus become part of its community, contribute comments, engage in discussions, and upload their own images and videos.

Historically, cultural heritage has been a low priority in Sierra Leone. The hope is that by reanimating these dispersed collections and the differently-situated knowledges that surround them, Sierra Leone’s rich cultural heritage can be better appreciated and contribute to the reanimation of Sierra Leonean society more generally.

For more information please contact


Of particular interest to this site is the wonderful collection of videos, including a good explanation of tripod loom weaving. Also searching for “textiles” or “costume” brings up images of the majority of Sierra Leone country cloths in UK museum collections (although not unfortunately the important group at the Horniman Museum, London.) The pictures are too small but at least it gives a glimpse of the collections online, some for the first time.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Exploring form and colour – An Ewe textile masterpiece


The large elaborately patterned cloths commissioned from master weavers by chiefs and wealthy “big men” of the Ewe in the Volta region of Ghana and Togo in the early decades of the C20th are some of the most admired and sought after of African textiles. There was far greater diversity of design and elaboration of technique among the weavers that made up what we now regard as the Ewe tradition than among the court-centred  kente cloth weavers of their near neighbours, the Asante. In simple terms Ewe cloths were prestige display items worn at important events to demonstrate publicly the wealth and cultural sophistication of the wearer. Since elaboration of well woven figurative weft float motifs such as people, animals, swords etc was the primary factor in the increasing the cost of a cloth ( as they required more skill, time and costly materials to weave) in the majority of cases  they provided the primary signifier of the owner’s wealth and the weaver’s skill. From time to time, however, we can encounter a cloth where a more subtle display of skill and connoisseurship is apparent . Such is the case with the cloth above, dating from circa 1920-40,  (click the image for a much larger view) which, in my view at least, is a tour de force of weaving skill expressed through variation in colour and form rather than in complexity of motif.


The warp pattern (going vertically on the detail image above) remains the same throughout the cloth – blue predominates, broken up by clusters of narrow stripes in red, white, and yellow. Sparing use is made of weft stripes, in the section above, a pair of wider stripes in yellow thread. Three of the warp colours, red, white, and blue, along with another colour, green, are used widely in the weft patterning, while the forth warp colour, yellow, appears much less. 

The detail above also introduces us to the main decorative technique explored to such effect on this cloth, a continual reconfiguration of width and colour and placement in the use of weft faced stripes.  The weaver uses the basic pattern structure of many Ewe cloths, in which  a composite pattern block is made up of two wide weft faced blocks that frame a warp faced section with a central motif. This composite pattern block is then aligned against warp faced areas on the two adjacent strips creating an alternation that structures the overall pattern layout of the cloth. Unusually the weaver also adds paired weft stripes (not weft-faced stripes) that break up many of the warp faced blocks, varying this in places by omitting them or using a different colour or technique.


Within this grid structure the weaver plays around with variations in the width of stripes and the placement of colours, restraining his palette to red, blue, white and green, with sporadic yellow. Variation is also achieved by plying two colours of thread together, in the section above blue with white, red with white and green with white.


If we focus on a a single strip this use of stripes emerges clearly – click the image to enlarge. Each of the nine composite pattern blocks differs from its neighbours. Reading from the left we have: 1 – a double stripe in red and white, single red, single white, plied red and white; 2 – two wide blocks composed of narrow red, white, blue , and plied red/white, framing a single wide plied red/white stripe; 3 – two wide blocks of varying width stripes adding green to the previous colours, with the same central stripe; 4 – as 3 but with central stripe omitted; 5 – returns to 3 with central stripe but slight variant in second block; 6 – block made up of ten evenly spaced narrow stripes separated by warp faced areas; 7 – the first three narrow stripes of the previous block are compressed together, a zigzag supplementary warp float motif (one of only two on the entire cloth) separates others; 8 – two blocks composed of varying stripe widths, no central stripe; 9 – as 8 but with red/white plied central stripe.

Finally, if we return to the full picture from the start of the post we see a distinct lower edge strip in which solid wide stripes, some framed by narrow white stripes,  simplify the pattern block layout.


What interests me here, aside from the visual beauty of the result, is how a master weaver could set himself constraints in colour and pattern, using only part of the repertoire at his disposal, and using rhythms of repetition and variation, explore those possibilities to the full. Close attention to the cloth pays tribute to his skill and to the knowledgeable patronage of his customer.

To view this cloth and others in our recently updated gallery of Ewe textiles click here. Or of course you are welcome to come and see it at our shop.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

COTTON: Global Threads arrive at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester


“Exhibition: COTTON: Global Threads, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until May 13 2012
Four years ago, curator Jennifer Harris and her team at the Whitworth were mooting ideas for a new exhibition that would feature as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad’s Stories of the World programme.
Cotton: Global Threads, which offers a social rather than historical account of the cotton industry and looks to place the textile in its social context, is the product of that first meeting four years ago.
Why cotton? Harris explains that when looking for a global story she also wanted something that had relevance to the region. As Lancashire was a major producer of cotton for the worldwide market during the 18th and 19th centuries, it seemed the perfect choice.
A major part of the display is the culmination of a three-year collaboration between the gallery and local students intended aimed at engaging them in textile work.
Visitors are encouraged to make use of a dressing room to try on the clothes created by the students, who “upcycled” charity shop finds by adding material they designed and printed.
The project also resulted in the students winning a grant to be sent to Ahmedabad, in India, to see cotton production first-hand.
Photographs of prints and landscapes from their trip have been lasered onto building blocks to create ‘Cottonopolis’ city, a sculpture also featured.
Other artists on display at Cotton: Global Threads include Yinka Shonibare and Lubaina Himid, who created pieces specially commissioned for the exhibition.
Himid’s kangas – pieces of printed cotton fabric featuring images and slogans, worn in West Africa, were based on designs she found in the Whitworth’s textile collection as well as through her own research and imagination.
Each kanga is presented with a photo collage made by the artist – her vision of the intended wearer of her design.
Presented in varying sized pieces to look as though they have been “discovered”, walking through Himid’s display is like rifling through the “lost scrapbook” she hoped to create.
Himid is a natural fit for the exhibition. Hailing from Zanzibar, she understands and encapsulates its theme perfectly, exploring the connection between people and their owned objects.
Harris says artists were given the freedom to engage with the theme as they saw fit. She did not seek out textile artists who simply used cotton, but people who had something to say about it.
One such example is Grace Ndiritu’s Still Life. Rather than setting out to make a film about textile, Ndiritu actually conceived Still Life while travelling through Mali with members of a nomadic tribe to make a film about responsible tourism.
Seeing how material was something that the tribe “live and breathe”, textile became a part of her “video paintings”, acting as a sister set to the original.
West African cotton is used in a physical performance by the artist to camera as Ndiritu wraps, conceals and reveals her body as she aims to provoke a differing set of responses from the viewer.
Shown in a completely dark room offset from the main gallery, the result is truly captivating.
Aboubakar Fofana, who was born in the region and is passionate about maintaining its cultural heritage, also seeks out Mali’s remaining textile masters to learn ancient African weaving and dyeing techniques.
He innovates these traditions by producing an installation piece, Les Arbres à Bleus – a forest of cotton trees made from organic fibres coloured using the nearly-lost Malian tradition of natural indigo and vegetable dyeing.
His choice to place trees at the subject of the piece reflects their central importance to his native Bambara ethnicity.
Considered as a symbol of life, Fofana says he also personally engages with the way that trees, like human beings, are all unique.
“They have their own DNA” he explains. Each sculpture in his forest is completely different and stands alone as distinct.
While the gallery blinds usually remain drawn to protect the work on display, Fofana has opted to leave them open, allowing the natural light to showcase his piece.
It also allows a view outside to the park surrounding the gallery, uniting the trees of Mali with Manchester ones.
Liz Rideal also uses the outside world, with her film, Drop Sari, projected on to the exterior of the building each night.
The piece, which can also be viewed inside the exhibition, is a series of shots of sari textile taken while in India.
With each rapid flash of sari a new set of colours emerge and, in response, LEDs illuminate the building in matching colour, heightening its effect.
Lying on the busiest bus route in Europe, the gallery hopes this spectacle will add a performative element that can be enjoyed by the passing city.
Even though the entire ground floor of the gallery has been given over to the exhibition, Harris expresses frustration at still not being able to fully cover the wide-ranging issues the production and consumption of cotton raises.
She calls it a “microcosm of the globalising world” which “stands for modernisation”.
With this is in mind, the ethical sins of the industry come in a display of high street pieces emblazoned with messages about issues such as child labour and pesticide usage in crop production.
Using a wide range of artistic practice, drawing on cultures from across the world and delving into different historical time periods, Cotton: Global Threads encompasses the many different facets of cotton as a personal, as well as economic, commodity.
Every piece in the exhibition has clearly been carefully considered, not just for its aesthetic value but for what it can add to the surrounding debate.
“These are big issues which are hard to tackle in an art gallery,” reflects Harris. “But I think with we have succeeded with Global Threads”.”

By Ruth Hazard | 14 February 2012

  • Open 10am-5pm (12pm-4pm Sunday). Admission free.

Indigo/Aboubakar Fofana

Above: Aboubakar Fofana, Les Arbres à Bleu

At top: Yinka Shonibare, Boy on Globe (2011)© Yinka Shonibare

Monday, 6 February 2012

“The Fashionable Hair”– Africa’s coastal style in the 1900s


These images are from two series of postcards produced between 1900 and 1910 by the photographer F.W.H Arkhurst in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast. Arkhurst, a member of the Nzima ethnic group born in the Gold Coast , was a timber exporter who lived in Assinie and later in Grand Bassam. His studio photographs capture perfectly the then fashionable style of  women’s dress along the African coast from the Niger Delta to the Ivory Coast as families grew prosperous from trading opportunities in the expanding colonial economies. Hair was swept high and adorned with gold jewellery or wrapped in cloth, tailored dress was of imported cotton prints, often with a shawl or wrap of locally woven fabrics.