Friday, 28 March 2014

“Costume for a King”–An important Sierra Leone or Liberian robe at the Pitt-Rivers Museum.


A couple of years back a research project at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, revealed that a previously undocumented West African robe in their collection was in fact among the founding objects assembled by General Pitt-Rivers in the 1870s, and more remarkably, that the same robe appeared in an article in the Illustrated London News on 28 November 1846.


The robe was among a group of objects collected by a Captain Henry Denham during a naval survey of the West African coast in 1845-6. It belongs among the extremely small number of chiefs’ robes of the type that Bernhard Gardi in his book Le Boubou – C’est Chic (Basel, 2000) ‘boubou Manding’ from Sierra Leone and Liberia.



For full details of this robe in the Pitt-Rivers collection click here and for a notice about the research here.

Friday, 14 March 2014

A footnote on “Sierra Leone Country Cloths” –the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, 1924.


Country cloths were the main feature of the Sierra Leone pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924, as the above image (vintage postcard, author’s collection, click to enlarge) shows. The exhibition was also marked by the publication of the booklet Sierra Leone Country Cloths by Dr. M.C.F . Easmon, the earliest and rarest publication devoted to an aspect West African textiles. There is apparently an earlier version that was published in Freetown in 1914 but I have not been able to track that down.


Above is my much prized copy, and below one of the small number of photographs within. This little book is still pretty much the best source on the topic and contributed much information to the later book by the Lambs – Sierra Leone Weaving Venice and Alastair Lamb (Roxford, 1984.)


From the booklet Sierra Leone Country Cloths by Dr. M.C.F . Easmon.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Sierra Leone Textiles–a selection on Pinterest.


Over the past week I have been adding photographs to a new section on my Pinterest page featuring a curated selection of cloths and robes from Sierra Leone and Liberia.   Early textiles from this region of West Africa are extremely scarce and the images I have been able to locate probably represent around 50% or more of all surviving examples of the more elaborate and distinctive types.


Most, but not all, of the cloths shown will have been woven on variants of the distinctive tripod loom shown above (in a postcard from circa 1900-1910 by the photographer W.S. Johnson).  Rather than being worn as wrappers like the more simple blue, white and brown warp striped cloths also woven, most of these large cloths would have been prestige possessions of chiefs and important families and used as hangings and backdrops for events such as chieftaincy ceremonies, young women’s ‘coming of age’ events etcetera.


Above is a rare image from neighbouring Guinea circa 1900-1910 showing the use of a prestige cloth as the backdrop to a chief’s portrait photograph.

For more images of Sierra Leone weavers see my earlier post here and more recent photographs that I took of a tripod loom weaver near Freetown may be seen here. For more about Sierra Leone culture more generally please visit the website of the excellent Sierra Leone Heritage project.

See the full selection of cloths here.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

“Mbuna”: collecting textiles in Mali– excerpt from a memoir by Rachel Hoffman.

Mbuna Chief and textile

The chief of Mbuna with an arkilla munnga hanging, 1980s, Mali. Photo ©Rachel Hoffman.

Rachel Hoffman, formerly of the Fowler Museum, UCLA, is currently working on a memoir “Toubab” of her years in Mali, where she played a key role in assembling a major collection of textiles for the National Museum in Bamako. In a chapter “Mbuna” published recently in the online magazine Rachel describes a tense incident on the edge of the Sahara – from page 78 here.

Weaver's Warp

“Weaver’s warp” © Rachel Hoffman.

Rachel kindly provided the following context and biography as well as the photos that accompany this post.

“During the late 1980s, the UCLA Fowler Museum joined in collaboration with the Musee National du Mali to collect weavings and associated technologies, oral histories, photographs and film of and from Mali's Inland Delta region of the Niger River. Because of the severe droughts that had plagued the Sahel for 25 years prior, the enormously rich heritage of textile production was undergoing, at best, a vast transformation, and, at worst, a disappearance. The museum directors thought that preserving examples of as many genres as possible was important.

The Fowler Museum paid for the project and - my great fortune - sent me as liaison. Mali's National Museum provided an anthropologist, a linguist, a photographer/videographer, expertise and a pickup truck. Our team collected two or more of everything we found. The better collection, along with unique pieces, remained in Bamako in the National Museum. The second collection went to the Fowler.”

Indigo strips from Tereli, Mali

“Indigo strips from Tereli, Mali” ©Rachel Hoffman

The project's initial season went well enough that another was planned. And another. Ultimately, our team of four people worked five field seasons together in five separate parts of Mali. We collected thousands of textiles, loom pieces, photos, histories, proverbs, and more for both museums as an archive for future generations. Our second season was among Dogon people. Some of the photos posted here are from that trip. Others come from my own doctoral research following the textiles project, where I spent an additional eight months with Dogon sculptors, weavers, and smiths.”

Woman indigo dyer

“Woman indigo dyer, Mali” ©Rachel Hoffman.

To my knowledge this project represents the only systematic survey of  textile traditions in a West African country to date and as such it will be of great importance to future scholars. Some of the textiles collected can be seen in Bernhard Gardi’s catalogue Textiles du Mali (National Museum of Mali, Bamako, 2003) and we might hope to see the Fowler Museum’s portion at least online before too long.


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Cloth of the month: An Ebira men’s cloth–probably…


As I noted in my description on our gallery site here this cloth is something of a mystery piece. It was bought from an Ebira cloth vendor who gave it an Ebira name itogede that indicates the use of bast fibre along with cotton but on closer examination is woven entirely from cotton. The Ebira (previously written Igbirra) live in several locations near the confluence of the rivers Niger and Benue, with the largest group in and around the large town of Okene in Kogi state. Ebira women are known for their weaving and at least until 5 or so years ago it was very common to see women in Okene weaving brightly coloured rayon cloths on the front veranda of their houses throughout Okene. These cloths were sold in the main Okene market every four days and traded widely across Nigeria and beyond.


This tradition of rayon and earlier silk weaving was quite recent, dating back to around the 1930s, according to John Picton (in his article in Textile History: Textiles of Africa, Pasold Foundation, 1980.)  Until perhaps the 1970s this rayon style flourished alongside an older tradition of weaving in local hand spun cotton and bast fibres producing a variety of blue and white warp striped cloths for a number of local uses. Picton observed in Okene town at the end of the 1960s  that these hand spun cotton blue and white cloths fell into three categories, called ikitipa, itokueta, and itogede. The first two of these consisted of three panels of cloth sewn together, the third made up of four panels. The primary use of both itokueta and the four panel itogede (literally “banana cloth” although in fact the bast fibres came from other plants) was as funerary cloths. They would be hung on the front of the deceased’s house, with the pattern of stripes indicating a male or female burial, and later used as a shroud. In keeping with this use the panels were usually only loosely tacked together rather than fully stitched.


Our cloth is three panels, cotton only not bast fibre, and fully stitched, so it cannot be said to fall within the itogede group. However Picton does discuss cloths in the first group, ikitipa, that were intended for wearing, either by women or by men. Unlike women’s cloths that were hemmed, cloths to be worn by men had a fringe and what Picton called a row of decorative stitching to prevent the cloth unravelling, both features we find here.


In this form, he noted, in is “the antique mode of dress for men in this area” and by the 1960s distinctly outmoded. Nevertheless there are significant differences between our cloth and the examples described by Picton, and those that he collected for the British Museum. The first of these is that ikitipa seems to have been predominantly white, with only limited warp striping in indigo or local brown cotton, whereas our cloth is mainly indigo dyed. More significant and much more unusual though is the grid like pattern of supplementary weft float patterning in pale brown machine spun cotton on this cloth. Although as we have noted Ebira women working in the rayon style cloths used a lot of extra weft float patterning this was much more elaborate than the minimal effect achieved here.


Moreover when we look carefully at these floats we note that rather than a regular over ten under one arrangement that we might expect the anchor threads are quite irregular – over ten under one, over 8 under one etcetera. Together with the asymmetric layout of the warp stripes this imparts a quite complex and dynamic effect to the design that I find very pleasing. As to its origins,  the most likely explanation is that its source is not within Okene town but elsewhere in what is a very culturally diverse area. The cloth is in excellent condition and dates to circa 1920s-1950. There are no examples of this style in museum collections or published literature as far as I know. Hand spun indigo and white cotton. Measurements: 91ins x 66 ins, 232cm x 168cm. At present it is still available on our gallery here.