It’s a Wrap! West African Textiles

SUArt Galleries

October 28 – December 23, 2016

Clothing is personal. It is also public. How one wears cloth – and whether one wears cloth at all – demonstrates a person’s sense of fashion, indicates their status, and even offers hints about their temperament. In Anglophone West Africa the cloth that a woman wears around her body is called a “wrapper.”

In all cultures clothing does more than just cover the body. It communicates subtle visual messages about the owner whose choice, conscious or not is read by a knowing audience. How, and what is worn, may be interpreted as a statement of flamboyant ostentation or modest conservatism. It may signal radiance of a wealthy and powerful king, the presence of a deity, or the existence of a mad man.

West African textile culture is very old. In Southern Nigeria weaving is documented at Igbo Ukwu in the 9th-10th century; from evidence in the Tellem burial caves, it was flourishing in Mali in the 11th century. Wearing textiles spread with the diffusion of Islam; later with Christianity.

Once used as a currency, cloth in West Africa today is still traded locally and over long distances. It is presented as gifts to the living and the dead; used for bride-wealth; displayed at weddings and funerals; wrapped around amulets and sacred objects; used as blankets for protection from the cold and mosquitoes, or as shrouds; spread on the ground for a chief to walk over or placed in layers to cover his palanquin or funeral bed. It may be worn to flatter or flirt, to display power or express silent insults, or to show common group identity.

Cloth may even be publicly discarded to deter witches and ghosts. A grandmother’s wrapper may be recycled as a baby-tie for her daughter’s first born to show linking generations. Scraps perceived to be imbued with power may be sewn onto umbrellas, tied around drums, worn as head-ties, and sewn into costumes or transform as a dancer or an initiate into an ancestor or deity.

Along with conveying meaning, textiles are a portable art. Styles vary by region. The same cloth may shift in meaning and use from one place to another. The areas where a cloth originates may be far distant from where it is sold and the range of textiles woven by people of different ethnic backgrounds may overlap. Patterns are not stable. The names – prosaic ones given by the weavers and proverbial ones given by the market women – change over time and place, and have diverse interpretations. Some are prosaic like ‘donkey’s ear’ and ‘monkey’s tail’; others are proverbial like ‘my skill is exhausted’ and ‘take me in marriage’. Color alone may indicate joy or sorrow and its presence may over-ride the meaning of the pattern’s name. Innovations occur, yet different aesthetic canons do exist and where a specific cloth comes from can generally be recognized.

The intricate patterns, textures and technical flair of the artists’ aesthetic sensibility are revealed in the dazzling textiles they produce. The sensibility of the owner is emphasized when a cloth is wrapped tightly across a beautiful woman’s hips, or wound and folded yard around the waist of a prominent chief, or voluptuously draped around the body and over the shoulder of an important elder who lets it touch lightly on the ground as he slowly moves to catch the light. The weaver sees cloth in two-dimensions; when it is worn the viewer sees it in three. Each gives meaning.

The exhibition textiles and costumes are on loan from the collections of Michelle Gilbert, CT; and Amyas Naegele and Eve Glasberg Collection, NY.  Organized by Professor Michelle Gilbert, Department of Fine Arts, Trinity College.

Sponsored in part by the Maxwell African Scholars Union, Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, Syracuse University.

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